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Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) Statue, Bemidji

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Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) statue

Statue of Shaynowishkung (He Who Rattles, also called Chief Bemidji). Photograph by Peter DeCarlo, 2019. Used with the permission of Peter DeCarlo.

On June 6, 2015, a bronze statue of Shaynowishkung (He Who Rattles, commonly known as Chief Bemidji) was erected in Library Park on the shore of Lake Bemidji. Meant to honor the Ojibwe man’s life and bring people together, the statue was the result of a six-year community-driven process.

Shaynowishkung was an Ojibwe man who lived on the south shore of Lake Bemidji with his family in the mid-nineteenth century. He wore and used zhiishiigwan, rattles that were shaken to ward off negativity. He was not a traditional chief, but a spokesman for about fifty Ojibwe people.

When settler-colonists arrived in the area in 1888, Shaynowishkung told them the name of the lake: Bemijigamaag, an Ojibwe word that means “water running crosswise through the lake.” They misunderstood, however, and thought he was giving them his own name. As a result, they called him Chief Bemidji, and some sources state that later on they named the city of Bemidji after him. He was a beloved figure among Ojibwe people and settlers, known for being a peacemaker who brought cultures together.

In 1901, near the end of Shaynowishkung’s life, a wooden statue of him carved by a lumberjack was erected in Bemidji. This statue was replaced by a second one in 1952. While some in the community were proud the statue existed, others saw it as an offensive caricature of a Native American man. In 2009, Carolyn Jacobs, chair of the Shared Visions Project, focused on race relations in Bemidji, met with Red Lake Tribal Secretary Kathy “Jody” Beaulieu about how to improve relations between Native Americans and white people. Beaulieu suggested replacing the 1952 statue of Chief Bemidji with a more respectful and accurate one.

The idea gained momentum, and a committee formed to create a new statue. Ojibwe people wanted a positive and accurate depiction of Shaynowishkung that would share his integrity and honor with the people of Bemidji and tourists. The committee was made up of about half Native people and half white people representing the City of Bemidji, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Red Lake Nation, the White Earth Nation, and descendants of Shaynowishkung. The committee met for six years and held public input meetings at Bemidji and the three Ojibwe nations. The public overwhelmingly supported erecting a new statue.

After it reached consensus on erecting a new statue, the committee began researching the life of Shaynowishkung. Elaine Fleming, a professor of history at Leech Lake Tribal College, led the effort. The research resulted in the writing of historical plaques to accompany the statue. The plaques were an exercise in truth telling—dispelling myths about Shaynowishkung, humanizing him, and accurately interpreting the colonization and dispossession he experienced as an Ojibwe person.

The committee chose sculptor Gareth Curtiss to create the new statue. To ensure the accuracy of his creation, he met with Shaynowishkung’s descendents, referenced the committee’s research, and pored over photos of Shaynowishkung. The bronze-cast statue Curtiss crafted stood nine feet and three inches tall and included details of Shaynowishkung’s mix of Ojibwe and European American clothing, including his zhiishiigwan (rattles), his Diamond Willow cane, his opwaagan (sacred pipe), and his makizinan (moccasins).

Some people raised concerns about removing the 1952 statue. Descendants of Shaynowishkung felt pride that their ancestor had been represented in the city and did not want the statue simply destroyed. The old statue went to the Beltrami County History Center, where the first statue was already being held.

The new statue was dedicated on June 6, 2015, within a landing area that included pillars with the historical plaques. A crowd estimated at three hundred people attended, including Donald Headbird (Shaynowishkung’s great-great-grandson) and other descendants. Musicians played flutes; the Eyabay drum group from Red Lake performed a flag song and sang an honor song. The Leech Lake Honor Guard posted flags to the south of the statue. Larry Aitken, a Leech Lake spiritual leader, carried out a pipe ceremony and prayer in Ojibwemowin.

Shaynowishkung was remembered as a man of integrity and a follower of the Seven Grandfather Teachings. His memory as a peacemaker was evoked to bring healing and respect to the diverse communities of the area. Presenters spoke of the injustice that Shaynowishkung and the Ojibwe people had survived—land loss, assimilation, and occupation by settler-colonists—in the hope that telling the truth about history could lead to understanding and healing.

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“Chief Bemidji Statue Project.” N.d. [2009?].
http://rlnn.us/files/Chief_Bemidji_Statue_Project_Info_Sheet.pdf

Dey, Crystal. “Shaynowishkung Stands Tall: Hundreds Gather For ‘Chief Bemidji’ Statue Dedication (Photo Gallery).” Bemidji Pioneer, June 8, 2015.
https://www.bemidjipioneer.com/news/3761132-shaynowishkung-stands-tall-hundreds-gather-chief-bemidji-statue-dedication-photo

Enger, John. “Designed to Heal Divisions, Bemidji Statue Uncovers Tensions.” MPR News, June 6, 2015.
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/06/05/bemidji-unveils-new-statue

Meuers, Michael. “Shaynowishkung Statue Dedicated at Bemijigamaag.” Red Lake Nation News, June 15, 2015.
https://www.redlakenationnews.com/story/2015/06/15/news/shaynowishkung-statue-dedicated-at-bemijigamaag/36306.html

Shaynowishkung Statue Committee. Shaynowishkung statue plaques (in situ), Bemidji, installed 2015.

TPT. Common Ground, “Sculptor Gareth Curtiss’ Chief Bemidji Statue,” Season 7, Episode 11, February 18, 2016.
https://video.pbswisconsin.org/video/common-ground-711-sculptor-garreth-curtiss-chief-bemidji-statue

TPT. Common Ground, “Shaynowishkung,” Season 8, Episode 4, November 17, 2016.
https://www.tpt.org/common-ground/video/common-ground-804-shaynowishkung

Wesley, Bethany. “Project to Replace Chief Bemidji Statue Expands into Research.” Red Lake Nation News, October 24, 2011.
https://www.redlakenationnews.com/story/2011/10/24/news/project-to-replace-chief-bemidji-statue-expands-into-research/102320111836714572286.html

Related Images

Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) statue
Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) statue
Shaynowishkung with his Diamond Willow cane
Shaynowishkung with his Diamond Willow cane
Shaynowishkung about 1895
Shaynowishkung about 1895
Shaynowishkung about 1900
Shaynowishkung about 1900
Shaynowishkung about 1900
Shaynowishkung about 1900
Shaynowishkung and his family
Shaynowishkung and his family
First Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) statue
First Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) statue
Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) statue
Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) statue
Second Shaynowishkung statue
Second Shaynowishkung statue
Removal of 1952 Shaynowishkung statue
Removal of 1952 Shaynowishkung statue
Ojibwe spiritual Leader Larry Aitken with Shaynowishkung statue
Ojibwe spiritual Leader Larry Aitken with Shaynowishkung statue
Committee members and Ojibwe leaders at statue dedication
Committee members and Ojibwe leaders at statue dedication
Crowd at dedication of third Shaynowishkung statue
Crowd at dedication of third Shaynowishkung statue
Third Shaynowishkung statue and landing area
Third Shaynowishkung statue and landing area
Base of third Shaynowishkung statue
Base of third Shaynowishkung statue

Turning Point

On June 6, 2015, the Shaynowishkung statue is installed and dedicated in a ceremony in Bemidji’s Library Park.

Chronology

ca. 1834

Shaynowishkung is born near present-day Inger, Minnesota.

1840s and 1850s

Shaynowishkung visits Bemijigamaag (Lake Bemidji) with his father to harvest manoomin (wild rice), hunt, and fish.

1860

Shaynowishkung marries Gaagige-aanakwadookwe (Forever Cloud Woman) of the Leech Lake Pillagers. They have several children.

1862

Shaynowishkung persuades other Ojibwe not to travel south and join in the US-Dakota War of 1862.

1882

Gaagige-aanakwadookwe dies near Cass Lake. Shawynowishkung and his children move to Bemijigamaag and live on the south side of the lake with other Ojibwe families.

1888

Shaynowishkung, now a respected elder, welcomes European American newcomers to the area, and works for peace between them and the Ojibwe.

late 1890s

The Great Northern Railroad conducts a survey through Shaynowishkung’s property. He attempts to secure an allotment and even offers to relinquish his tribal membership to keep his land.

1900

Shaynowishkung and his people are forced to move onto the Leech Lake Reservation. They settle on Rice Lake, fourteen miles north of Cass Lake.

1901

Gustaf Hinche, a lumberjack and harness maker, carves the first statue of Shaynowishkung. It is moved to various locations throughout the City of Bemidji over the years.

1903

Shaynowishkung’s home is razed to make room for the Crookston Lumber Company’s mill yards.

1904

Shaynowishkung dies on his allotment to the northwest of Kitchi Lake. His funeral is held in front of Bemidji City Hall. Bemidji residents erect a memorial to him in Greenwood Cemetery.

1927

The Bemidji Park Commission moves Hinche’s carved statue to Library Park, overlooking Lake Bemidji.

1952

A second statue of Shaynowishkung, made out of wood and fiberglass by retired lumberjack Eric Boe, replaces the first statue, which had deteriorated.

1983

A plaque is added to the statue of Shaynowishkung.

2009

A committee is formed to explore the preservation of the existing statue and the creation of a new one.

2011

The statue committee begins to hold public meetings, conducts research, and works with the Bemidji City Council to create the new statue of Shaynowishkung.

2015

The Shaynowishkung statue is installed and dedicated on June 6.