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Milwaukee Is Indian Country

Local Native Americans keep their traditions alive in the city

Jun. 10, 2014
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Milwaukee Indian Community School
When Mark Denning, 52, steps out of his Muskego house—his long, black hair pulled back in a ponytail and an earring dangling from each ear—he doesn’t see the neutral-toned, new-construction homes and paved roads.

“I see Indian Country where a lot of people see buildings,” he said. “It’s a different way of moving through the day. Indian country is not just a reservation. It is everywhere, even in the heart of the city—red tail hawks, falcons, deer and coyote on occasion in Bay View, trees and plants native to this area that can help us in everyday life, things that have gifts for us. But if we are not aware of them we do not see them. We are surrounded by them no matter where we live.”

Even before his rush-hour commute begins he’s already connected with his heritage.

“As the sun comes up, the birds start chattering and we say our Thanksgiving address. Here in the city, that’s what I’m hearing, just like my relatives are. There’s no separation,” said Denning, an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin.


Culture Shock

Denning is in good company. Although he lives in Waukesha County, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 6,808 people identifying themselves as American Indian and Alaska Native reside in Milwaukee County—the highest cluster statewide.

About 60% of the country’s American Indians—from 562 federally recognized tribal governments—live in cities like Milwaukee. Many have never visited the reservation where their tribe or band originates.

Yet Wisconsin’s Native culture resonates worldwide. Each September, Milwaukee hosts the country’s largest American Indian gathering at Henry Maier Festival Park—Indian Summer Festival—which attracts nearly 50,000 people from around the world, as far away as Germany, said Siobhan Marks, an Ojibwe and member of the festival’s board of directors.

Richard Monette, a UW-Madison Law School professor and director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center, said urban Native Americans face unique challenges—they live among many who share their culture, but they have often found it difficult to hang on to it in an urban setting.

“There was a point during the mid-1970s to mid-1980s where Milwaukee’s American Indian population was more than all the reservations combined,” Monette said. “They found themselves scattered throughout the community, sometimes without an anchor. On the reservations they had a real land-based identity. They used land to hunt deer and animals. When you take somebody away from that you sever that from his or her identity.”

Mark Powless, an Oneida member and director of Southeastern Oneida Tribal Services (SEOTS), said he struggled to find a sense of connection when he moved from Oneida County to Milwaukee in 1988.

“It was a culture shock when I moved,” he said. “Like most college kids, I was homesick. Native culture isn’t as easily available outside of the reservation.”


Keeping Kids Grounded in the Culture

Antonio Doxtator, co-author with Renee Zakhar, a member of the Oneida Tribe, of American Indians in Milwaukee, said that feelings of isolation in the city can be common.

“We’re all battling to keep our kids grounded in our culture. It’s easy to give over to the dominant culture,” Doxtator said. “I don’t think it’s required that you go to a reservation to be connected. Growing up on the South Side and East Side I was surrounded by American Indian tradition every day.”

Correcting modern-day misconceptions about American Indians continues to be key, even in a state like Wisconsin, where there are numerous tribes and a sizeable American Indian population.

“There’s a perception by the non-Native community that the tribes have money because of casinos and if there’s a Native community then it’s funded by the Potawatomi,” Powless said.

Lisa Poupart, associate professor of First Nation Studies at UW-Green Bay, was blunt about the biggest obstacle for Native American youth.

“Racism,” Poupart told teachers participating in her two-day workshop at Franklin’s Indian Community School of Milwaukee. “That’s a harsh word to use. Often when we hear that, we think it happened in the past. Kids in school today experience racial micro-aggressions and the totality of those impact our ability to thrive. It exists in the stereotypes everywhere—Land O’Lakes butter and Calumet baking powder, for example. You don’t leave those images out of your mind when you walk into a school.”

At SEOTS, Powless focuses his work on those young adults and children who are struggling with their Native American identity, which may have an impact on their student achievement.

“Their academic performance is at a pretty critical state right now,” said Powless. “At MPS, Native students have an average GPA of 1.47. They have the lowest graduation rate and highest dropout rate.”

Through the First Nations Studies Program at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), classroom assistance and after-school programming are offered to American Indian children—representing about 0.8% of the district—in partnership with Marquette University, HoChunk Youth & Learning Center, the Department of Public Instruction, First Stage Theater, SEOTS through its near South Side office, WI FACETS, Indian Summer Festival, Indian Community School of Milwaukee, Alverno College, Disability Rights Wisconsin, First Nations Women’s Leadership Group and the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center.

 “Our program is right in the center of where our families live,” said the First Nations Studies Program coordinator Richanda Kaquatosh, who grew up on the Menominee Indian Reservation but also attended MPS. “I network statewide with all tribes and nationwide through professional organizations, always looking for opportunities for our children.”

For example, nine students were just accepted into Upward Bound at Marquette University, a pre-college program for low-income and first-generation college students, many of whom are American Indian.

Still more students attend the Indian Community School of Milwaukee.

“The kids who come out of [that school] are pretty on-point about who they are,” said Zakhar. Three of her four children are graduates.


Building a Native Identity in Milwaukee

About five miles northeast of SEOTS, Mass is underway at Congregation of the Great Spirit at 10th Street and Lapham Boulevard. The church is the country’s only Catholic church to incorporate Indian values into the ceremony—drums and smudging are interwoven with scripture. About 85% of the 400-strong congregation is American Indian. During the service, tobacco, cedar and sage are placed into a sacred fire and tobacco is given to the priest as an offering.

“Blessing ourselves means cleansing ourselves,” explained Gwen Lemieux-Petrovic, the church’s administrative manager.

At the end of the service a “traveling song” is played to wish everyone a good week. During the week there is a clothing drive and food pantry. Lemieux-Petrovic’s 80-year-old mother instructs in making moccasins and clothing. Like other Catholic churches, there is a confirmation class for teens and a children’s Mass. “We try to get them involved so that this continues on,” she said.

Just around the corner from the parish, Jennifer Casey has been earning a reputation as the Alice Waters of the local American Indian community. Her work at the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center includes planting a “wellness garden” of fruits and vegetables and teaching weekly cooking classes. Because the Native American population is at the highest risk of diabetes and heart disease, she pushes diets rich in vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. Two years ago she teamed up with 32 local elders on a cookbook featuring recipes ranging from buffalo burgers to blueberry wild-rice muffins.

“It really brought out that the elders are very concerned about a loss of culture and want to teach and pass this on to the next generation,” Casey said.

Despite the rich traditions brewing at Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, there’s a call for a gathering space with a warm, bright feeling in contrast to the center’s outdated structure.

“What I hear again and again from people is that they want a community education center, a place where they can go to learn about their culture and get connected with others,” Casey said.

That’s where groups like SEOTS—which offers trips to reservations, singles mixers, and cultural and language classes—come in.

“The main thing we are trying to say is that we do exist,” said Doxtator, co-author of American Indians in Milwaukee. “We are diverse and come in many colors and many degrees of non-Native and Native blood.”


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