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Why ‘genocide’?: Graffiti on Bemidji landmark sparks debate

The iconic statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in downtown Bemidji. A recent act of vandalism has sparked an online debate of the statues. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 2
Babe the Blue Ox was recently vandalized with graffiti. The Bemidji Parks and Recreation Department quickly covered over the lettering. They then repainted later to match Blue's coloring. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- “Genocide.”

That’s what was spray painted last week on a statue of Babe the Blue Ox, a pillar of Minnesota and American folklore that stands beside a Paul Bunyan statue in downtown Bemidji.

They’re a tourist attraction, a nod to the region’s longstanding logging industry, and a cherished symbol, writ large, of northern Minnesota’s grizzled self-image.

“It’s an identity of America,” Bill Batchelder, a longtime Bemidji resident and business owner who’s an outspoken proponent of the region, said of the statues’ meaning.

But they can also evoke colonialism and deforestation. American Indian culture and opinion isn’t a monolith, but, to some, Paul and Babe can denote the loss of Native land, resources, livelihoods and people that followed white western expansion.

“When indigenous people look at a statue like that, we’re thinking loss,” said Nicky Michael, an indigenous studies professor at Bemidji State University. “(Paul Bunyan) may be figurative, but he and the blue ox represent the loggers that came in and took over the land and then, of course, were followed by the settlers.”

Someone graffitied the statue in the wee hours between Jan. 1 and Jan. 2. City workers quickly painted over it, but photos -- and a charged debate -- have persisted in Bemidji-area social media circles.

“Love this act of indigenous resistance,” one person commented on the Pioneer’s Facebook page.

“No more ‘Tall Tales?!!’ Fictional storytelling is unacceptable?” wondered another on this letter to the editor

Even planned alterations to the statues have been a touchy subject: a proposal in 2015 to landscape the area around them sparked a civic firestorm and drew comparisons to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. City planners scrapped the plan.

“It defines Bemidji, it defines northern Minnesota, it defines a lifestyle,” Batchelder said of the Paul Bunyan statue. “And anybody that puts, in this politically charged environment that we’re living in now, a deeper meaning to it, it just makes me feel bad and it hurts because children from all over the world have come to the headwaters of the Mississippi to celebrate Paul Bunyan, to celebrate Bemidji.”

Clearcutting techniques used in the 1800s had cascading environmental impacts that have ultimately salted the earth in some places and annihilated woodland caribou in the region, said Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at BSU.

“In the Native experience, the story of white homesteaders coming and finding sweet American apple pie on the Minnesota frontier is a story of loss and taking in their world,” he said. “And you can’t separate those two things, and that’s just one of the tensions around how do we talk about this history?”

The statues were built in 1937 for a winter carnival designed to boost tourism, and they’ve been staples of Bemidji’s city center ever since. Paul and Babe have been featured in parades, on postcards, and are the backdrop for countless family and tourist photos -- many here claim the statues are the second-most photographed tourist attraction in the country.

The pair have also made brief appearances in film and television, including the TV version of “Fargo,” which was set in a fictional Bemidji.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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