Survey shows race relations problems in Bemidji

Indian sculpture
This metal sculpture of an American Indian sits near the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe on the Bemidji waterfront. There's been longstanding racial tension between the two cultures the statues represent.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Bemidji is surrounded by three American Indian reservations.

Karen Bedeau, from the nearby Red Lake reservation, recalls that when she was a little girl in the 1960s she and her family used to drive to town to shop.

Karen Bedeau
Karen Bedeau, who grew up on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, has experienced discrimination in Bemidji. Bedeau and other community leaders are working on ways to improve race relations in Bemidji.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Bedeau says back then, racism against Indians was blatant.

"You were treated very rudely," said Bedeau. "I can remember people hollering at us, calling us names and people telling us to get out of town and things like that. Clearly you were not welcomed there."

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Things have improved a lot since then, according to Bedeau.

But at a Bemidji gas station just a few years ago, Bedeau saw something that angered her.

While several Indians were gassing up their cars at the pumps, the store clerk was outside jotting down the numbers from their Red Lake tribal license plates.

"Usually you get to this point and you look at a big mountain in front of you and you go, 'God, this is a big, tough issue to solve.'"

"When I went in to pay for my gas, I asked them what they were doing," Bedeau said, "and the clerk said, 'Until you people stop stealing, we will do this.' And I was just taken aback. It goes back to the way I had experienced things years back. So those types of things still exist."

Bedeau is part of a group trying to change the race dynamic in Bemidji.

The Shared Vision group has the backing of the city and county, the school district, and the three surrounding reservations, among others.

With funding from several regional foundations, Shared Vision commissioned the community's most comprehensive study ever on racial attitudes.

The study found that 80 percent of whites rated race relations as fair or good. But more than half of Indians surveyed in Bemidji said relations were poor. That number was even higher for Indians living on neighboring reservations.

Nearly half of Indians surveyed said they regularly experience discrimination in retail stores and by law enforcement. Half of them said they faced discrimination in the job market and in housing.

The Headwaters Regional Development Commission facilitates the effort. Millisa Smith, who works with the commission, says the study is just a starting point.

According to Smith, for the next few months, there will be lots of brainstorming about how to improve race relations.

A broad section of community leaders has split into four groups that will focus on education and training, economic development and entrepreneurial activity, cultural knowledge and understanding, and leadership and civic engagement.

Smith says the team members will develop a 20-year plan of action.

"The community of Bemidji has seen race relations efforts tried in the past, and usually you get to this point and you look at a big mountain in front of you and you go, 'God, this is a big, tough issue to solve,'" said Smith. "What's exciting is that there's a group of committed individuals who are ready to climb that mountain."

The American Civil Liberties Union keeps track of racism complaints in the region.

The ACLU's Audrey Thayer heads a project that monitors the justice system in a seven-county area.

In 2003, a study found that a disproportionate number of Indians were stopped by police in Bemidji.

Since then, the ACLU has tracked jail populations on a daily basis. Thayer, who is also part of the Shared Vision effort, says things have improved since the program started.

"We were around 80 percent incarceration rate of Native people in the jails on a daily basis," said Thayer. "We are down to about, we average the past year and a half, 45 percent of those who are in jail. So we're at a little less than half who are Native. That's a huge difference."

The change is due in part to civil rights education and more courtroom advocacy for Indian people, Thayer says.

Part of the challenge for the Shared Vision effort will be separating what's truly racism from what may be something else.

Don Day, director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University and a member of the Shared Vision team, says gaps in education and widespread poverty among Indians could blur racial perceptions.

Day experienced it himself growing up on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

"Even when I was going as a college student, any time I was uncomfortable I was saying, 'It's because I'm Indian, isn't it?'" said Day. "And the reality is, maybe it had nothing to do with me being Indian. I think that any kind of perceived uncomfortableness on the part of American Indians would be conceived of as racial. Whether it's real or imagined, it's still real to them."

There was some good news from the Bemidji race relations survey.

Ninety percent of all respondents said they wanted to get to know people from other racial groups.

Three-quarters of whites want to know more about local American Indian culture.