RACHEL BEGLIN COLUMN: Bemidji was a soft place to land when I needed it most
Last week, I drove away from Bemidji with my car packed to the gills with all of my earthly belongings. It was a lightning-fast decision to leave, yet one that had been brewing for a while, too.
Last week, I drove away from Bemidji with my car packed to the gills with all of my earthly belongings.
It was a lightning-fast decision to leave, yet one that had been brewing for a while, too.
This being my last column for the Pioneer, I’d like to share some of what kept me in town and what ultimately led me to say goodbye.
I moved to Bemidji for one reason only: to work alongside and support the Indigenous people of the area on their food sovereignty projects.
It was ironic, then, that on my first night in Bemidji, a white stranger in the hallway of my hotel told me to talk to the management about switching my room due to its proximity to Native Americans.
I was aghast; I wish, now, that I’d said something stronger in response instead of walking away with my jaw on the floor.
From that day on, I heard all kinds of off-color comments about how "dangerous" it was to work in Red Lake and other unnecessary, unverified bouts of racism and cultural erasure.
I only saw a glimpse, a taste, of the ongoing micro- and frankly macro-aggressions that the local tribal community members experience on a daily basis. But I loved working in Red Lake, and I was continuously offended on their behalf.
But that’s certainly not why I left — in fact, it was even more reason to stay. If anything kept me in Bemidji, it was the Indigenous influence.
The local knowledge and Indigenous wisdom and cultural teachings are something to be revered, something that makes Bemidji incredibly unique in its location between three neighboring tribes.
I hope that the day I come back to visit, I find Bemidji a more integrated, whole place.
I think one of the struggles as a young person in Bemidji is finding healthy activities and ways to share community.
As a 26-year-old, I deeply felt the lack of people my age. The gap between college-aged students and young parents left me bereft of a true sense of community.
I found that unfortunately, many of those who were in my age group found themselves spending most weekend nights at the bar.
I struggled to find alternatives to drinking culture, and while I found some community volunteering at the Bemidji Community Food Shelf (which is currently hiring a farm manager!), online with the Facebook group Grow Bemidji , and at the Rail River Folk School, I never quite felt like Bemidji was a place where I could build up true community.
Maybe it was me and I just had to join a morel-hunting group and start hanging out at the curling gym, but maybe Bemidji is a tough egg to crack.
The two places where I felt the most sense of community were at Lily Pad Yoga — the place to which I fully attribute my survival of last winter — in Red Lake, and among the local food community.
Places I found glimpses of hope: Paradise Valley Buffalo meat sold at Table for 7, with Red Lake walleye on the menu as well, in the Bemidji’s Natural Choice Farmers Market, Harmony Natural Foods selling Merry Gardens and Clearwater Farms produce, where farmers picked up compost on a weekly basis. There was something there. There was an almost.
Bemidji was the soft place to land that I needed when the world broke apart in 2020. It’s where I drove my first truck, saw my first black bear, spoke my first Ojibwe word, put down my first tobacco, attended my first powwow, found my first morel mushroom, heard my first loon call, kept my first chickens… The list goes on.
I am so grateful for the town and its surrounding counties and tribes who took me in, who practiced patience in teaching me new things and who took me under their wings.
For the librarians who let me print my tax paperwork and for the cashier at Menards with the beautiful beaded earrings. For the women who let me live with them when I had nowhere to go and the land I was able to tend, even for a short time.
For the bonfires I let simmer out, the many chips and salsa at Mi Rancho, and even for the Paul and Babe statues that I once loathed.
For the baristas at Dunn Brothers who made me laugh, for the people who watched my cat, for the Red Lakers who laughed at me but let me parade around and get to know them deeply.
Bemidji has so much going for it; incredible natural resources, lasting freshwater, deer meat and walleye galore. It has ancient magic, a rich history and still so many thriving indigenous communities. It has people who care about it and people who love it.
Whatever you take away from this sentimental goodbye, I hope mostly you don’t take what you have for granted.
Leaving Bemidji, at least for now, only reminds me of all its little gems, even with their imperfections.
Protect the water, protect the land, protect the people. There is harmony on the horizon and I know good people are working toward it in a good way.
Chi-Miigwech for everything. Perhaps someday I’ll be homesteading here again.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.