Ahhhh, Milwaukee… the city of festivals.
Okay. You can stop laughing now.
Because seriously, that’s what happens here over the summer months.
Or month. Depending on which bearded, menopausal, sex-starved weather demigoddess is running shit that year.
We’ve got music festivals, Greek festivals, Italian…
Mexican and Asian festivals…
Art festivals and barbecue festivals…
German and Polish festivals,
So, yeah. It goes down in Milwaukee, in only like, three months – and then we’re up to our tailbones in snow.
And every year, I pledge to attend at least three of the different festivals. To expand my knowledge of other cultures, and meet new people, and to try the food.
Basically, to try the food.
‘Cause I’m greedy.
But I’m also extremely busy. So every year, I look up around mid-September and realize that I have let yet another summer slip past without going to a single festival.
And I berate myself for about five minutes.
Then, someone says there are donuts in the break room, and I’m distracted again.
Until the following summer.
This time, however, I was reminded by a musician friend, that there was still one festival left before the entire season was over – Indian Summer.
Every year, Native Americans from all over the region (and the country, truth be told), gather for the three day celebration of their culture at the Lakefront.
I looked at the website, and saw that there would be a Pow Wow – I had only been to one as a kid in northern Wisconsin, and was so affected by the experience that I never forgot it.
There was no way I was letting that slip past me again.
When I got to the festival grounds, all I knew at that point was that the opening procession was to start at 7 PM. I had no idea where, the Powwow was being held, and decided that as soon as I got inside the main gate, I would ask someone.
Just then, I heard a jingling sound, about a block behind me. As I continued to walk, the jingling got louder, and seemed to come from not just behind me, but from every direction.
The sound of a million bells, rhythmically ringing and getting closer. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I turned around.
Two men, heavily adorned in yellow and red feathers, were walking towards me.
They were magnificent.
Feathered and beaded, their bodies enlarged by enormous, colored hoops, their fearless faces painted, their steps ringing…
Can a man adorned in feathers and face paint still swagger?
They walked past me with long, almost hurried strides, crossing the street and parting the crowd at the main gate.
Welp, I thought, I guess I’ll just follow them.
I heard the drumming before I saw anything.
There’s something about Native American drumming and singing, though.
I always feel like crying when I hear it.
And hugging a stranger.
And kissing a baby.
And setting fire to something.
All at the same time.
When I got to the gate surrounding the festivities, I learned that once the processional started, no one was admitted either in or out of the area until it was finished.
I was cool with that.
So I stood outside and watched as a line of Native American veterans, followed by a line of women, then a line of elders, and hosts of men in full headdresses and face paint, and women with braids adorned with shells and beads and feathers, all two-stepped into the circle.
And the wind shifted, and that drum rhythm crawled under my clothes and seeped into my skin, through my rib cage and washed over my heart, and those shrill voices raised the hairs on the back of my neck…
I broke out in a sweat, and I was just standing there. The crowd had pushed in behind me, all straining to see the processional.
As I pushed through the crowd for some air, I saw an elder in a wheelchair, his white hair in one braid that snaked around his neck and down over his shoulder. He wore an army fatigue that was busy with medals. He leaned his head back, and closed his eyes, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
Awww, Sweetie… I know that look.
I have that look. Every time I hear this (3:23, Sweet Babies):
It’s not about just music appreciation.
This is me.
This is mine.
I saw it all over his face, that guy in the wheelchair. And on the faces of those veterans as they two-stepped into the circle. And on those children, just learning to walk, watching with wide, glassy eyes and thinking, “One day, I will dance inside this circle.”
And the elders, who stood along the perimeter, their bodies bouncing, keeping time for the circle of thunder and lightning the drummers provided.
It was not just pride.
It was ownership.
It was membership.
This is what happens when people embrace their culture, and no longer feel the need to defend or explain it.
I’m telling you, the whole thing gave me YEARS of extra life.
I felt so happy for them.
And I went home grateful – grateful that I had seen this with my own eyes, and that I had my own culture to celebrate.
It was a great night.