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A massive table made of old rafters bisects the span of an abandoned railroad bridge in North Milwaukee. It is the terminus to what was known as the old Beerline Trail, a railroad spur that fed a once thriving industrial community. The Overpass Light Brigade was one of twenty community arts groups that received small grants to create awareness about the potentialities of this forlorn area, now resurrected as the ARTery, and hoped to be a linkage in bicycle and hiking trails that transect Milwaukee.

Last Sunday, August 24, that massive table was the site of a potluck dinner for the community, where neighbors, artists and organizers met and ate and talked on the old railroad bridge while cars passed by underneath on busy Capitol Drive. We’re used to a view from the bridge, but tonight it was different. Grillmasters made burgers, brats, chicken and fish on the barbecues, folks piled their plates high, and got to know one another in conversation, then gathered around a performance tent where young men performed energetic spoken word and hip hop.

As darkness approached, we took the mic for our Language In Lights program. The Swamp Singers, a group of Ojibwe women from the Detroit area, gave us a welcoming song and led us in a round dance, balancing, as one of them stated to the crowd, “the beautiful male energy we’ve heard here with our female energy singing, drumming and round dancing.”

We needed to move everyone down the trail from the picnic bridge to the stage where we were set up with the light panels. Along that trail, overgrown with the typical weeds that sprout up in abandoned urban spaces, we had located four plants significant to Ojibwe culture and set up large placards in English and Anishinaabe to identify them. Snippets of the four different plants were in wooden bowls next to the placards, and people were given cotton cloth and string to make medicine bundles from the plants.

The long line of folks came down the trail, far more than I had expected. A Fire Keeper had carefully prepared a small fire,  and I was immediately struck by the enveloping sense of sanctuary within this impacted urban area; as if nature lies in waiting, under a skiing of industrial abuse and abandonment, and when a crack opens, we see the sacred among the sacrificed.
After a brief prayer offered by an Oneida man who joined us, we began our program. Ojibwe scholar, Margaret Noodin, had created a script that moved through phonemes and fragments of five different Anishinaabe words, all integrated into the local landscape as place names. Our stage was a modified shipping container, and we had carefully blocked out twelve positions for the letters of the words.
From the assembled crowd, we asked for volunteer Holders of the Lights; both young and old were eager to help. Badscience and I handed out the letters from behind the stage, while Margaret improvised from her script. The light panels are magical like this, glowing in the night, the sacred fire off to the side, people experiencing the embodied text visualizing our common place names… Ginigiginge, meaning “mixing” having been translated into Kinnikinnick, an important roadway in Minowakii the “good land” that we know of as Milwaukee. Or Michigaming, a “great sea” of a lake resting two miles to our east, or Miskwaasin, the “red stone” that identified what would become Wisconsin. Language in this case becomes physical and memorable as we struggle to give visibility to the overlay of rich histories of any area.
Here are some of the roots of the words we had scripted, as described on Ojibwe.net.
ni - pause
niin - a self
niimi - to dance
giniim - you dance
giniimimin - we all dance

giin - you
giniginige - mix (kinnickinnick)

gaming - a place
michi - vastness
michigaming - the great sea, where we are, who we are

mino - good
akii - earth
minowakii - good earth (Milwaukee)

misko - red (as the oxygen filled liquid that flows through us)
asin - stone (not water)
miskoasing - a place of red stone, where blood and land meet

wiskosin - miskoasing squeezed and manipulated a State surrounding 12 nations

As our program wound down, people were invited to place their medicine bundles into the fire as offerings. The Swamp Singers gave us one last farewell song, their beautiful voices rising into the velvet darkness of the humid night. It felt to me that the old Beerline Trail revealed a bit of its history that night as I walked its length, catching fragments of conversations among a rich diversity of citizens. As I walked to the van parked far away, I reflected on the power of public ritual to give concrete visibility to hidden histories of settlement and to allow a framework for people to meaningfully engage in parallel cultures. The words are there, after all. They just need some light shined on to them now and then in order to be understood.

Chi Miigwetch, or Miigs, that is, thank you!


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Language In Lights from Overpass Light Brigade on Vimeo.

Originally posted to noise of rain on Tue Aug 26, 2014 at 02:28 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing, Badger State Progressive, and Native American Netroots.

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