Milwaukee’s Indian Summer Festival ended a 32-year Run

An Appreciation

By Rick Whaley
Special to News From Indian Country
When I was a young man, I followed the Irish bioregional vision to be a “dweller in the land.” It led me to Indian Summer Festival (ISF) and the struggle of Chippewa spearfishing rights in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Walt Bresette, shield of the north, would be at ISF with his Buffalo Bay Trading booth, “selling trinkets,” he’d say. But really he was calling all allies to witness in northern Wisconsin for Chippewa cultural and sovereignty rights. On his break, we’d go down and watch the powwow dancers and he’d explain the timing of the sneak-up move and the other things judges watched for in the contest dancing. Once he said to me, “You really got to go hear this guy—John Trudell.”

Those music stages at Indian Summer Festival were always incredible. Joanne Shenandoah (1987, 2011) and Buffy St. Marie in the early years. The gorgeous harmonies of Ulali. The Innuit throat-singing sisters (2003) standing face to face, doing songs as intricate as my big-city daughters doing hand-clapping songs with each other. One of the Innuit sisters’ songs was of parents changing diapers and looking for lost mittens and another was a Celtic-sounding (I swear) song about spirit beings who shook stones into the shape of humans. Xavier Quijas Yxayotl (2002) demonstrated the Meso-American death whistle, blowing the back of a clay skull with a banshee-like war-cry that when played by hundreds must have banished enemies before battle. A sound so terrifying that it might well have sent conquistadors running, but for Montezuma’s omens.

On an ISF side stage, I once came across Mixashawn singing “Amazing Grace” with his startling (to me then) reinterpretation of one phrase, “We’ve been here 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun…”  After the incredible success of the Twilight saga movies, Taylor Lautner (who played Jacob Black) came to ISF and the line to get his autograph was so long that the next act couldn’t get to the stage. (Young people would know, of course, that Stephenie Meyer’s fourth and final novel in the Twilight series—Breaking Dawn—has Witnesses at the climatic battle between the Volturi and the Quileute–vampire alliance.)

Sacred Sites Run (2006-2009) ended each of its years at Indian Summer Festival and we tabled there with petitions for national protection for these sites. One year, Methodist lay preacher, Melba Checote Eads (Tennessee, Muscogee Creek) spoke at the Sunday mass about the religious calling to honor ancestors and sacred places. An earlier year, Sunday mass at the Marcus Amphitheatre was a grieving and healing ceremony for people who, as children, had been forcibly adopted out of their home and culture—a story we heard more than once during the Sacred Sites Run—and who came to that ISF circle to find each other and for some beginning rendezvous with what was lost.

For many years, the ISF’s Environmental Tent was its own gathering place of clean water, peace, and sovereignty activists, and of artists and storytellers. Witness for Non-Violence sold a counter-Columbus Quincentenary sweatshirt to festival-goers for $14.91. Milwaukee Area Greens had a table there, right between the stuffed teddy bears of the animal rights group, on one side, and on the other side, the taxidermal forest critters of Wisconsin Women Hunters. Nearby were the craft tents. My favorite was birch-bark biting designs, which reminded me of when I was a child and first took the time to look at birches: the tiny black lines suddenly move and the spider runs off.

From the beginning, Nick Hocking’s WaSwaGoning village welcomed visitors to the ISF gatherings at the entrance plaza of the Summerfest grounds. Nick and Art Shegonee (Menominee/Potawatomi) would tell stories—environmental instructions—and lead dances for interested adults and rapt children. During the death threats of the worst years of racial protests against Chippewa spearfishing, I thought every story Nick told, every appearance he made around the state, was another nail out of his coffin. The spearfishers escaped hate lynchings. Cancer eventually took Nick in 2012 and those of us who spoke at his remembrance at ISF recalled the kind of man and influence he was.

In recent years, and nearing my older age (70s now), I would hike around the Indian fest grounds and remember more people who have walked-on than people who I know to talk with. Then I would run into bright young activists (Penokee Hills and Back Forty support; Women’s Water Walks; Standing Rock) or go listen to the Strawberry Moon Women Singers, and then I knew: they keep the flame going. For 32 special years (1987-2018), Indian Summer Festival has, like Susan Seddon Boulet’s paintings, framed my political activism and vision.

For the time being, Indian Summer Festival is shape-shifting from its traditional home at the lakefront and its September festival weekend into a series of ongoing programs, reinvented and to be presented throughout the Milwaukee area.

Encore! Encore!

Rick Whaley (Milwaukee) is co-author with the late Walt Bresette of Walleye Warriors: The Chippewa Treaty Rights Story (NSP, 1994; Beech River Books, 2015). Rick is also author of the booklet of storytelling and critical Green Party essays, How Green is the Green Party? (Stories from the Margins) (Beech River Books, 2007). Both books are still in print via

Warriors: The Chippewa Treaty Rights Story (NSP, 1994; Beech River Books, 2015). Rick is also author of the booklet of storytelling and critical Green Party essays, How Green is the Green Party? (Stories from the Margins) (Beech River Books, 2007). Both books are still in print via

Support archiving projects. Thank YOU!!