People in Bemidji have struggled with racial tension for years. Native Americans say they face discrimination when they look for housing or work, and when they shop or eat in restaurants. But the problem is often, still, an invisible one. A new, spiritual-based group has formed to fight racism. Organizers of the Anishinaabe Coalition for Peace and Justice say it's time for Indian people to speak out. They say the group is prepared to move forward, with or without help from the region's white residents.
Several dozen people, mostly Native Americans, gather under a pavilion on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. It's one of the first meetings of the Anishinaabe Coalition for Peace and Justice. Eric Goodin says he came to see if something could be done about racism. He says he sees it all the time.
"I couldn't even walk down the street, you know," Goodin said. "I'd be walking down the street,somebody would be driving by, sticking their middle finger at me."
Goodin says he's traveled all over the world. He spent six months touring Russia. But he and many other local Indians say Bemidji's racial tensions are closer to the surface.
"You're going to find discrimination all over the place," he said. "But ...(there's) something about Bemidji, you know. I don't know what it is. I never experienced so much discrimination anywhere else," says Goodin.
The coalition includes spiritual leaders from several reservations, like Frank Dickinson of Red Lake. Dickinson says the coalition encourages Indians to fight back. He says racism shouldn't be ignored anymore.
"Over the years that Indian people have been so abused in many ways. Many things have happened to them throughout the years," said Dickinson. "And they just take advantage of them - the people that don't know anything about politics, or some of the old people have been pushed around so long, so many times."
Bemidji is surrounded by three Indian reservations - White Earth to the west, Red Lake to the north and Leech Lake to the east. Race relations in the community have been rocky. Discrimination was more overt years ago. In the 1970s, the reservations boycotted Bemidji businesses after a local disk jockey used a racial slur on the air.
Last January, an incident at a Bemidji McDonald's restaurant brought tensions to the surface again. A woman from the Red Lake Reservation claims a white woman struck her grandson and verbally assaulted her. She filed a racial discrimination complaint with the state Department of Human Rights.
The complaint alleges the police department and the restaurant owners mishandled the incident. In June, the Red Lake Tribal Council passed a resolution supporting the woman's position. The police department and McDonald's say the complaint is unsubstantiated.
Anishinaabe Coalition member Frank Dickinson says his group supports the complaint. He says more Indians need to challenge the system and hold businesses accountable.
"Although they're all saying McDonald's is an innocent bystander in this whole dispute kind of thing, but yet, they're responsible," Dickinson said. "Now it's got to stop. This is what we're all about. We're trying to have some equality. We can't have this or it's going to be happening all the time."
Groups that focus on race relations have come and gone in Bemidji for decades. There's one that's had staying power. The Bemidji Area Race Relations Council handles racial complaints. The council has Indian and non-Indian members. Over the past year, it's handled more than a dozen complaints.
But some Indians say the Race Relations Council is elitist and ineffective. Retired pastor Walt Scott, a council member, defends the organization.
"We have to do our own healing. There's some steps that we need to take, internal...that only we can do. Some white person can't do that for us."
- Robert Shimek, White Earth Band member
"There are people of this generation who are on the Race Relations Council who say that life for Native persons now within our community is different, and more hopeful than it was 15, 20 years ago," Scott said. "There may be others who feel it isn't, and who've had some really bad experiences."
Scott says the Race Relations Council has done great work in teaching cultural sensitivity to business leaders and agency officials. But he says the council is not the end-all solution to racial problems.
"The systemic racism I'm sure is still there," he said. "And again, it may not be an intentional thing, but it may be a hangover from times when people were more anxious to draw the line between white and red. ... Sensitive minority people still feel that we have a long way to go. And I'm sure we do have a long way to go."
Members of the Anishinaabe Coalition say they want to try a different approach. Bob Shimek, a member of the White Earth Band, wants a more comprehensive effort.
"Institutionalize a community-wide racism treatment program," Shimek said. "So we all get to common understanding of what is the nature, the roots of this problem, and how can we all more effectively deal with the symptoms. Right now we're just perpetuating the symptoms."
Shimek says the symptoms run deep. And they contribute to a stereotype of Indians that feeds racism.
"Because we're in pain, and that pain manifests itself a number of different ways," Shimek said. "Part of it is through the self-medication. Look at alcoholism and drug abuse. We are hurting. And our people are dying from it."
Shimek says Indians have high rates of suicide. There are disproportionate numbers of Native Americans in county jails. Indians often end up in homeless and battered women's shelters.
He says all of this can be traced to the historic trauma Indians have endured - loss of the land, loss of spiritual customs, and the harsh assimilation policies of churches and boarding schools.
"We've never recovered from these things," said Shimek. "And so for our Native community, I think it's time we take a serious look at that together, collectively, and do the analysis on what has happened, and figure out a way that we can get to a state of a healthier physical, social, cultural and spiritual well being."
The Anishinaabe Coalition for Peace and Justice invited all community members to attend their recent meeting. Only a few non-Indians showed up. But Bob Shimek says members are not discouraged.
"We as a Native community are going to do this with or without them," he said. "We have to do our own healing. There's some steps that we need to take, internal...that only we can do. Some white person can't do that for us."
The Anishinaabe Coalition for Peace and Justice is still in its infancy. The immediate goal is to draw attention to the problem of racism and start a community dialogue.
There are plans to kick off that effort Labor Day weekend with a run against racism from Bemidji to one of the local reservations.More from MPR