Indian Customer Service
Mary Annette Pember gives a lesson in rez manners (good, but maybe not what you thought you wanted).
Photo: kashabowie outposts
Warning: When agitated, I become involuntarily rezzy, as in "of the reservation."
I am inspired to write this commentary on cultural issues and public etiquette by a recent experience in an upscale natural foods store here in Cincinnati. My son four-year-old son, Danny, was in the process of picking up something fragile and expensive when I spoke to him sharply, “Hey You!” in my best northern Wisconsin accent. When he looked up, I commanded, “Leave it!”
A group of nicely dressed white ladies turned around abruptly and fearfully clutched their purses. In a sense, it’s almost comforting to know that non-Indians inexplicably fear rezzy Indians even outside of Indian country.
This incident reminded me that Indian folks, at least the people I know, have our own take on etiquette, our own style of communication. We are not neccesarily bound by the smiles and niceties of Middle America when prefacing a request or interaction. Some people describe us as painfully blunt or even rude. Maybe so, but since moving to the southernmost edge of the Midwest, where the famed hospitality doesn’t always ring true, I’ve come to embrace my reservation roots. I laugh out loud when I visit Indian country and get a real taste of Indian Customer Service.
My favorite place for Friday night fish fry is on a certain Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin. (Places and people in this story shall be changed or remain nameless to protect my safety.) It is attached to a kind of shopping mall along with the first of the tribe’s casinos. Built long before the state’s smoking laws, the haze from long ago cigarettes seems to still hang in the air. Many old hand-written signs declaring specials and menu changes decorate its walls. In the end, the proprietors gave up on the menu; everyone knows what they want anyway. Two very local guys, one waiter and one cook, man the restaurant. The cook never leaves the kitchen but does look menacingly out of his little window into the dining room when his interest is piqued. One immediately knows by some primordial instinct that it would not be a good thing to make him have to come out of that kitchen.
We are known here. When he notices us, the waiter demands of my friend, “I s’pose you want hot water for your dang ol' rotten tea bag?!!”
Much trod upon, he eventually arrives at our table, his order pad cocked. Everyone orders the fried walleye, of course, except my friend and me. We want baked.
“Baked?!! Oh, fer Chrissakes!”
“Melvin,” he shouts to the cook, “they want baked!!”
Melvin looks out of his window with a look of disbelief. He then very slowly leans his entire upper body out of the doorway. I notice that Melvin is a big Indian man. I try to think of where we parked the car.
Fried walleye with sides
Photo: Blue Spring Cafe
Eventually the fish arrives although the beverages and side dishes lag far behind. But it doesn’t matter; we have come for the walleye, Ojibwe soul food. Our eyes roll back; it is delicious. We feast almost wordlessly, lost.
The bill is a long time coming; the waiter sighs and makes much of calculating our special order. It’s near closing time and he is surly as he approaches.
Suddenly he plops a huge platter of fried fish on our table.
“Oh, go ahead, it was left over," he smiles.
I recall my nephew once making the mistake of asking a waitress on our relative’s reservation about the selection of salad dressing.
“I don’t know what the hell they got back there. I’m not supposed to be here anyway; I’m sick!”
She placed his salad on the table in a way that thwarted any further requests.
My nephew remarked, “You know, Auntie, going to an Indian restaurant is kinda like going to someone’s house who doesn’t want you there.”
This is true, but most times you still get something good, although it may not be what you thought you wanted. It’s just our way. We use verbs in the command form but we feed you well and with love.
This subject brings a young reporter friend to mind, a Crow woman who works in the mainstream press. She recounts on her Facebook site that she has once again, “been talked to,” by the boss. She ends her report with the lament, “Hey, I’m not mean, I’m just Crow!”