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Ojibwe Language Project: Could it work in Park Rapids?

All the schools within the Bemidji School District and the Walker-Akeley-Hackensack School have installed Ojibwe signage. Industrial tech students at Bemidji High School laser-cut the signs shown here. (Submitted photos)1 / 2
Noemi Aylesworth, owner of Cabin Coffeehouse Cafe, was the first business in Bemidji to add bilinqual Ojibwe/English signage. 2 / 2

Boozhoo!

That's Ojibwe for "greetings or welcome."

On Tuesday, Michael Meuers spoke about the bilingual signage program initiated in Bemidji, called the Ojibwe Language Project.

The League of Women Voters Park Rapids Area (LWVPRA), in partnership with the Park Rapids Area Library, invited Meuers to discuss the ongoing project, now in its seventh year, and its possible introduction to the Park Rapids area.

Meuers "works in a variety of ways to bridge Indian and non-Indian culture of north-central Minnesota by encouraging learning, celebration of diversity and to open a dialogue that would begin that conversation," said Beth Baker-Knuttila in her introduction.

Meuers and Rachelle Houle, both Bemidji residents, spearheaded the Ojibwe Language Project.

Nearly 200 businesses, schools and organizations within 200 miles of Bemidji host a variety of signage in both English and Ojibwe through their efforts, explained Baker-Knuttila.

National Geographic recognized the project in 2016 for its commitment to the culture of the region.

Meuers said the mainstream use of Hawaiian prompted the idea.

"You don't have to be Hawaiian to say 'aloha,' wear a leis or hold a luau," he said. "Why don't we celebrate indigenous culture of the land like we do in Hawaii?"

In 2010, Meuers and Houle encouraged Bemidji business owners to place dual language signage at their work sites. They provided a list of northern Minnesota-related words and asked organizations to consider adding Ojibwe words for "men" and "women be added to restroom doors or "welcome" be added to the front door.

Some signs were professional and permanent; others were simple, printed sheets of paper, he said. It's entirely a volunteer effort.

"I don't sell signs. I sell and idea and let it ride," Meuers said.

Participation has a three-fold effect. It's a symbol of friendship and respect to American Indians. It's helps non-Indians learn something about the area's first residents, and "tourists just eat it up," he said.

Shared Vision Groups conducted a survey in the Bemidji area and found that 90 percent of respondents wanted to get to know people of other cultures and races better. The majority also wanted to know more about local American Indian culture and history.

Some Bemidji residents have asked Meuers, "Why not Norwegian or German signs?"

Those are imported languages, he replies. "The indigenous language is Ojibwe and Dakota."

"I think it's important to understand why this language is important. That it's a symbol, and symbols are very powerful in their simplicity," Meuers said. "So we come to this place and we commit cultural and physical genocide on these people. That's what we did, and if we don't recognize that, if we aren't honest about that, we're never going to heal, I don't think."

Meuers offered his help and resources if the Park Rapids community wishes to place signage.

"My vision was that it would start in Bemidji and it would spread over northern Minnesota. And it kind of has," he said.

Walker, Detroit Lakes, Grand Marais, Duluth, Kelliher, White Earth and Red Lake have launched the Ojibwe Language Project in their communities.

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