It’s a good thing Bruce Oakes wasn’t at his usual haunt last week when a group of overly enthusiastic Scott Brown supporters started doing the tomahawk chop outside the Eire Pub in Dorchester.
Oakes is an Eire regular. He’s also a Native American, a Mohawk, and he wasn’t amused when he heard about the war whoops outside his local.
“I came into the pub,” he said, standing at the bar the other night, “but it was so crowded I took off. I missed all the commotion by five minutes. Just as well, because I would have said something. I would have done something.”
Bruce Oakes is 61 years old, and he grew up on the Akwesasne reservation that straddles the New York-Canada border. His dad left school after third grade and became an ironworker. His mom left school after fifth grade and worked for General Motors.
Oakes came of age when Native Americans began asserting their right to sovereignty, their demand for justice. His cousin, Richard Oakes, led the occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971. Bruce Oakes joined his cousin on Alcatraz then left in 1970 for Dartmouth College, one of a small group of Native Americans to enroll at the Ivy League school that year. Oakes and other students protested against Dartmouth’s calling its sports teams the Indians. They walked around holding signs during a football game when Ed Marinaro from Cornell was in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy and everybody booed them. But they made themselves heard and in 1974 the college trustees banned the Indian moniker.
It irks Oakes when some people suggest that Native Americans are too sensitive, too easily offended, over Florida State football fans and Atlanta Braves baseball fans doing the tomahawk chop. He knows that some Indians, including Seminoles in Florida, have accepted the practice, and that’s their right. But he doesn’t want to be lectured by others who haven’t a clue about what it means to be a Native American in this America.
It comes down to something that a lot of Americans don’t like to be reminded of: Native Americans had their land stolen. They had their culture brutally repressed. They were pushed aside. They were ripped off.
You can make all the jokes you want about casinos and reparations. Native Americans got a raw deal.
Oakes makes the Eire his local precisely because of its live-and-let-live ethos. The Republicans and Democrats have fought over the Eire for years, because its denizens are seen to represent the American Everyman. Ronald Reagan went to the Eire in 1983, lifted a Ballantine Ale, and claimed lunchpail Democrats for the Republicans. In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton went to the Eire and claimed them back.
Every election season, candidates from both major parties drop into the Eire and step behind the bar with owner John Stenson to get the perfunctory photo op. It’s blue collar cred.
It’s probably fair to say that Scott Brown got more votes out of the Eire in 2010 than his Senate rival Martha Coakley. But a customer who verbally abused Martha Coakley when she stopped by was barred from the pub. The Eire is a great pub because it has standards, and the chief one is tolerance.
“Don’t get me wrong: We joke with each other here at the Eire,” Oakes said. “But there’s respect beneath the jokes.
“What happened outside last week,” he said, indicating the sidewalk on Adams Street, “that wasn’t a joke, and there was no respect behind it. It was ignorant. I thought it was racist.”
Oakes doesn’t buy the claim that the war whoops and the tomahawk chops outside the Eire were good-natured commentary on Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Cherokee heritage. He has no idea if Warren used claims of that heritage to gain an advantage in her academic career.
He doesn’t doubt that she has some Cherokee blood; so many people from Oklahoma do. But he thinks Warren was wrong to refuse to meet with Native American activists at the Democratic National Convention.
And lest anyone accuse him of being partisan toward either candidate, Oakes is not voting for either Warren or Brown.
“I don’t vote, never have,” he said. “I’d be a hypocrite if I voted. I thought about law school, but I couldn’t take an oath to the Constitution.”
Still, he believes Native Americans should serve in the military. “My dad and brother were in the military,” he said.
If all this sounds complex, it is. That’s the point.
“There are 500 tribes,” Oakes said. “There are 500 languages and dialects. There are differences of opinion on all things. We don’t judge.
“If somebody wants to vote, they should. I don’t judge them. If somebody is not offended by the tomahawk chop, I don’t judge them. But don’t tell me I shouldn’t be offended by ignorance, by stereotypes.”
If Oakes doesn’t really care who wins the Senate election, he hopes whoever does is appointed to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“There’s been so much talk in this campaign about Indians,” he said, holding up his hand so the great barman Kevin McCarron would pour a Bud Light, “let’s see them do something to help Indians.”