Native American culture reflected in new name of performing arts center

"Gichi-ziibi" is an Ojibwe word meaning "big river" or "Mississippi River."

Performing Arts Center
Brainerd High School's new performing arts center will be called Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts, the school board decided Monday, May 10, 2021. "Gichi-ziibi" is an Ojibwe term meaning "big river" or "Mississippi River." Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts.

Brainerd High School’s new performing arts center will bear the Ojibwe word for “big river” or “Mississippi River” in its name, the school board unanimously decided Monday, May 10.

The decision comes after school board members tabled the naming issue in March when they decided they were not overly enthusiastic about the three name choices brought forth by a task force.

Of the dozens of name suggestions received from community members, the task force proposed the Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts, or some version thereof, with options to take out “lakes” or add in “performing.”

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Late last month school board members agreed to allow the district’s equity advisory task force to take a look at the original names submitted by the public after concerns were brought forth about not having enough diverse voices weighing in on the naming process. Board members and members of both the equity advisory task force and the original naming task force came back with their top choices out of the names originally submitted as well as a few more.


The result was a desire for the name to include a word from a local Native American tribe. According to the data Community Education Director Cori Reynolds brought to the board Monday, 21 people involved in the process opted for a Native American name, while 19 still wanted to go with a version of the original name — Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts.

The top vote-getter from Native American words was gichi-ziibi, followed by Nokasippi, meaning “tender river.”

“Gichi-ziibi — I think once we learn to say it — has kind of a nice ring to it,” board member Ruth Nelson said, adding Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts sounds generic and akin to so many other names in the area.

“I’d rather have something unique,” she said.

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Janet Kurtz, a retired teacher who taught Spanish at both Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College, made an appeal earlier this spring for gichi-ziibi or another Ojibwe word to be incorporated into the name.

“It is a unique opportunity to reach out, to include, to educate and to recognize the origins of this geographical homeland,” Kurtz wrote in an email to the Dispatch and to the school district in March.

During a phone interview after Monday’s meeting, Kurtz said she was excited about the board’s decision and emphasized the importance of choosing the right words.

“My entire career is about choosing your words, including people, finding out about other cultures,” she said. “And this has the potential — if we take it — to really open up some learning and inclusion. Let’s learn about other people.”


Board member Kevin Boyles had the same thought process Monday, saying the fact that people may not know what “gichi-ziibi” means might be a good thing because they will hopefully be inclined to ask about it and be able to learn something new.

Board member Charles Black Lance said, while “gichi-ziibi” is likely outside the comfort zone for many, its relation to the Mississippi River is significant, as the river is not only important to the Brainerd area but the rest of the country, too.

“It represents us up north, but also it flows into the rest of the country as well and even into the Gulf of Mexico, into the greater world,” he said, noting the river remains significant for Brainerd students who leave the area. “So I feel that this is a clear fit and a natural fit even though on the front end here it might be a tongue-twister for some.”

Board Chair Bob Nystrom said he still liked the idea of having “Brainerd lakes” in the name and suggested something along the lines of “The Gichi-ziibi Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts.”

RELATED: Brainerd school board delays naming of performing arts center, restarts process
Nelson worried the name may be too long and said, with time, people will learn the center is in Brainerd, even if the city is not in the name.

Board members agreed on “center for the arts” as the latter part of the name, instead of “performing arts center” so as not to limit the kinds of activities that will take place there. Superintendent Laine Larson said that decision still gives merit to the work the original naming committee did, as “center for the arts” was that group’s preference as well.

Nelson made the motion to move forward with “Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts,” with Boyles seconding the measure. All board members agreed.


RELATED: Reader Opinion: Find a unique name
During a phone interview after the meeting, Nystrom said while he was originally on board for “Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts,” he now fully supports the new name. The community, he said, clearly wanted something that tied more into the culture and the history of the area.

“I think this is an important step for our community in really recognizing our culture and what was here,” he said. “So often we forget who the people really were who were here before us.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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