Saturday, May 24, 2008
1941 photo: "positively no beer sold to Indians", by Marion Post Wolcott, Birney Montana
Back when my dad was a brand new SeaBee, his ship put in at Seattle, all the guys in shiny shoes, crisp uniforms, sleek haircuts. Sailor caps tipped rakishly, these young men strolled the waterfront, looking for a cold beer, patriotic girls and maybe a good fist fight.
"Nobody would sell me a beer," my dad told me, fifty years later, still stung, "my ID said INDIAN -- and it was against the law to sell alcohol to Indians, even in uniform." So, resourceful and quick, my father trotted in his dark blue bell-bottoms back to the ship, found the purser, bribed him to issue new ID that said MEXICAN. "After that, I never had any trouble," he laughed, "and I never tol' anyone I was Indian. Hablo espanol, cabron, I eat jalapenos whole!"
I've always wondered if those signs in the bar windows, the curt, "No Indians served here," from the bartender, had anything to do with my dad handing my little brother his first Oly one hot summer day when he was only four years old. In some warped way, was my father trying to assert his right to all the colonizer's flaws?? The big "fuck you" to The Man?
Alcohol was used to conquer tribes, create dysfunction, break down community and communication. Only when the alcoholics this policy created became a nuisance to non-Indian (American) society did authorities try to block sales of liquor and beer to Indians. By then, it was too late to change the pattern. Colonization had done it's job: turned us into people who colonized ourselves, saving invaders the trouble.
I don't drink. I've tried. But alcohol doesn't do anything fun for me; I can sip wine or have a rum and coke, but after that, it's no fun. What I like is sugar. Oh, sugar and carbs (which are a form of sugar) sing to me when I'm sad, lonely, depressed, need to be numbed. Like most other Indians, I'm at risk for diabetes and obesity. I imagine signs posted all over town: "No sugar served to Indians!!" and laugh. But it's my drug of choice. I reach for sugar when my feelings are hurt, when someone at work snaps at me, when my kids are in trouble, when I feel like a loser.
I can't excuse my father's drinking, or the wide swath of destruction he cut while under it's influence. But I understand the way despair demands soothing, and you reach for the only thing that gives you some relief. It never works for long and you have to keep re-applying it to the wound, but for that brief moment of numbness, you would break promises, neglect children, deny your own right to a healthy body. That's why they call it self-destruction. It makes no sense. It is anti-life, suicidal. A disease you can't see. An inability to comfort yourself from within, a dependency on an outside source that both soothes and destroys.
All these human beings on this planet, and loneliness still stalks us. No amount of paternalistic legal rulings is going to make that go away. It has to come from within. We've lost that center. I've lost that center. I'm fighting my way back: but first I have to acknowledge my weakness. Not alcohol. Just sugar. A different form of destruction.
Would we call this progress?!
My dad, posing with his hard-won prize, circa 1944, Seattle WA.
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