The bar on Queen West is packed with all kinds of native revellers, though 20- and 30-somethings dominate. There are professionals, politicians, students, TV producers, teachers and actors, all enjoying Powwow vibes left over from the afernoon at Skydome. I'm late, having been unable to find an outfit suitable for Toronto's schizophrenic weather. When I arrive, I run into friends, and we settle in to enjoy the rocking blues and do a little carousing.
On my way here, I'd meet an acquaintance who always needs to be acquainted with another drink. Now on my second drink and feeling the Christmas spirit course through me, I decide to buy him one. As I wait for the drinks to arrive, a friend taps me, asks me to order her a drink and hands me money.
The bartender, a young woman, lays down the drinks, and I hand her the cash. Then I lean in and ask for another. She purses her lips and shakes her head. "You should have ordered the drink before." She turns on her heel and walks away with what she seems to think is my tip.
I'm not the most assertive person in the world, but I am cheap. No one disses me and gets rewarded. So I wait patiently for her curly little head to make its way down to my side of the bar. "I want my change," I say to her when she comes close enough.
She snarls something unintelligible and walks away again. We repeat our mini-battle a few more times until she finally flings my change across the bar.
Toward the end of the night, I find the manager and report her bartender's behaviour. The manager excuses the bartender -- it was busy, people get tired, blah blah blah. She apologizes on her own behalf. That appeases me somewhat.
The thing that bothers me most is that I immediately stop drinking after the incident, even though it's still early and I'm not even approaching drunk. I feel shame. Had I staggered? I ask myself. Slurred my words, been too arrogant? How had I been reduced to the level of a sloppy drunken Indian so quickly? How did I attain the title I've spent a lifetime trying to dodge?
I won't drink any more, I tell myself quickly. I shouldn't have drunk at all.
I look around at my fellow native people. A man bumps into me and apologizes with a smile, but not before I see his too-bright eyes. A few people are bouncing off the crowd, wandering in a wonderland of beer and brown faces, not eager to return to reality. A young native woman shouts in my ear, "I've been drinking since 6 yesterday. Where's the party?"
There are, of course, many people who are sober, who never drink at all, but I don't see them. All I see are the fools who stuff themselves with liquor.
"I won't be like that," I promised myself when I was a little girl and watched my dad and his friends drink their way through 24s, 48s and other multiples of 12. I watched my brilliant and articulate dad change into a purple-red Indian. His face would hang off his skull and his mouth would twist all his words so that he sounded more like a wounded bear than a respected leader of his people.
I wanted no part of the shame. So I buried myself in politeness and university degrees. I learned to say excuse me, thank you and pretty, pretty, please. I learned to put a napkin in my lap. I learned to keep my mouth shut.
Other native people have not learned these skills. Once in a while I see them, begging on the sidewalk or screaming at one another. I understand why they are the way they are. But I would be deeply insulted to be mistaken for one of them. I am of a different breed. Mostly, I feel that I have escaped the labels. Non-natives look at my accomplishments and I believe they know I am not like the others. I am different.
But sometimes I can't keep it up. Sometimes I have a couple of drinks. Then the door is wide open for assumptions and my tongue is too thick to deny them. Then I'm sitting at the table with my father, both of us drinking our shame.