Boozhoo: Signs of Racial Reconciliation
[imgbelt img=ojibweprimer320.jpg]In Bemidji, Minnesota, a town with a history of angry race relations, a
few well-placed Ojibwe words have opened the way for mutual trust and
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.”
Noemi Aylesworth’s Cabin Coffeehouse was the first business in Bemidji to adopt bilingual signage. Michael Meuers, who works with the Red Lake Chippewa, was inspired while visiting Hawaii to try introducing the indigenous language to non-native residents and visitors.
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.
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.”