Community , Columns

Larger than life and immersed in Indigeneity

In June, I spent a week with poets and writers sharing work along Lake Bemidji not far from the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The Northwoods Writers Conference was held at Bemidji State University’s American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) at Diamond Point on the lake. Bemidji is about 100 miles from the border with Canada. It’s close to the three largest reservations in Minnesota: Leech Lake is 15 miles south, Red Lake is 30 miles north, and White Earth is 50 miles west. Bemidji has a reputation for some of the tension common in towns that border reservations.

Bemidji—population a little over 15,000— is known for larger than life statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. The statutes were commissioned in 1939 as part of a winter carnival meant to generate tourism to offset the impact of the Great Depression. Located in a lakeside park, they still draw tourists.

A life-like bronze of Chief Bemidji stands north of Paul Bunyan, but it’s the giant Indian man outside Morell’s Chippewa Trading Post that drew my attention. About twenty feet tall, he’s muscled and bare-chested, wearing tan pants and boots. He’s a reddish burnt sienna, wears a braid and a single feather and stands with one arm raised, now hidden in the crown of a tree. It’s one of a series of fiberglass Midas Muffler men created in the 1960s and 1970s. The trading post sells Minnetonka moccasins, key chains and beaded earrings The statue on the side of the building seems an after thought. Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, my workshop teacher at the conference, remembered learning Native American creation stories in the same lesson as Greek and Roman mythology and Paul Bunyan, as if they were analogous.

In contrast to the tourist roadside attractions in Bemidji, the American Indian Resource Center is grounded in local culture. It’s unusual and most welcome to see Native people represented in institutional settings.

Outside the AIRC a wire metal bison sculpture looks like a cousin to the bison on the campus of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. The sculpture was planned around the time Bill Blackwell Jr., the current AIRC director was hired. The buffalo is an expected Native icon, but bison were a rarity in the area, Blackwell said.

Blackwell commissioned local Anishinaabe artist Leah Yellowbird to decorate the entryway. A traditional bead worker, Yellowbird used a pointillist style making rows of dots in colorful patterns to represent the creation of Turtle Island. Muskrat is a deep mauve/grape accented with yellow flowers, both the flowers and the animal edged in turquoise. A loon, a goose and a turtle are all drawn with three-dimensional beads of color on the rounded surface of the wall, which is painted like water reflecting clouds dotted with the outlines of small fish below.

In a round gathering room, we were surrounded by woodland motifs against deep periwinkle walls. Cabinets displayed some of the buckskin clothes, bags and beadwork that people donate to the center. We heard lectures from respected poets, Terrence Hayes (American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins) and Camille Dungy (Suck on the Marrow, winner of the American Book Award), under a series of richly toned photographs of Leech Lake and Red Lake tribal members taken between 1900-1915.

Niels Larson Hakkerup, a Danish photographer, set up a studio in Bemidji around 1900. The studio burned in the 1940s and many of the glass plate negatives were lost. In 2013, some remaining plates and photographs were donated to the AIRC. The photos are reminiscent of photographer Edward Curtis’s poses and composition.

Blackwell described the differences in portraits of full blood men and lighter skinned men or women.  He noted that armed conflicts hadn’t been over that long when the photos were made. He said, “People had to decide if they wanted to sit for a portrait.” 

Photos include Chief Bemidji as well as Leech Lake elder John Smith, who died in 1922 at the age of 137, as well as unidentified tribal members. Blackwell hopes to bring community members together to identify the subjects.

Our workshop met in a painting studio among lamps, wooden and metal easels, tempera and acrylic paints on shelves, and I wrote trying to capture the richness of visual art. During the week, mayflies swarmed. Thousands of lovely winged creatures about 1 ½” long bloomed over the lake. They were sprinkled across the back of a woman’s black sweater like a subtle design, one sitting on her lapel like a pin.

I’m grateful to have been offered a scholarship—along with Grace Randolph and Chandre Szafran (Inupiak)—funded by Northwoods Writers Conference and proceeds from New Native Voices, an anthology edited by Heid Erdrich and published by Graywolf Press. It was a gift to learn about the Minneapolis/St. Paul literary community in a setting rich with local indigenous community.