By Marilyn Ferdinand
I hope my fave-rave chef, author, and travel TV host Anthony Bourdain doesn’t mind me borrowing the name of his TV series to head this edition of “Our Backstreets,” but like him, I’ve been traveling. Unlike Bourdain, I haven’t done it to explore the exotic cuisines of exotic places for fame and fortune. Rather, a new publishing cycle in the Land of Paycheck and the effects of dust, environmental chaos, and too many restaurant/fast food meals resulting from our long-running series Kitchen Renovation (now in its 8th week) made me and the hubby realize that we needed to Get the Hell Out of Dodge!
With time and energy in short supply, we settled on a 5-day getaway to a friend’s lakeside summer home in Wisconsin—about a 4-hour drive. It was raining, and we took the long way ’round. After a phone call to the house to get new directions, we arrived about 15 minutes later, none the worse for wear. I should have known things might not turn out so well when there was no one home. Fifteen anxious minutes of driving around looking for the right place and knocking on the wrong doors—and finding out we were in the right place—and our hosts returned to the homestead.
We started drinking, played hearts, and had a really nice late-night dinner of brats off the barby. The following day, still drizzly, was great, motorboating around on a chain ‘o lakes created by dredging channels between several separate lakes. We learned this was done by a developer who had done what had been done in this area for many decades—taken land from the Native Americans on the promise of giving them a few places on it to live, subdivided it, sold it to white folks who demanded more water than they were entitled to for their rec sports, and drained surrounding water from the Indian reservation. Anger between the white folks and the Native Americans brewed to overflowing in the 1970s. Things have improved, but tensions linger on.
After a nice Friday fish fry in a cash-only diner, we stopped at a home on the res to visit our host’s childhood friend. A friendly beer or two became a full-fledged Indian party—one of the daughters was having a birthday bash—and the order of the day was to get as wasted as possible. Every possible cliché you can think of about Indians characterized that night—rampant drunkenness, cheap drugs, poverty, dogs running around, fights. I caught a flung plastic chair in the shoulder. We left shortly thereafter—the hubby worried that our departure would offend our hosts, I worried about escaping further injury—and left altogether to move further north the next day.
What I learned on the res is that I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a Native American. The outside appearances, the stories of exploitation, the free-floating anger that I found on the surface still left me feeling almost completely in the dark about the culture I had briefly dipped into. I’ve visited many foreign lands, but invariably the cultures seemed to share a number of common markers with mine. I feel—rightly or wrongly—that Native Americans have fared so poorly because, perhaps, their fundamental way of life was so incredibly different from the European cultures that came to dominate the large tracts of land they used to need to make a living and way of life. I cannot wrap my head around that or the psychology of living in these traditional ways, and their continuing influence. Before the alcohol and drugs took effect on my hosts, I enjoyed some of their stories. After everyone—elders, adults, children—started disappearing into the bottle and hash pipe, all I felt was alone and frightened.
I was very aware that I didn’t fit in at all; one of my hosts as much as said so, though she tried to put me at my ease until she got too loaded to notice. She had said earlier that she hates her job so much that when the weekend comes, she takes any kind of mind-altering substance she’s offered. I know plenty of white people who do the same thing. It’s not easy to be honest about my feeling of repugnance at the drunken scene around me—my white liberal guilt rebels in every way, shape, and form, even though I’d feel exactly the same way among people from my own background who were doing the same thing. Maybe if I knew more about Native Americans, I wouldn’t feel so alienated. I didn’t grow up around Native Americans. My people came to this country in the 20th century, so I assumed the history of the white man and the Indian didn’t really belong to me. But it does—and I don’t get it. All I wanted to do was run away. Maybe I’m full of shit.
Funny. I thought this was going to be a lighthearted entry on how I spent my summer vacation—a catalog of the homey ways of small-town America, the wide variety of roadkill I saw, an exploration of the many ways of cheese in The Dairy State. Anthony Bourdain had a similar dose of uncomfortable reality in Beirut when he and his TV crew got caught in a war. We both came away with more than we bargained for.
I don’t feel guilty about getting the kind of short respite I wanted. I’ve had a rough couple of years and went after some peace with a selfish singlemindedness. But now I’m home, and I wonder about the res, about the people I met, about whether their shows of native pride on their baseball caps, veterans uniforms, and t-shirts will work for them—and just who else is going to care. l