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Pink shawls will symbolize breast cancer awareness

MILWAUKEE - The Grand Entry at the Indian Summer Festival will have something special this year - a spectacular sea of pink.

At least 39 women from Dream the Cure: The Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Pink Shawl Initiative and an unknown number of women from elsewhere will be wearing pink shawls at the Indian Summer Festival's Grand Entry to raise awareness about breast cancer among Native women.

The festival is one of the largest Indian events in the country, drawing an estimated 70,000 people to the three-day event that will take place this year Sept. 7 - 9 at the Henry Maier Festival Park on the Milwaukee lakefront.

The Pink Shawl wave will take place at the Grand Entry on Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. and again at 7 p.m.

Pink Shawl groups from around the country, as well as anyone who has been touched by breast cancer, are invited to participate in the Grand Entry.

In addition to the Grand Entry, the Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Pink Shawl Initiative will have a booth in the Gathering Place area where they will distribute breast cancer information.

The project's theme and logo is ''Dream the Cure,'' and the group will sell dream catchers and hats to benefit its educational program.

While American Indian women have a lower rate of breast cancer than other races - around 55 cases for every 100,000 Native women, versus around 105 for 100,000 Caucasian women - breast cancer is

the second leading cause of cancer deaths among American Indian and Alaska Native women, with more than 14 of every 100,000 women dying from the disease, according to the IHS.

Researchers attribute that sad statistic to the fact that Native women have less access to early detection services and treatment, and many Native women don't get checked for a number of other reasons: fear, mistrust and a lack of access to culturally appropriate providers.

So the Dream the Cure group wants to spread the word that early detection of breast cancer increases the number of treatment options, improves the chance of successful treatment, and raises survival rates.

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The Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Pink Shawl Initiative was inspired by the original Pink Shawl Project, which began three years ago in Grand Rapids, Mich., and has spread among Native women in different parts of the country.

The wave of pink shawls at the Grand Entry was the vision of Deb Ushakow, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.

''What I envisioned in my head was women coming into the Grand Entry with their pink shawls, the announcer talking about what the pink shawls are all about, that the presence of all these pink shawls is going to turn people's heads and make them think, wow, what's that all about? And from there we would have a table in one of our information areas at the gathering place with information about breast cancer awareness, screening and mammograms,'' Ushakow said.

Ushakow lit the initiating spark for the Wisconsin group, although she didn't realize it at the time.

''I got a call from a librarian who told me about Lorraine Shananaquet, Ojibwe [Lynx Clan] Potawatomi, who started the Pink Shawl Project in Michigan, so she shared that information with me and I said, 'Wow, that's cool,''' she said.

The friend shared some newspaper articles and suggested that Ushakow do a similar project. Ushakow agreed - then put the idea aside.

''Then I was at another meeting and we were talking about grants and I said, yeah, it would be really neat if we could start a Pink Shawl project here. People are so underserved and not only that, breast cancer is something that affects our families. That's all I said about it,'' she said.

But the word spread in classic word-of-mouth fashion from woman to woman, and soon people were calling her for more information.

''At our very first meeting, we had 18 women. It was the most awesome feeling to have everybody there and I told them of my idea and everybody really liked it and different people took on different tasks: helping with the table at the festival, volunteering with the Indian Summer office, doing the pow wow piece because we have to have an emcee verbalize what the pink shawl is all about, so somebody is writing a little script for that part,'' Ushakow said.

Jennelle Klumb, White Earth Ojibway of Minnesota and a member of the Indian Summer Festival board of directors, said three Indian women on the board have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

''So we thought the Indian Summer Festival would be a wonderful place to introduce our project. We're all really totally excited about it because it was just kind of grass-roots organizing and it just came together with so many, many women interested,'' Klumb said.

The group plans to continue its educational project well beyond Indian Summer Festival, Klumb said.