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Designed to heal divisions, Bemidji statue uncovers tensions

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The Chief Bemidji statue in progress
The Chief Bemidji statue in progress at Gareth Curtiss' foundry and workshop in Fortine, Montana.
Courtesy Gareth Curtiss

Donnie Headbird wasn't impressed the first time he saw the carved likeness of his great-great-grandfather staring out over Lake Bemidji.  

"The statue looked like a cartoon," he said. "It didn't do him justice."

Headbird is the great-great-grandson of Shaynowishkung, an Ojibwe man known locally as Chief Bemidji, for his efforts to help the area's first white settlers to survive.    

A wooden statue in Shaynowishkung's honor has stood on the shore of Lake Bemidji since the 1950s, but it doesn't look anything like the real Chief Bemidji. 

After the wood rotted, the statue was covered with fiberglass and epoxy. It has the look of unfinished clay.

A replacement statue will be unveiled Saturday in Library Park on the west shore of Lake Bemidji. The new sculpture sits just north of the well-known statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The 9-foot-tall bronze figure cast by artist Gareth Curtiss was molded to match old photos of Chief Bemidji.

Headbird modeled the coat the chief is wearing.

"There's definitely a family resemblance," he said. "He looks a lot like my older brother Gabby."

The new statue, Headbird said, finally does justice to the noble character of his ancestor. 

But the bronze figure also is a step toward justice in a much larger sense, said Kathryn Beaulieu, a Red Lake member and former tribal historian.

Beaulieu was the first to suggest a new Chief Bemidji statue in 2009. She hoped a better representation of Shaynowishkung would bring unity to the communities of Red Lake, Leech Lake and Bemidji.

   She worked on the project as part of an organizing committee for 6 years, but a few months ago the project nearly derailed. 

The committee planned to mount plaques on pillars surrounding the statue to provide historical context for the relationship between early white settlers and the indigenous people in the region.

One of the plaques was inscribed with one of the most infamous quotes in Minnesota history:

Chief Bemidji, whose real name was Shay-now-ish-ku
Chief Bemidji, whose real name was Shaynowishkung. He was born near Inger, Minnesota, in 1833 or 1834 and lived in the Leech Lake and Cass Lake area. In 1882, Chief Bemidji's wife died. Saddened by her death, he loaded all his possessions and children in his birch bark canoe and paddled up the Mississippi River to settle on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. He was the first permanent settler of Bemidji.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

"If they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung," government trader Andrew Myrick said in 1862.

Myrick was talking about hungry Dakota people in southwest Minnesota in the month before the U.S.-Dakota War. The Dakota were starving because the U.S. government failed to send money promised by treaty. 

Myrick wasn't talking to the Ojibwe people, but Beaulieu said he may as well have been. 

"That's what was going on at the time," she said. 

As the Dakota War began, Ojibwe tribes in northern Minnesota were ready to travel south and go to war.

In a famous speech, Shaynowishkung persuaded them to keep the peace. He stopped the war from expanding north, and his own tribe from joining the Dakota in the historic New Ulm Massacre.

The recommended plaques for the new statue included references to the war and that sparked an intense debate in Bemidji's city government. Some City Council members argued that the plaques would only stir up emotions and reinforce racial divisions in the area. Because the statue sits on city property, the council had the last word on inscriptions.

"It looked like it wasn't going to pass," Beaulieu said. 

But earlier this summer, Beaulieu stood up at the council's meeting and asked its members to be brave and allow the truth to be known.

The council eventually approved the inscriptions by a 4-3 vote.

Mayor Rita Albrecht, who was among the council members who voted to approve the inscriptions, said the debate surprised her. She saw the committee's words as heavily researched and well thought out. 

That the council nearly voted down the words suggests to Albrecht a certain level of historical ignorance.

She hopes the new statue will show respect to Shaynowishkung, and help inform the community about the harsh realities of his life. 

"We still have some education to be done," she said. "Even though we may have lived in this area all our lives, we certainly don't know everything about it."