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'Boozhoo': Ojibwe Language Project grows among Bemidji businesses, facilities

BEMIDJI -- In 2005, two volunteers set out on a mission to reconstruct a language native to the Bemidji area that had slowly deteriorated throughout the centuries.

Nearly 10 years later, Michael Meuers and Rachelle Houle have come a long way in resurrecting the Ojibwe language here, enlisting more than 150 area businesses to participate in the Bemidji Ojibwe Language Project.

"The Ojibwe language is the culture of our land," Meuers said. "There's something to learn here from their culture."

All across town, a number of businesses have erected signs with certain phrases from the Ojibwe language to promote racial diversity.

Surrounded by three American Indian communities, Meuers and Houle said many community members know very little about their neighbors, and that the subtle addition of the Ojibwe language can help bring about conversations that can sometimes be uncomfortable to bring about.

"It opens up opportunity for everyone to talk and communicate with one another," Meuers said.

Additionally, Houle said she has always sensed tension in the communities.

"Growing up in Bemidji, I always felt like the two cultures never meshed together very well," she said.

With the intention of providing educational opportunities and easing racial tension between American Indians and the greater Bemidji community, Meuers and Houle devote many of their Tuesday afternoons spreading the word of their cause to as many as people as they can.

Handing out informational material to business owners, the two volunteers said their mission isn't to fulfill personal agendas, but rather to bring about awareness on Bemidj's long history with Ojibwe culture.

"It was here long before any of the Europeans settled," Houle said. "We know people are interested, but they don't always know how to go about learning more about it because of fear of offending someone."

And according to Meuers, this fear should not have an effect on people's desire to learn and eventually grow from a culture.

Living in Hawaii for a time, Meuers said the connection to past and present cultures is evident, and hopes Bemidji and the Ojibwe culture can someday mirror that connection.

"My hope is that someday 'boozhoo' [Ojibwe for greetings or hello] will be synonymous with Bemidji the same way 'aloha' is synonymous with Hawaii," he said.

Meuers said part of the idea to embark on the language emersion project came from the 2005 Red Lake school shooting tragedy, when he suggested to a former Bemidji city manager the city should fly the Red Lake flag at half mast as a sign of respect and sympathy. The flag was flown for a week.

"I had never heard such positive feedback from the Red Lake people as I did that day," said Meuers, who works in public relations for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa government. "It then occurred to me symbolism is extremely powerful, even in all of its simplicity."

As a result of the project, the Ojibwe language now adorns many businesses' outdoor signs and doors, as well as interior walls, windows and doors, in a way unique to each business.

Houle and Meuers said the Bemidji Ojibwe Language Project has ballooned into a much larger venture than they could ever have envisioned.

"It's exciting to see more and more businesses make permanent (Ojibwe language) additions to their structures," Houle said.

According to Houle, some of the "permanent additions" consist of vinyl window stickers and plastic signs.

'Important cog'

The language project started as subcommittee of Shared Vision -- a group formed to improve race dynamics in Bemidji. After Shared Vision merged with Bemidji Area Race Relations (BARR), Meuers and Houle said they made sure the language project would continue no matter what.

Hoping to see more Ojibwe signage in schools and towns across the county, Houle said Bemidji can be an example of how successful the incorporation of the Ojibwe language can be.

Citing Bemidji High School, which has added numerous Ojibwe signs to its facility, Houle said she and Meuers were able to raise more than enough funds to get the ball rolling on the high school's language immersion program, even though the school took on most of the costs.

"Our goal has evolved beyond signs," Meuers said.

Referencing Anton Treuer, professor of languages and ethnic studies at Bemidji State University, Meuers said the Bemidji Ojibwe Language Project has also become an "important cog" in the scheme of teaching the Ojibwe language and culture.

In his book, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask," Treuer, who is also director of the American Indian Resource Center at BSU, mentions the significant role the project has had in relieving cultural tension in the area.

Meuers said the project and the book resulted in an open forum where the community was invited to ask questions about Ojibwe culture.

"Both cultures (referencing to American Indians and other races) have fears about each other," Houle said. "This project has been about creating better race relations."

Continuing their weekly Tuesday visits to spread awareness about their cause, the cultural advocates said the Bemidji Ojibwe Language Project is far from over.

"We're doing this because we think it's the right thing to do," Meuers said. "We want Bemidji to be known for its Ojibwe culture, just like its known for Paul and Babe and being the first city on the Mississippi."


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