BEMIDJI -- In the past several years, attempts have been made by the city of Bemidji and other regional government units to better relationships with Native American nations in the area.

Steps in the past decade have ranged from adding Ojibwe language signs to government offices to recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day in October.

During a work session on March 22, the Bemidji City Council discussed another idea to respect the intergovernmental relationships with local tribes. The proposal was to add the flags of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Red Lake Nation and the White Earth Nation to the Bemidji City Council Chambers at City Hall.

Along with building inter-governmental relations, the goal of the flags was also to help better represent Native American residents of Bemidji. According to Census data, of the estimated 15,434 residents living in Bemidji as of July 2019, 11.2% are American Indian.

Along with the city's population, the largest communities for each of the three regional reservations are all within about 60 miles of Bemidji:

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  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribal membership for the Red Lake Nation is just over 10,000. The city of Red Lake, 35 miles north of Bemidji, is the tribe's largest community with 4,055 residents.
  • The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's website states enrollment is at 9,509. The largest community in Leech Lake is Cass Lake with 633, which is 16 miles southeast of Bemidji.
  • On the White Earth Nation website, the enrollment is stated at more than 19,000 members. The largest city is Mahnomen, located 61 miles southwest of Bemidji, with 1,231 residents.

Ward 1 city council member Audrey Thayer, a Native American herself, said she had received several messages from constituents encouraging the idea of representing those citizens and the tribal government with flags.

"The three nations that circle Bemidji have unique relationships with the city, county, state and federal governments," said Thayer, a proponent of the proposal. "It isn't about a group of people or about race. It's about a government-to-government relationship."

Thayer also said the proposal was related to the city's history.

"Bemidji has not had a very strong reputation with their neighbors on the reservations," Thayer said. "It's about that, as well as how we should be considering and honoring those we serve. There are flags in Duluth and Cloquet because they work with the tribes. It's also out of respect and creating trust."

Another Native American council member, Daniel Jourdain, who holds the at-large seat, also supported the proposal.

"Bemidji is an Ojibwe name," Jourdain said. "We are on 1855 treaty land. So, if we are paying respect to tribal nations in that way, we want to see how we can work with their constituents who live in the city as well. Members of the three tribes live in all the wards, and we want to build those relationships."

An additional supporter was Ward 4 council member Emelie Rivera.

"I really agree that we should have flags of our neighboring nations represented in our City Hall, because our residency reflects that," Rivera said. "There are a lot of members of these nations and I think it's important for people to see themselves reflected in symbols."

"We are also on tribal land," said Rivera. "We benefit as a city immensely from all the business that comes in from these nations. I got the sense that everyone wants to work toward better relationships and more intergovernmental collaboration, and this would be a real positive step in that direction."

Other opinions shared

In comments to the Pioneer, Ward 5 council member Nancy Erickson said just the flags of the United States, state of Minnesota and city of Bemidji are appropriate for the City Hall chamber.

"City Hall is the physical location of the honor that has been bestowed on each one of us to represent the citizens within our borders," Erickson said. "The flags symbolize the oaths that we took to uphold the Constitution of the United States, thus the U.S. flag, to uphold the Minnesota Constitution, thus the Minnesota flag, and to fairly represent the people of the city of Bemidji, thus the city flag. That is our reverent commitment.

"Unfortunately, those of us who don't support displaying any other flags in the council chambers may be labeled as racists, which we are not. We are committed to bringing the people of Bemidji together, not to create division."

In Ward 3 council member Ron Johnson's view, a joint meeting with tribal leaders is a better approach to the subject.

"I think if all it takes is a flag, we could be hanging flags from area cities, townships and everything else," Johnson said. "I think we need to meet together with our tribes, we should get together and talk about what we have in common. It does work when you do that. I don't think the relationships are that bad, so I also question the goal and the motive."

Jourdain, though, called placing the flags in the council chambers a step forward and that the opposition during the work session was "disheartening."

In an email to the Pioneer, Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince said he wants to take a "thoughtful and respectful approach" to any policy changes regarding the City Hall.

"As elected officials, we derive our authority to govern from the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions and the resulting Bemidji City Charter," Prince said. "For me personally, every time I walk into chambers and see our flags, I am reminded of the oath I have taken as mayor and am caused to leave whatever other allegiance I may have at the door in order to focus on doing the very best job I can for all citizens of Bemidji."

While Prince said he's hesitant to make flag policy changes inside the chambers, though, the mayor noted he's open to changes to areas inside and outside of City Hall.

"One model that was shared with us at the recent work session was the city of Duluth where the Fond-Du-Lac flag is displayed in the mayor's reception room," Prince said. "That said, I believe a good policy needs to create a standard that can be applied fairly and justly to all future requests. As it is possible that we might be approached by others, such as veterans groups, other municipalities, or even our sister city, Filottrano, to place flags or items in City Hall."

Outside of the flag idea, Prince said he is committed to improving the relationships between the city and neighboring tribal nations.

"I am hopeful that we can expand beyond our existing collaborations to find new ways to work together to improve our shared community," Prince said. "I also recognize that many of our citizens in Bemidji are registered members of the Red Lake Nation, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Nation.

"It is important to me that our Indigenous citizens and all citizens of Bemidji feel comfortable and respected when they come to City Hall. Our recent work session was the beginning of a continuing dialogue. I hope to hear from more citizens in the coming weeks and am personally working to further my education as it relates to examples of other cities while learning more about tribal treaties that impact our region."

Following the work session, City Manager Nate Mathews was directed to research other cities that have put up Native American government flags in their buildings.