May 2015

Chief Bemidji

Next week the city of Bemidji will be celebrating the dedication of a new statue honoring Chief Bemidji. The event is the culmination of a multiyear effort to change the way we view the history of the region. So it's about the relationship between history and myth, and about the role of history in our daily lives.
We call him Chief Bemidji, and we say the lake and our city are named in his honor. Actually, as most people living here know (or will find out next week, when the new statue is dedicated), his name was Shaynowishkung. And he wasn't really a chief. And the lake was called "Pamidjegumag," according to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who first saw it around the
7th of June, 1832:

We entered a very handsome sheet of water, lying transverse to our course, which the Indians called Pamidjegumag, which means crosswater, and which the French call Lac Traverse. It is about twelve miles long from east to west, and five or six wide. It is surrounded with hardwood forest, presenting a picturesque appearance.


But even the lake might not be what we think it is, either. According to Anton Treuer, Lake Bemidji was originally "two separate lakes, connected by a shallow stretch of water off of Diamond Point. The Mississippi River did not flow through those two lakes; it simply cut across the corner of the largest one--a very uncommon geographical situation." This passage confused me a bit, so I did a little more reading.

Apparently, before the construction of the
"Stump Lake" Power Dam in 1907, the water level six miles upstream of the dam on Lake Bemidji was much more variable. This lake depth map suggests that without the regulation of the dam, lower water levels could easily divide the lake into two smaller bodies of water. But as a couple of old maps I was able to find show, those two smaller lakes seem to have been connected some of the time. This 1892 map by Jacob Brower precedes the power dam. It shows a single lake, a bit thinner than the outline we're now accustomed to -- but very similar to the outline recorded (and called Travers Lake) by James Allen of the Schoolcraft Expedition in 1832.

nhwbrower1892map1000   nhwallensmap1832mhs1000

In any case, it's interesting that we have these incorrect ideas, that we've based our local identity on. The single lake, named after the friendly Chief. When in reality, Bemidji was the name of the lake, not the man who lived beside it. It's also interesting that at his death, newspapers described Chief Bemidji as a famous character whose story had been told in many books. Nowadays, people seem to think very little was written about him. Also, at the time of his death in 1904, it was believed Shaynowishkung was buried in a local cemetery where his friends later erected a memorial. These days, it is claimed that no one knows where the Chief was buried. So there's a lot of mystery. It'll be interesting trying to get to the bottom of it and understand where the stories came from and why.