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Why a new statue of Ojibwe leader Shaynowishkung was created to stand on the shores of Lake Bemidji

The statue replaced a 1952 wooden sculpture that some saw as an offensive caricature of a Native American man.

photo of statue of Shaynowishkung
Photo by Peter J. DeCarlo
Statue of Shaynowishkung (He Who Rattles, also called Chief Bemidji)
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.

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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.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.