When we ran into other Ojibwe in the border towns of my youth, we would point our lips at each other and say, “Boozhoo, Aaniin,” which roughly translated means, “Hi, what’s happening?” We would be happy to see another Ojibwe in that often-unfriendly territory and discreetly share our kinship. Generations of Indians recall having their knuckles rapped for speaking their native languages in non-Indian schools. Hearing these bits of our language spoken in public seemed like a secret handshake to me, a sliver of defiance towards disapproving white folks.
There were no “Welcome” signs for Indians in those border towns, nor were there many that spelled out “No Indians Allowed.” Businesses didn’t really need them. We knew where we weren’t welcome; we didn’t need signage.
Thanks to some forwarding-thinking folks in the North Country, however, those bits of defiant language are evolving into a courageous act of inclusion that has taken hold between Natives and non-Natives in the town of Bemidji, Minnesota.
Michael Meuers, a non-Native resident of Bemidji, and Dr. Anton Treuer of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, professor of Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University, worked together to encourage local businesses to include signage in the Ojibwe language on their premises.
Meuers, who works for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa (Ojibwe) in government and public relations, asked a Bemidji community organization, Shared Visions, to put up signs in the Ojibwe language on their restroom doors, Ikwewag for women and Ininiwag for men. Shared Visions is a local non-profit dedicated to addressing issues of racism in the community.
This seemingly simple act has had dramatic results in Bemidji, a town of 14, 000 residents bounded by three Ojibwe reservations: Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth.
Meuers was inspired by a visit to Hawaii where he saw many public signs displayed in English and the Hawaiian language. With guidance and support from Treuer, Meuers convinced 20 local businesses to post signs in both Ojibwe and English during the first year of the project, 2009. Treuer created audio clips containing correct pronunciations of Ojibwe words and phrases, available to all through the Bemidji State University website.
Ojibwe people report being pleasantly surprised to hear business owners greeting them with “Boozhoo” (welcome) or saying “Giga-waabamin miinawaa,” (see you later) when they leave.
“I hear the bank teller and mechanic use Ojibwe language now. It is really working and growing,” Treuer says. “Business owners want to encourage Native business and create a welcoming environment for them.”
The Cabin Coffeehouse was the first business to post signs in both languages. Noemi Aylesworth, owner, painted “Boozhoo,” on the front door. The coffeehouse now features cards on each table printed with Ojibwe words and English translations.
Bemidji has had a negative reputation among Native people. There have been charges of racial profiling by police and a history of public racist comments by local leaders, according to Treuer.
He says that efforts by local government to bridge the racial gap had mostly fallen flat.
“The city apologized to the community for racist comments made by government leaders but not much happened for a long time,” Treuer notes.
The community needed to find a safe, sanctioned way to talk about native people and culture. “The language project has created an entry point for the harder and deeper work that needs to happen,” said Treuer.
Meuers and Treuer agree that this grassroots effort has proved far more effective at getting people to talk to each other than any big official project could have managed.
“The tourists eat it up,” enthuses Meuers. Aylesworth now finds it difficult to keep her Ojibwe-English word list cards on the tables of her coffeehouse because people keep taking them.
Visitors and residents too want to learn more about the people and culture that were here before Europeans settled. When Meuers arrived in the area 30 years ago, he was shocked that although Bemidji is located in the heart of Ojibwe country, non-Indians knew so little about the tribe.
“I think it took a white guy to help broker this relationship. White business owners lower their defense mechanism when they see another white guy come in the door, ” he observes.
Non-Indians are afraid they will say something offensive so the relationship has remained tense, according to Meuers.
Conversely, due to the history of conflict between the two races, Native people have been reluctant to seek allies among non-Natives. “Native people have been afraid that white people will steal what land and resources they have left,” he observes.
The work of Meuers, Treuer and Shared Vision has drawn national media attention. The language project has been featured in Indian Country Today, The Star Tribune, National Public Radio and other news outlets.
Meuers reports that he receives inquiries from indigenous communities throughout the U.S. and Canada seeking advice about creating similar projects in their communities.
“The experience has been so refreshing and gratifying. The language brings smiles to peoples faces,” he reports.
Not only do Native people feel more welcome and respected, but they may also gain a greater interest in the language themselves.
Treuer agrees. “Language is important. It is a fundamental part of who we are. I’m not saying you cease to be Native if you don’t have your language, but you are more distant from our ancestors. Language is the cornerstone of sovereignty,” he recently told Indian Country Today.
Treuer has long been an outspoken proponent of active Ojibwe language preservation as well a community leader and educational bridge-builder between Native and non-Native people. He was instrumental in encouraging BSU to post Ojibwe signage throughout the campus and offer recruitment and other materials in Ojibwe as well.
Earlier this year, the Saint Paul Foundation presented Treuer with the Facing Race Ambassador Award.
In addition to his work with Shared Visions, he was recognized for his recently launched conversation series, “Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were Afraid to Ask.”
He is also the author of several books about Ojibwe culture and language including “Ojibwe in Minnesota” and “The Assassination of Chief Hole in the Day,” the story of the great Ojibwe leader. He is also editor of Oshkaabewis Native Journal, the only academic journal of the Ojibwe language.
According to Treuer, “Everyone has an opportunity to make things better. Those opportunities present themselves on almost every level. We can all apply slow, steady, compassionate pressure on others to change the way we talk and think about race.”