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County Board on Board

Beltrami County is 180th Site to Post Ojibwe Signage


Beltrami County Commissioners, left to right Jim Lucachick, Joe Vene, Keith Winger, Richard Anderson, and Tim Sumner

On Tuesday, September 15, the Beltrami County Board Meeting voted 4 to 1 to become the 180th site, joining 179 organizations, governments, government agencies, non-profits, and businesses, in posting Ojibwe language signage.

Bemidji's Ojibwe Language Project, a committee of Shared Vision, has been soliciting businesses and organizations to post Ojibwe/English signage in their business or work site for over six years. Michael Meuers and Rachelle Houle have spearheaded the effort. BSU Professor of Ojibwe, Anton Treuer, has acted as the Project's translator.

Every other Tuesday the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners meets to act on the County's business. Work sessions often begin at 3 p.m. followed by the Board meeting at 5:00.

Adding bi-lingual Ojibwe/English signage to the entire county campus was on the work agenda for short discussion. The same item was on the Board Meeting's Consent Agenda suggesting there was little if any opposition.

Commissioner Tim Sumner, who would speak to the issue, invited Language Project volunteers Meuers and Houle to attend.

The work session was held in the Commissioners Conference Room at the County Administration Building. The summary statement on the Work Meeting Agenda regarding Ojibwe signage read:

"Commissioner Tim Sumner has been discussing a process for bringing the Ojibwe Language initiative to Beltrami County for quite some time. With so much effort being put into cooperative and partnership programs with neighboring reservation governments, we believe that we are at the point of simply getting it done.

A local vendor is able to create and install vinyl lettering to exterior doors at a cost of $50-$75 per door for a total of approximately $750. Dave Shadrick has stated that he can pay the cost out of his building budgets. We would install the language Boozhoo (Greeting/Welcome) and Miigwech (Thank You).

We will be joining the efforts of many government agencies, area businesses and non-profit agencies in this effort of being welcoming and inclusive of such a large sector of our neighbors and friends."

The agenda item began with an opening statement by Commissioner Tim Sumner, who having advocated for the project, would speak to it. Sumner mentioned how the community is moving forward with better racial understandings and celebrating diversity. Sumner, a member of the Shared Vision board, cited Shared Vision's 2009 survey on Bemidji/Beltrami race relations in his statement.

"The professional survey conducted by Wilder Research turned out like many might intuit," said Sumner. "But two questions stood out as good news. Over 90% of all respondents of the groups surveyed, (Indians on Reservation, Indians off Reservation, and Whites) stated they wanted to get to know people from other cultural and racial groups. And there was more good news in that nearly 80% of Whites, and 90%+ of both categories of Indians, wanted to know more about local American Indian culture and history."

Commissioner Jim Lucachick asked that the agenda item be removed from the board meeting's Consent Agenda, which would follow at 5 p.m. Lucachick said the issue has been voted down in the past. He further stated that he wanted to treat all peoples equally, and if we are to do this, should we also not post Norwegian, or German, or Polish signage?

Meuers, who has spearheaded Bemidji's Ojibwe Language Project, raised his hand and was recognized by the Board Chairman, Commissioner Keith Winger. "I have heard this premise for non-participation before Commissioner Lucachick," said Meuers. "I will tell you the same thing that we tell those who site this reasoning when we door knock seeking participation."

"All the languages you mention are imported, foreign languages. Even English is an imported language to northern Minnesota, and foreign to Indigenous Peoples," said Meuers. "We are talking about an Indigenous Language of Northern Minnesota. If we claim this land as ours, then I submit we should also claim its history and respect, even celebrate, the Indigenous Culture of this land. We can't just claim the area's history since Bemidji's first white settlers arrived in the mid 1890's, or since 1858 when Minnesota became a state, or 1776, or with the Pilgrims, or with Columbus. If we claim this land, this is our history as well."

Between meetings, Meuers added that the pitch he and Houle give potential participants has three parts. The project helps American Indians feel more comfortable and respected in the community, it teaches the non-Indian a little bit about the rich culture that flourished here long before 1895, and tourists eat it up...lending an economic benefit as well. Finally it's a door opener to learn about each other, it's an opportunity to begin that conversation.

At the Commissioners Board meeting at 5 p.m., the signage initiative came up rather quickly. After approval of the consent agenda, the second item to follow was the Ojibwe Language Initiative. A motion was made by Commissioner Sumner and seconded by Commissioner Joe Vene. Hearing no discussion, Chairman Winger called for a vote. Sumner, Vene, Winger, and Commissioner Richard Anderson voted aye, Lucachick voted nay, and the item passed 4-1.

Commissioners Richard Anderson and Red Lake member, Commissioner Tim Sumner

"Our early goal was to make the effort permanent, to make it irreversible and inevitable," Meuers added later. "In order to attain that goal we needed more than the friendly small businesses of Bemidji, we needed institutions. The City's buildings, (including the Sanford Center) Bemidji State Park, and BSU were among the first. Later came Sanford Health, and perhaps the most important of all, the place where education begins, all Bemidji and Kelliher area schools."

"The county was one of the last two major groups we wanted to get on board, and today that happened, we got one of them," concluded Meuers. "I couldn't be happier about it, and of course a big thanks to Commissioner Sumner. It would not have happened without his persistent advocac


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