In the city of Bemidji, in north-central Minnesota, a simple idea has led to improved intercultural relations.
Michael Meuers, an employee of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, thought it would be nice if local business owners would put signs on their bathrooms with the Ojibwe words for “Men” and “Women.” He approached the local group Shared Vision, who’s mission is to promote opportunities in Bemidji for people of all races, to see if they would be interested in partnering with him. Shared Vision agreed to help him recruit 20 businesses within a year.
Response from the business community was overwhelmingly positive, with the goal of 20 participating businesses being met in the first few weeks. A total of 119 businesses have signed up to date, and many have decided to use bilingual signs not just for bathrooms, but for all of the signs in their stores.
These simple signs have served to increase interest in the Ojibwe language and culture among non-Ojibwe speakers, and have also made Ojibwe speakers feel more welcomed in a city with a history of racial bias. Rachelle Houle, who worked extensively with Meuers on the project, was quoted in a Duluth News Tribune article as saying “Michael and I both feel a change happening here. For so long, the Ojibwe culture and people have not been respected here. This is a way of saying, ‘You are valuable.’ It’s a way of showing respect and making people welcome in Bemidji.” This humble gesture of inclusiveness has proved to be a meaningful one.