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Bemidji groups discusses education, honoring American Indian history

BEMIDJI -- Shared Vision, Bemidji's council on race relations, discussed controversial plans to honor American Indians on Columbus Day at its meeting Tuesday.

Several fiery letters to the editor in opposition to changing Columbus Day have run in the Bemidji Pioneer during recent weeks, letters which Shared Vision members referenced during the discussion.

However, Shared Vision's ultimate goal may not necessarily be to change Columbus Day -- the second Monday in October -- in Bemidji to something else. Rather, the group's focus could be on doing something in conjunction with Columbus Day to educate the Bemidji public about American Indian heritage and the history of Bemidji before it officially became a city in 1895, Red Lake Nation spokesperson Michael Meuers suggested.

"That's one thing that all the letters to the editor missed," Meuers said. "This is about education. People who are giving Columbus credit for anything don't understand or don't know the history of Columbus or the Spaniards that followed him or the English that followed them or the Americans that followed them."

Late last month, the Minneapolis City Council voted in favor of designating the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day. Other cities also have replaced or renamed Columbus Day and some states do not observe the federal holiday.

Honoring Columbus as the man who discovered America is problematic to some American Indians because their ancestors were living in America hundreds of years before his arrival and, once he arrived, Columbus kidnapped and killed members of the native bands he encountered.

"I understand from the Indian community's point of view why you would not want to honor Columbus," City Manager John Chattin said. "He wasn't such an honorable person in his dealings with the native community."

As Meuers acknowledged, only the federal government can actually change the holiday completely. Taking away Columbus Day may actually hurt dialogue with the people of Bemidji, he said.

"Then a wall goes up, and they don't hear anything," he said.

Chattin had similar thoughts. "Give them something they can understand," he said.

Chattin said it would be relatively easy for the city to do some sort of annual proclamation, and forwarding the idea to the city would allow more chance for input on what exactly would be taught during the day of recognition.

Shared Vision member Warren Larson said the new day should actually be observed before Columbus Day to symbolize that the Ojibwe were "here before Columbus." Although Columbus Day falls into the U.S. government's jurisdiction, there won't be any changes at the federal level until local communities take action, Larson said.

"Bemidji has the opportunity to take a leadership role," he said. "Then we're part of a positive change, and that ultimately impacts the federal government."

Shared Vision did not have enough members present at the meeting to form a quorum, so no vote was taken and the Columbus Day issue was tabled. The organization is actively seeking additional members for the board.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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