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Natural Wonders and Cultural Riches

Near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Bemidji is a city with a rich history.

By Susan Schaefer

Bemidji is the natural jewel of Minnesota’s north woods. Situated on the southwestern shore of scenic Lake Bemidji in Beltrami County, the city fuses small-town feel with urban amenities to create the perfect meeting or event location.

Some 400 lakes are within 25 miles of Bemidji.

Brady Laudon

Earl LaMaack, visitor lead representative of Bemidji’s Tourist Information Center, emphasizes that the city’s rich, “beautiful scenery; abundant recreation; and inspiring arts and culture yield countless recreational activities to please every [kind of person, including] anglers, kayakers, canoers, bikers, hikers, skaters, skiers, snowmobilers, and campers. And we are home to numerous state and national forests with approximately 22 parks and 400 fishing lakes within a 25-mile radius.”

The Mississippi Headwaters

Bemidji claims a place of honor with its unique setting close to the mighty Mississippi River’s source in Itasca State Park. Visitors can hop over the waterway at this iconic spot, which provides an Instagrammable moment.

Bemidji holds the bragging rights as the “First City on the Mississippi River.” In 1888, the Minnesota Historical Society commissioned Jacob Brower to survey the area, proving that Lake Itasca was indeed the Mississippi’s headwaters, therefore, making Bemidji the first city on the river.

Autumn is an astonishing time to meet in Minnesota’s north woods

Brady Laudon

Historical Heritage

Native American and European cultures are interwoven into Bemidji’s rich history and tapestry of offerings.

Predating the arrival of European settlers, the noteworthy history of the area’s original people centers on an Anishinaabe man named Shaynowishkung (He Who Rattles). Born in the nearby Leech and Cass lakes areas, Shaynowishkung married a Leech Lake Pillager Indian woman with whom he had eight children. Deeply saddened by his wife’s untimely death, he and his children loaded their possessions in a birchbark canoe and paddled upriver to settle on the south shore of what is now called Lake Bemidji.

When European settlers arrived in 1888, Shaynowishkung told them the name of Lake Bemijigamaag, an Anishinaabe word that means “Water Running Crosswise Through the Lake.” Believing that he was giving his own name, the settlers called him Chief Bemidji, as legend says, and later named the city after him.

Assembled In Honor

The significance of Shaynowishkung’s central role in Bemidji’s heritage is found in the statue erected in his honor. The original was a wooden statue carved toward the end of his life in 1901 by a lumberjack (later replaced in 1952 as it was not considered an accurate representation of Shaynowishkung’s heritage).

In 2009, Native Americans sought to improve relations with their white neighbors, forming a Shared Visions Project focused on race relations. A committee equally made up of white residents from Bemidji and Native people from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Red Lake Nation, the White Earth Nation, and Shaynowishkung’s direct descendants, met over six years to set the record straight—reaching a consensus on commissioning a new statue and writing historical plaques to dispell myths about Shaynowishkung.

LaMaack speaks of the city’s pride for the new 9-foot, 3-inch bronze-cast statue by artist Gareth Curtiss. “This sculpture,” he explains, “correctly includes details of Shaynowishkung’s mix of [Anishinaabe] and European-American clothing, including his ‘zhiishiigwan’ [rattles], his Diamond Willow cane, his ‘opwaagan’ [sacred pipe], and his ‘makizinan’ [moccasins].” The bronze didactic markers surrounding the new statue provide humanizing infor- mation, accurately interpreting the coloni- zation and dispossession he experienced as an Anishinaabe person.

Paul Bunyan And Babe The Blue Ox

Fur trade and logging are also central features of Bemidji. Emily Thabes, executive director of the Beltrami County Historical Society says, “While the fur trade introduced Europeans to Beltrami County, the logging industry brought immigrants to the area in droves and birthed the settlement of many townships along the way. European settlers and Native Americans alike sought timber claims and opportunities to develop their businesses, families, and communities.”

It was the lumberjacks who spawned the folktale of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. During the 1937 Saint Paul Winter Carnival, an 18-foot statue of the legendary lumberjack and his ox was constructed at the city’s waterfront. It was later moved to the shores of Lake Bemidji. Many visitors pose for photos with this famous duo, which is quite possibly Minnesota’s most famous roadside attraction.

A Progressive And Innovative Community

“When you visit Bemidji, you will find a strong and growing community that consists of a charming downtown, full of diverse businesses and larger-than-life landmarks,” says Abby Randall, executive director of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce. “And, mixed in with our breathtaking natural beauty is progressive technology with some of the fastest internet service in the nation,” she notes—which is always a big plus for event planning.”

George W. Neilson Convention Center in Bemidji, Minnesota
Networking at the George W. Neilson Convention Center

Nick Tremmel Photography

Randall adds, “Our community consists of innovative manufacturers, aspiring entrepreneurs, exceptional health care, and a growing retail and services sector, coupled with a remarkable collection of sculpture and outdoor art throughout the downtown area,” delivering on the promise of a perfect place to host a conference, meeting, or event.

Art Throughout The Seasons

Reflecting the essence of Bemidji’s multicultural heritage, summer 2022 gave birth to the long-awaited Anishinaabe Art Festival—a cooperation between 4-Directions Development, Leech Lake Financial Services, Gizhiigin Arts Incubator, and representatives from the Anishinaabe art community, regional arts organizations, and the city of Bemidji.

The festival celebrates the richness of Anishinaabe history, culture, and people, and seeks to build intercultural knowledge and respect for diversity in the region through craft, visual arts, dance, food, storytelling, and fashion.

Robert Aitken, executive director of Leech Lake Financial Services, says, “The 2022 festival provided a fantastic start to what we hope will be an annual event. It’s a refreshing opportunity for Native artists to showcase their work.”

The Bemidji Sculpture Walk has promoted public art in Bemidji since 1999, spanning the downtown area and featur- ing work of local and regional artists, with works always being added.

There are multiple festivals throughout the year including the Loop the Lake, Watermaker Art Festival, the Dragon Boat Race, the Blue Ox Marathon, and the Bemidji Water Festival.

Flexibility And Scalability

Attached to the Sanford Center Hockey Arena, the George W. Neilson Convention Center is the anchor of Bemidji’s meeting and event universe. Its stylish ballroom can easily be transformed from festive to sophisticated and is suitable for anything from smaller events to larger conferences of up to 1,000 people. Featuring its own chef, modern technology, and guest accommodations, the center also has an experienced team of convention services management professionals.

Cultural Locations Offer Originality

“Several galleries and performance centers showcase the community’s rich and diverse cultural heritage,” says Josh Peter- son, executive director of Visit Bemidji.

Beltrami County History Center is a state-of-the-art history museum in the renovated Great Northern Depot, with space available for special events.

The Watermark Art Center displays national, regional, and local artists in group and solo shows and installations, author readings, and workshops.

The Headwaters School of Music and Arts offers exceptional music and art education programs and rental for special events and business meetings.

The Headwaters Science Center offers a variety of year-round programs and exhibits along with a formal exhibit hall available for special event rentals.

The historic Chief Theatre is a performing arts venue in downtown Bemidji featuring curated entertainment from around the world.

The Paul Bunyan Playhouse, located inside the Chief Theatre, is the oldest professional summer stock company in Minnesota, drawing actors from across the state, region, and country and hosting top performances throughout the summer.

Accommodations Abound

Bemidji’s hotels, motels, and resorts provide a variety of relaxing lodging choices. Among the most notable is Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge, on the site of cottages built in 1898 for anglers by German immigrant, Joe Ruttger. The Ruttger family maintained the charm of the grand old summer resort on Lake Bemidji from 1936 to 2018—the year when Mark and Karrie Nelson purchased the property, continuing the legacy and proclaiming that they are now “just the new keepers of this iconic resort,” and promising that “the friendly hospitality of family ownership” will never change. The lodge features a large banquet room (capacity is 180), 55 guest rooms, and multiple cottages.

Getting There

Driving to Bemidji from the Twin Cities takes about three-and-a-half hours. Delta Airlines flies daily from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Bemidji for a nifty 62-minute flight.

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