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'Our voice that we have': Bemidji march highlights Indigenous challenges

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Jaron Smallwood leads the Indigenous Peoples March on Friday in Bemidji while playing the drum. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 5
Madison Kingbird, left, and Bella White walk on Friday in the Indigenous Peoples March in Bemidji. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 3 / 5
Dozens of people gathered on Friday for the Indigenous Peoples March, which went from the Paul and Babe statues to BSU's American Indian Resource Center. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 4 / 5
Students from Deer River High School lead the charge on Friday during the Indigenous Peoples March. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 5 / 5

BEMIDJI—Dozens marched through Bemidji on Friday to highlight the challenges facing Indigenous people worldwide, which many framed as broader issues facing the world as a whole.

Drumming and singing in the sub-zero chill, the Indigenous Peoples Movement March headed from the Paul and Babe statues in downtown Bemidji to the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University, pausing briefly to warm up in a church foyer. The march here coincided with a thousands-strong one from the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., to a park near the Lincoln Memorial.

"Solidarity" marches were scheduled in more than a dozen North American cities: Spokane, Denver, Buffalo, Saskatoon—and Bemidji. Marchers carried signs that read "Honor Indigenous Sovereignty" and "Water is life. Protect the sacred."

"It's important for people to know that there's big issues in the world," said Mya Morgan, a sixth-grader at Deer River Schools. "Like the water and the oil thing, that's really serious and it could affect everybody in the community, not just Indigenous people, but everybody."

Morgan's friends agreed.

"We're using our voice that we have," said Teona Bebeau, a seventh-grader.

Morgan and Bebeau were among students from several area school districts, including Cass Lake-Bena, Bagley, and Bemidji, who marched in Bemidji on Friday morning. Once they warmed up at the resource center, students and other marchers talked about some of those Indigenous challenges and why it was important for them to attend the march. They also held a round dance.

Those challenges to Indigenous people include oil pipeline expansion, which many decry as a threat to tribal sovereignty and the environment, and the disproportionately large numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women whose cases go unsolved.

"I think it really says a lot, too, that we're here in Bemidji, Minnesota, this small town, to be able to come together and to show our love and support for everyone because that could be us at the border, and that could be us that went missing or murdered," said Sage Davis, a BSU admissions counselor who coordinated the Bemidji march, her voice breaking.

Davis' sister, Lavender Hunt, a cultural arts teacher at Deer River who conceived of the march here, stepped in to speak.

"It says a lot to our children about why we are here," Hunt said. "To provide a life and a legacy for our young ones."

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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