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Bemidji City Council hears Healing House presentation, first reading of ward redistricting ordinance

The Bemidji City Council heard a powerful presentation about a new community project and held the first reading of a ward redistricting ordinance during its regular meeting on Monday evening, March 21.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo
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BEMIDJI — The Bemidji City Council heard a powerful presentation about a new community project and held the first reading of a ward redistricting ordinance during its regular meeting on Monday evening.

Natasha Kingbird and others working on it gave a detailed presentation of a project in the works called the Healing House.

The center, which would be constructed in Bemidji, would provide a space for Native American women, particularly those who have experienced abuse or been involved in the criminal justice system, to seek services and assistance with their cultural background in mind.

Kingbird’s presentation opened by sharing statistics highlighting the disparities that Native American women face within the justice system, something touched on by fellow presenter Liz Richards.

“We know that Native American women are vastly overrepresented both in the prison system and in being victimized through sexual violence and domestic abuse,” Richards said.

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Kingbird shared the statistic that despite just 1.1% of Minnesota’s population being Indigenous, Native American women accounted for 20% of the incarcerated population in the Minnesota Correctional Facility located in Shakopee, where the project organizers conducted surveys and interviews. Of that 20%, most were transferred to the facility from Beltrami County.

To gather more information when they began this project, the Healing House organizers conducted a study that included 62 women. They asked questions about their histories and what they would like to see from a center like the one being proposed.

Of those interviewed, 64% had been arrested for the first time before they were 18, many multiple times. A total of 97% had experienced some form of violence or abuse in their lifetime, 84% experienced violence from an intimate partner and 47% reported that they had been sexually abused as a child.

Attempting to heal this history of trauma was something that Kingbird and Richards cited as the main focus for the Healing House’s mission as an alternative to incarceration.

“Its primary focus is to heal from the trauma and to do that from a cultural place,” Richards said. “It’s that type of experience and response that we’re really looking at.”

Rather than being operated by the Department of Corrections, the Healing House would be community-owned, and a safe space for women and families to seek services to help them find their footing.

While it’s still in its early stages, Healing House organizers were well received by the council, with members expressing their gratitude to the presenters for their work on the project.

“I’m grateful for your program,” said Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer, who went on to speak about the significance of the project to the Indigenous community and to herself as a member of White Earth Nation. “We have intergenerational trauma that’s never left, and stayed for a long time … it’s very challenging to pull yourself up.”

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Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera also expressed her appreciation to the presenters, agreeing with them about the disparities that Native American women face and how experiencing violence and abuse can further complicate their interactions with different systems.

“It isn’t a reflection of the people, it’s a reflection of the systems,” Rivera said, “and the systems need to change.”

The city council agreed to assist the Healing House moving forward as they develop a more structured plan for what the center might look like.

Ward redistricting

Monday’s meeting also saw the official progression of the city’s redistricting process, which looks to redesignate ward boundaries within Bemidji.

The topic was first discussed in the council’s March 7 meeting where the council was presented with one option to consider for new ward boundaries.

Notably, that option would place Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson outside of his district, meaning that he could serve out his current term which ends in 2024, but would not be eligible to represent Ward 3 following the term's conclusion.

During that meeting, a number of council members expressed a desire to have more than just one map option to consider for a decision that happens only once every 10 years, so they tabled any formal decision until the March 21 meeting.

After tabling the topic, the council held a special work session on March 18, to discuss the matter further and consider three more options for what the city’s wards might look like after redistricting.

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Ultimately, the council chose to proceed with the original option presented. This redistricting map was then put into an ordinance that had its first reading on Monday’s meeting. The second reading, which includes a public hearing, is scheduled for April 4.

Other business

Two resolutions related to construction were also passed during the meeting, one of which was the council agreeing to support a joint grant application with the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the reconstruction of a portion of Hannah Avenue.

The other will extend water and sewer services down Irvine Avenue through Anne Street, a section that will be under construction by Beltrami County aimed to be completed by 2023. The cost for the city to extend these services is an estimated $220,000.

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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