Bemidji State University Land Acknowledgement: FAQ

Bemidji State University’s Land Acknowledgement Statement

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a land acknowledgment?

A land acknowledgment is a statement that acknowledges the Indigenous people and history of a particular piece of land. It is intended to ground all of us in that place and its history.

Why is BSU doing this?

Many educational and government institutions have adopted land acknowledgments, especially after Canada made it standard practice in response to the findings of their Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the Canadian government engaged in cultural genocide against the Indigenous people of that country. The BSU administrations, staff, and students know that history did not begin with the arrival of the first white explorer, settler, or lumberjack. But ignoring Indigenous narratives and land tenure renders Natives invisible and communicates a sense that they lack importance. The town of Bemidji is located between the three largest reservations in the State of Minnesota. Twenty-four percent of the town’s population is Native and around 40 percent of the regional population is Native. As a regional university, BSU wants to do better at reflecting the diversity of its region. This is a cultural statement by the university but it is also an important and practical part of the university mission, map, and strategic plan, endorsed by all employee unions, faculty and student senates. Everyone who comes to campus should know about the historical and contemporary presence of Indigenous people here, and the acknowledgment seeks to make that visibility a natural part of who we are and what we do at BSU.

Does BSU have any other acknowledgments that I should know about?

Yes. Several years ago, BSU adopted and agreed to abide by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A link to that statement is here. That statement is a powerful and carefully vetted affirmation of the humanity of Indigenous people that also articulates responsible and approved ways of treating and communicating about them. BSU agrees and seeks to align all of its actions with that declaration.

What is the difference between the words Ojibwe, Chippewa, and Anishinaabe?

The word Ojibwe comes from the Ojibwe language and it is used to refer to a member of that tribe or tribe itself. The word Chippewa is just a misspelling of Ojibwe. Early French explorers dropped the first letter o, hardened the j into ch and then morphed the word into Chippewa. Chippewa is not considered offensive, just mildly erroneous. Chippewa was incorporated into early tribal constitutions for many Ojibwe reservations, so you will still see the word in use in those formal titles, like the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. Most Ojibwe reservations are switching to Ojibwe and although constitutional reforms for tribes takes time, the official names will reflect that common usage eventually. The word Anishinaabe is the Ojibwe word for Native person or Native people. The use of that word has changed over time. Before contact with Europeans, the word Anishinaabe likely just meant human being, but its usage changed after contact. And in the Ojibwe language today, another word, bemaadizijig is used for humans.

Were there other tribes here before the Ojibwe and Dakota?

Yes. The glaciers retreated from this area around 11,000 years ago, and humans have lived here ever since. People with DNA connected to the Ojibwe and Dakota people may have been here that early, but the emergence of the Ojibwe and Dakota as tribes distinct from other tribes in their language families most likely happened a couple thousand years ago. The same is true for every group of humans on the planet. In England, nobody spoke English until about 600 years ago, although the Celtic ancestors of the English were for 10,000 years. The tribal people of North America moved around quite a bit, and there is evidence that ancestors of the Cheyenne and Hidatsa were in northern Minnesota before the Ojibwe and Dakota. The Ho-chunk (Winnebago), who are indigenous to Wisconsin, were relocated nine different times, including to two different reservations in Minnesota after the Ojibwe and Dakota had established themselves here. One of the Ho-chunk reservations was located between Motley and Long Prairie, not too far from Bemidji.

What does the word Bemidji mean?

The city of Bemidji gets its name from an Ojibwe word, Bemijigamaag, meaning “the place where the current cuts across” or “a river runs through it.” That word describes the unique geography of the place. Four major watersheds form a continental divide in Bemidji. The Red River watershed flows west and north toward Winnipeg. The Rainy River watershed flows north through the Big Fork River into Rainy River. The Lake Superior watershed flows east. And the Mississippi watershed begins by flowing northwest, pulled toward the Red River watershed, and then north, toward the Rainy River watershed. It then flows east, toward the Lake Superior watershed, before charting its own course southward to the Gulf of Mexico. Bemidji is located near the northernmost point of the Mississippi River. Prior to the building of the power dam on the Mississippi, Lake Bemidji was actually two separate lakes, connected by a shallow stretch of water off of Diamond Point on the BSU campus. The Mississippi River did not flow through those two lakes; it simply cut across the corner of the larger one—a very rare geographic feature. The Indigenous population that lived in Bemidji knew all of this, and their understanding is reflected in the name they chose.

What is the treaty history of the land on which the BSU campus is located?

The Ojibwe were exclusive occupants of northern Minnesota by the time the United States was trying to take it away from Native people. The Treaty of 1855 created a dozen reservations of the Ojibwe in northern Minnesota that would be exclusively Ojibwe domain (no whites) and reclassified much of the remaining land in northern Minnesota as land to be shared with whites. A flood of white settlement soon ensued and many Ojibwe were often denied the right to share and access most of the land in northern Minnesota in spite of their agreement with the government. There were still Ojibwe people who lived in Bemidji as they had before white settlement, but many others moved to the Cass Lake area to avoid harassment by white settlers. The Leech Lake Reservation east of Bemidji was expanded in 1863 to accommodate the many Ojibwe people who could not easily consolidate on the reservation there. They were used to living, traveling, hunting and fishing throughout their territory. In 1864, it was expanded again, and the town of Bemidji and the land that would encompass the campus of BSU were now included as part of the Leech Lake Reservation, which was now adjacent to the unceded land at Red Lake. In 1867, a new treaty was signed that established the White Earth Reservation and reduced the size of the Leech Lake Reservation. Bemidji was once again outside the borders of the Leech Lake Reservation proper.

Do Natives still have treaty rights on the land where BSU is built?

Yes. The 1855 treaty has yet to be litigated, but all Ojibwe treaties in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota had either explicit or implicit language affirming the Ojibwe understanding that the land cessions were actually reclassifications of land as shared use. The Ojibwe never agreed to be alienated from their own land. Reservations, on the other hand, the Ojibwe understood to be exclusively Ojibwe domain. There are many non-Native people living on reservations at Leech Lake and White Earth now as a result of later policies to open the reservations via allotment, which took place at Leech Lake and White but not Red Lake. However, the Ojibwe understanding at the time of the treaties is the legal standard and the Ojibwe understanding is that they retain the right to hunt, fish, gather, and spend their time throughout the treaty territories, including the campus of BSU and the waters of Lake Bemidji. Other Ojibwe treaties that have been litigated have affirmed this legal status.

How can I learn more about this land its original homeland?

There are some great books on Ojibwe history, including local Ojibwe history. Some of the titles include:

  • William Warren’s “History of the Ojibwe People,”
  • Brenda Child’s “We Hold Our World Together,”
  • Thomas Vennum’s “Wild Rice and the Ojibwe People,”
  • Helen Tanner’s “Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History,”
  • Edmund Danziger’s “The Chippewas of Lake Superior,”
  • Robert Kohl’s “Kitchi-gumi,” and
  • Dr. Anton Treuer’s books “Ojibwe in Minnesota,” “Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe,” and “The Assassination of Hole in the Day.”

All of the area tribes publish a tribal newspaper and maintain a website full of information about each tribe and its history.