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New Milwaukee festival celebrates three cultures


4 p.m. May 5 Kosciuszko Park

IT MAKES FOR A STRANGE MIX, AT FIRST GLANCE. What do Latino Americans, Polish Americans and American Indians really have in common?

“Well, they’re all ancient cultures with rich traditions of stories and art,” says Llysa Spencer, a cultural anthropologist for Urban Anthropology Inc. (UrbAn). “Their ancestors have been kicked around, and still are today, to varying extents. They’re all humble, faithful, faithfilled peoples. I guess, most importantly, what they share in Milwaukee is the Lincoln Park neighborhood and Kosciuszko Park.”

To celebrate the cultures, the neighborhood and the park on Lincoln Avenue and South Seventh Street, UrbAn has planned and organized the first “Gathering by the Waters” festival. Gathering by the Waters will be held in and around Kosciuszko Park 4 p.m. until sunset on May 5.

The dates of that weekend are significant to all three groups. May 3 is the anniversary of the Polish Constitution. Local Ojibwe leader Del Porter passed away on May 5, and the well-known Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican heritage and pride. The festival’s name pays tribute to ominowakiing (the “gathering place” by the water), the Ojibwe word from which Milwaukee is derived.

The celebration will include the unveiling of a statue of Porter, as part of the Del Porter Pavilion. The pavilion houses the Ace Boxing Club, which Porter ran for many years.

It was founded in the 1960s by his father, Teddy, under the motto “It is better to sweat in our gym than bleed on the streets,” and is now run by Del’s son Frank.

Gathering by the Waters will open with a parade of dancers and musicians from all three groups. “We’ll end by calling on the four directions, and then eat cultural cuisine—fry bread, pierogi, tacos—and free hot dogs, potato chips and soda,” Spencer says.

Meanwhile, cultural and nonprofit groups, including Spotted Eagle and UW- Milwaukee’s American Indian Student Services, will man informational booths and host open houses at Ace Boxing and the Old South Side Settlement Museum, among other sites.

The closing ceremony, which will honor ancestors and Earth, will include a peace offering between the three nations. “It’s just a beautiful chance to unite the neighborhood,” Spencer says. “I’m not really sure why we’re the first ones to do something like this. Race relations are rough here—everybody knows that—but they don’t have to be. We can take all this intercultural tension and just flip it over on its head. Suddenly it’s an advantage.”

That’s one of the goals of UrbAn, a nonprofit cultural anthropology society that began in 1999. Made up of the founder, one paid staffer and a dozen volunteers (including Spencer), it is funded entirely by donations from neighborhood businesses. Among UrbAn’s endeavors are the Settlement Museum, the Old South Side Farmers’ Market and countless round-tables and seminars “on everything,” Spencer says. “Economics, zoning, business opportunities, community development, attracting artists—just general ways to improve.”

Most recently, UrbAn also began developing social-studies packets on local cultures for distribution in Milwaukee schools.

It also hosts tours of the Bronzeville neighborhood, the former Irish fishing village on Jones Island, the Kinnickinnic River and more.

“People today don’t really even know where their rivers are,” Spencer explains. “And the Kinnickinnic is one of the seven most endangered in the country. It’s almost completely dead. So we do river tours and try to let people know their histories and the issues they face today. There’s plenty of healing that needs to be done in Milwaukee—in the land, water and air, and among the peoples—but thankfully, the simple answer is just to celebrate.”

Spencer notes that education is also important. “Take natives, for instance. How many do you know personally?” she asks. “The state’s largest community is in Milwaukee. And many live in the Lincoln Park neighborhood—Anishinabe, Fox, Ho- Chunk, Mascouten, Menominee, Potawatomi and Sauk—each with thousand-year-old cultures.

“And even if you knew all that already, what about Latino and Polish history and culture?” she adds. “Even then, you should still come. It’s going to be a great show, a chance to meet neighbors, to celebrate our city in the summer—and, of course, there will be food.”

Willy Thorn is a journalist, author, playwright and artist. He has worked professionally in Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Sydney, Australia, and Bangkok, Thailand. His first book, Brother Booker Ashe: It’s Amazing What the Lord Can Do, was published in 2012 by Marquette University Press.

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