Hundreds gather to dedicate new statue of Chief Bemidji

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A new statue of Chief Bemidji was dedicated Saturday afternoon in the Minnesota city that bears his name.

An overflow crowd came to the dedication ceremony in a park near Lake Bemidji to honor the Ojibwe man named Shaynowishkung - nicknamed Chief Bemidji - who was the first permanent settler in the city, according to the Bemidji Pioneer.

The 9-foot, 3-inch, bronze-cast sculpture is the third statue of Shaynowishkung to be displayed on the shores of the lake.

The first two were made of wood and over time they deteriorated badly due to exposure to the elements. The most recent of the two was built in 1952. Once it began rotting it was coated with fiberglass, which distorted the facial features and gave the statue a "cartoonish" look, according to the Pioneer.

In 2009, tribal and community leaders began talking about replacing the statue with a more realistic depiction of Shaynowishkung. They commissioned a sculptor from Olympia, Wash., Gareth Curtis, who fashioned the piece after old photos of the chief, MPR News reports.

The first two statues are still around; they're on display at the Beltrami County History Center in Bemidji.

Who was Shaynowishkung?

Shaynowishkung was the first permanent settler in Bemidji. Some of the exact details of his life are unknown, but it's believed he was born around 1833 near Inger, Minn., lived in the Cass Lake area for a time, and moved to Bemidji around 1882 after his wife died, according to the Red Lake Nation News.

He was known as a peacemaker and helped the first white settlers in the area to survive, MPR News notes.

He wasn't actually a chief through family lines, though; the Pioneer said he was given that title because he was a spokesman for the people in his village.

A history of Bemidji, “A Walk Through Bemidji in 1910,” said Shaynowishkung lived near the city for 40 years and was “greatly esteemed” by the early settlers.

Shaynowishkung died in 1904, according to the author, Rosemary Given Amble. His funeral was held in front of City Hall, and is believed to be the largest ever held in Bemidji, Amble wrote.

The leaders of the statue committee hope that Shaynowishkung's legacy as a man of compromise will help build more respect between cultures in the area.

"He was a bridge-builder," Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University, told the Pioneer. "I think we need more of that now and going forward."

The new sculpture is just north of Bemidji's better-known statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

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