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Bemidji’s Ojibwe Language Project Seeking Permanence

The Bemidji Ojibwe Language Project continues its push to get Ojibwe signage around the Minnesota city of Bemidji.
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What started with the Ojibwe words for women (Ikwewag) and men (Iminiwag) on local restroom doors in 2005 is becoming more permanent and resonating with Bemidji, Minnesota residents.

Sanford Health officials have started placing Ojibwe/English signage throughout their complex, and Bemidji area schools have committed to placing bilingual signage in every school building. These efforts are all part of the Bemidji Ojibwe Language Project, which is affiliated with Shared Vision.

“It’s hard to express the emotion I felt this week as we entered the front doors of the Sanford Medical Center and saw the first permanent English/Ojibwe signs in the building,” said Ojibwe Language Project team member Rachelle Houle. “We are proud and yet so humbled that a small seed of an idea has grown, taken root, and is here to stay.” Houle and Michael Meuers have spearheaded the Ojibwe Language Project since its beginnings.

While the Language Team was shooting photos of the signs at the hospital recently, Vicki Howard, director of Sanford Health’s Indian Desk, told a story. “An elder and fluent Ojibwe speaker entered the Sanford Medical Center and was taken aback by the signs she saw on the wall in the foyer. She was speechless and smiling as she read, in her native language of Ojibwe, which direction to take,” Howard said.

“It is stories like this that make our effort worthwhile”, Houle added. “We realize that our signage project won’t make everyone a fluent speaker of Ojibwe. That is not the point. What IS happening is a small step to learning more about our Native neighbors. In turn, we hope it’s a small step of letting them know we respect their culture.”

Bemidji State University (BSU) professor of Ojibwe Anton Treuer provided correct translations for the signage.

“Anton has been our go-to guy for translations and spelling throughout this project,” Meuers, who envisioned this project two years ago.

There are now more than 130 sites in Bemidji committed to posting signage, and it continues to grow. But perhaps one of the more exciting organizations to sign on is Bemidji Independent School District 31 (ISD 31).

“All principals have committed,” Meuers said, including the high school, middle school, the six elementary schools, and four other school sites.

Lincoln Elementary and Bemidji Middle School have already posted some bilingual signage.

“Because schools are hurting financially, Rachelle and I have committed ourselves to search for grants so that signage may be posted at the other 10 school sites, and more signage added to Lincoln and the middle school,” Meuers said. He estimates that $10,000 to $12,000 will be needed. “We will search until we find the money.”

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And the signage at the school is permanent, which Houle said is the goal. “Permanent signage hopefully will make this project irreversible, and spread to other communities.”

Meuers hopes that every child and parent in the entire community will pass the signs and “pique their curiosity to learn more about the culture that IS northern Minnesota.”

And the idea is spreading. According to Indian Education teacher Kathleen O’Kelley, Walker Hackensack Akeley Schools has placed 240 Ojibwe/English signs throughout the elementary, middle and high schools with a donation from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

“This is a wonderful thing that has happened, because only a few years ago Walker school was tagged as a very racist school,” O’Kelley said.

And Houle has high hopes for the program.

“Our hope is that Bemidji is known not only as the First City on the Mississippi, the city with statues of Paul & Babe, the city of the Sculpture Walk and Bemidji In Bloom, but also the city of Ojibwe Signage,” she said. “It has been fun to see the creativity of local business owners coming up with their own unique way of sharing the Ojibwe language. For example, recently the Buy Line Shopper added ‘Endazhi-manaaji'indwaa Gakina Awiiya’ to their masthead which means ‘Where all people are respected.’”

Many businesses and organizations are trying new things with Ojibwe words demonstrating permanence, creativity and fun. Beaver Books and others are using portable street advertisement signs to get their message across.

Business owner Brian Larson had his business name translated into Ojibwe: Mezinibii'igaadegin Wenizhishingin (Amity Graphics). Noemi Aylesworth of the Cabin Coffeehouse, the first business to post Ojibwe/English signage, has headings on menus written in Ojibwe, such as Dekaagamingin (Cold Drinks), Gitigaanensan (Salads), and Gigizhebaa-wiisining (Breakfast).

All doors coming and going at the Sanford Center say Boozhoo (Hello) and Miigwech (Thank you). There are 12 pairs of restrooms in Sanford Center, each posted with permanent signage, and the parking lot has animal images with names in both languages to help visitors find their cars.

BSU also continues to be a leader in this effort by posting permanent Ojibwe/English signage. Bemidji State Park, Itasca State Park, as well as the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources are also participating along with more than 130 other businesses and organizations.

“With efforts like this and the new creativity being shown, Bemidji will surely soon be known for it's Ojibwe/English signage,” Meuers said?”Part of the Shared Vision’s program vision is that the Bemidji community will embrace cultural understanding and respect between the Indian and non-Indian community.”

On July 26, Lakeland News at Ten featured the Bemidji Ojibwe Language Project in its newscast: