Nine years ago, an Ojibwe grandmother from Canada began walking around the Great Lakes to raise awareness about water issues. Armed with a copper pail of water and an eagle staff, she embarked alone on a journey which took seven years to complete. As the water walk progressed, others joined her along the way.
It was in Milwaukee, however, that a new dream would take hold. As Josephine Mandamin looked out over Lakeshore State Park in Milwaukee, she had a vision that a teaching lodge would be erected on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Her adopted son, Gabriel Peltier, caught that vision and began soliciting help to make it a reality. Along the way he encountered resistance, partially due to the difficulty of articulating what this vision would look like. Who was it for? How large of an event would it be? What was the purpose?
Having been advised to let others do it, he refused to give up on this vision. Persistently he called on a handful of people and meetings were held. Discussions centered on the purpose of the lodge. Different people came and went. More meetings were held and again, discussions turned to the purpose of the lodge. Wheels were spinning but little traction was gained until late last year when a new committee was convened and an action plan developed. A February retreat in Keshena resulted in the formation of a “program” for the four days. Progress was being made.
However, challenges remained. The committee was spread out throughout Wisconsin and into Canada. Leadership was fluid. This was both good and bad. Different people stepped up at the appropriate times but somebody needed to drive the ship. Illnesses and distance were obstacles that needed to be overcome. Face to face meetings were difficult to arrange and it was easy to put the event on the back burner as most committee members were involved with other community events including the Indian Summer Festival held just two weeks before.
As the date of the event drew closer, the vision became much clearer. Roles and responsibilities were assigned. A schedule was finalized. Elders and teachers were invited. And funding was secured. All that was left—build the lodge with the hope that the people would hear the voice of the “Little Boy” dewe'gan (drum) and come. We are thankful to the Three Fires Lodge and Eddie Benton Banai for the teachings about the “Little Boy” and his songs.
But first, work needed to be done. Pole holes were dug several days before the lodge was built. This would save time because the lodge had to go up before the sun went down. On Wednesday, September 26th, a small group of volunteers began harvesting over 60 lodge poles. The next day, the sacred fire was started and a sunrise ceremony was held. As I shared a healing song, I prayed that this lodge would be a place of healing for those that would come, for the land and for the water. This would be the first lodge ever built on the man-made island which forms Lakeshore State Park and perhaps the first time a teaching lodge had gone up in a long time on the Milwaukee shores of Lake Michigan.
After a quick breakfast, students from the Indian Community School, along with community volunteers began erecting this 60 foot long lodge on the shores of Lake Michigan. Assisted by the children, asema (tobacco) and nibi (water) was prayerfully put in each hole, connecting the lodge poles to Mother Earth. Both men and women shared in the work, the poles carefully tied by the women. By noon, the “ribs” of the teaching lodge were in place and by sun down, the lodge was complete.
While the work we did was serious, there were lighter moments throughout the four days. One such moment occurred as I was sawing one of the braces. At the same time, Diane Amour was attempting to tie the brace to the lodge pole. Every time I stopped sawing she’d thank me. Well I thought she was thanking me for sawing the branch so I’d saw even harder. However, she was thanking me for stopping because the saw dust was getting in her eyes. At other times we had so many helpers that were tripping over each other.
The next day we stood facing the east. As the sun came up, the “Little Boy” was sounded and we greeted the new day. Gabriel Peltier shared his pipe. Water and berries were passed around by the women and all partook. Songs were sung and prayers said as the sun began to warm the land. This would be the first day of teachings and students from the Indian Community School were expected to arrive. In addition to traditional teachings by Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Ho Chunk, Menominee and Oneida elders, games of Lacrosse were planned, as well as a nature walk identifying plant medicines growing on the island. That evening a social was planned featuring singing, drumming and dancing.
Saturday would prove challenging due to off again, on again rain and a nearby visit by the President of the United States. That did not deter the 25-30 people from showing up at 6 am to greet the new day and the changing of the seasons. I was honored to be asked to lead that sunrise ceremony and all pipe carriers were invited to put out their sacred items.
Later that morning, we were joined by about 30 students participating in the Student Conservation Association, a non-profit group whose mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders.
As I mentioned, President Obama was scheduled to speak that afternoon across from the island where we had built the teaching lodge. This resulted in the access points being secured, along with the noise from the rally itself. However, we did not allow this to deter us and in fact, many were hoping the President would see the teaching lodge and tipi and choose to pay us a visit. Unfortunately that did not happen but it didn’t stop us from enjoying a feast of turkey, fry bread and wild rice without him. Finally the week would come to a close on Sunday afternoon.
After an enjoyable elders panel featuring Josephine Mandamin, Frank Ettawageshik, Skip Twardosz, Mary Ellen Baker and Delbert Charging Crow, the lodge was taken down.
While the physical structure was removed and the land returned to its pristine condition, the memory of that lodge remains etched on our hearts. Healing did take place over those four days. The community came together to share and to learn, friendships were made and in some cases renewed and plans were made to return to that place where the vision was fulfilled.