I was having a drink in the 2310 Club on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago one afternoon about 1983. The bar was located just one block east of Western — a major North Side intersection. The neighborhood is a hub of contending ethnic groups. Greeks and Palestinians to the west. German primarily to the south for a couple of blocks. Swedes to both north and east. My office was two blocks further west on Lawrence, so I’d often swing by the 2310 with friends after work.
It’s a simple bar on the model of thousands of neighborhood bars in Chicago: a long bar along most of one side with high stools. There are tables in the front by the blackened window and all along the other side of the room. In the back there’s a small-size, pay-to-play pool table and a few more booths back by the aisle to the rear door and the bathrooms. The only food served is prepackaged pizzas, chips, and nuts. It’s a drinking bar for working people. Just clean enough. It always had a mixed clientele, mostly from the local neighborhoods.
One Saturday afternoon, after driving past on some errand, I broke with tradition and wandered in. I had hardly ever been in the place other than after work with my buddies. It had a lively crowd. I found myself a spot standing at the crowded bar. I didn’t know anyone there. I was in a flat mood, just letting the day flow. I liked that I was anonymous and could enjoy a couple of beers while watching the crowd, which was always interesting.
I got punched in this bar once, and I’d been a little wary about the 2310 since that incident. I had been with some friends and intervened in a situation on behalf of a woman I didn’t know. He sucker-punched me square in the forehead. My friends later said they were amazed at how far I traveled down the length of the bar with my feet desperately trying to catch up to the trajectory of my noggin. It did prove beyond a doubt, however, the hardness of my head; I didn’t even have a black eye the next day. And to add insult to injury, the woman wound up going home with one of my friends after I left.
But back to that Saturday afternoon: I noticed a boisterous group of guys sitting at a table midway down the room. They were having a good time, talking loud, laughing, drinking heavily. The table was crowded with empty beer bottles. That’s one of the things that I liked about the 2310. The bartenders were too busy with the crowd in front of them to get around to the tables much. You had to go to the bar to order your beers and carry them back yourself. As a consequence the table could really stack up with bottles if you were with a couple of friends. It always felt good to see the number of empty bottles. It gave you a real sense of accomplishment.
The amount of commotion the guys at the table were causing got my attention. They seemed out of place. Then I realized they were American Indian. That was significant. Although most of the American Indian community lived in Uptown — a neighborhood only about 10 blocks away — they were rarely seen in numbers outside their own community. In Chicago, people always know when some ethnic group has strayed outside their normal boundaries. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is something most everyone noted. I was curious about this. And I don’t doubt that most of the other patrons were aware of it too — particularly because they weren’t keeping a very low profile.
I directed my attention to that ‘no-attention’ place at the other side of the bar that all drinkers know well — particularly in a bar where you don’t know anyone. Suddenly someone crowded in next to me at the bar. There wasn’t much room. He was big. I recognized him as one of the Indians — by far the biggest guy at the table. He stood about six-foot-three and was very broad shouldered. He had long, black hair down to his shoulders. He was the most ‘Indian looking’ of the bunch.
He nodded to me as he shoved his way in and ordered his beer. I thought he’d turn to go back to his table, but he lingered.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m Johnny,” he said.
“You come in here much?” I asked.
“No, this is the first time my buddies and I have been here. We usually drink over by Wilson and Clark.”
That’s where the American Indian Center is located in Uptown, I thought.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Oh, I come in every once in a while.”
He was friendly, but I also thought it was with an edge — just enough to make you want to choose your words carefully. I could see past him to the table. I noticed one of the guys was looking our way occasionally. But they were still talking and laughing.
“I’m an Indian,” he offered.
“Oh yeah?” I replied, feigning surprise. “What part of the country do you come from?”
“Well, my mother was Sioux, but my father was Crow.”
“That’s what happens in America,” I said. “Most of us are mixed.”
“What do you mean by that?” he replied, a little sharply.
“Take me for instance. My father is Irish. My mother is German. That must happen a lot more now with Native Americans, too.”
I was being a little careful. His mood was unpredictable. Still, I thought that was a pretty innocuous observation.
“What the hell are you saying about my mother?” he growled, turning to face me.
I put my hands up defensively, and said, “I’m not saying anything about your mother, man.”
Just then, he pushed me in the chest, just enough to bump me into the guy standing to my left, who quickly moved away, expecting trouble to break out any moment.
I moved down the bar into the opening, pulling my drink with me, and ignored him. I didn’t want trouble. He stood there looking at me for a while. Then he turned and walked back to his table, sat down, and immediately joined in the rolling conversation going on there.
No one seemed to have taken much interest in the encounter.
There wasn’t anyone I felt like starting a conversation with, so I went back to my beer and tried to soothe my nerves.
About twenty minutes later I saw one of the other guys at the table get up and come to the bar. He pushed in right beside me. I noted that it was out of his way. There were other openings nearer to his table to order a beer.
“Uh-oh,” I thought. “Here we go.”
He ordered two beers, but he didn’t turn to go. He pushed one of them to me, and said, “Nice day, wasn’t it?”
I accepted the beer; the only reasonable thing to do.
“Yeah, it was.” I replied minimally.
“It reminds me of spring in northern Wisconsin,” he said. “I’m from the Menominee tribe and grew up on a reservation in Wisconsin.”
He had an easy manner of conversing. Very disarming. I was still on guard, but I found it hard to not engage with him. He was shorter than the rest, and was dressed the most casually. His hair was cut short. I’m not sure I would have even pegged him as American Indian if I’d seen him walking down the street.
“Oh yeah, what was that like?” I asked cautiously.
“It was okay, really. Most of my family still lives up there. I go back to visit a lot, but I like Chicago, too. There’s work here, and not too much opportunity back home.”
“What do you do down here?” I asked.
“Well, I work for the American Indian Center down on Wilson. We provide services to Indians living in Chicago, help them find work and places to live. And we advocate for them when they’re in trouble.”
“Sounds like a good job,” I said.
“Yeah, it is. I’ve always been involved in the politics and advocacy of my people.”
Okay, I was totally disarmed now, and enjoying the conversation. In the back of my mind I still questioned the coincidence of him moving to the bar beside me, but I was willing to suspend my suspicion for the moment.
“You ever heard of AIM, the American Indian Movement? Russell Means?” he asked.
“Sure, I have. They were very active a few years back. And controversial,” I added.
“I was involved in all of that back in the early seventies.” he said. “It was an incredible time for American Indians across the country. Even across the whole continent. It all began in Minneapolis, where I had moved when I left the reservation. AIM was originally organized to advocate for better treatment by the police in Minneapolis. But it didn’t take long before it moved to a much broader view of Indian issues. You know, I was a participant in the First National AIM Conference in 1971. There were over fifty tribes represented from across the United States. We were all there — Menominee, Blackfoot, Cherokee, Ojibwa, Crow, Potawatomie. Everyone.”
“I remember that.” I said.
“The goal of the conference was to develop a long-range strategy for the American Indian movement. Treaty enforcement, civil rights, complaints about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that kind of stuff.”
He was really getting into it. He was passionate. I liked him.
“I represented my tribe at the conference. And I’ll tell you, it was really hard to accommodate all of the interests of so many tribes. But everyone there knew that this was a historical moment for American Indians. We worked hard. We tried to build consensus. The conference would arrive at what we thought was a workable manifesto — over and over again. But there was one tribe that always disagreed on one point or another. So we’d rewrite the manifesto, trying to get to an agreement with everyone. ”
His frustration was clearly audible as he told the story.
He continued, “Then the same tribe would pick another point of dissension. It was impossible to get that tribe to agree to anything. Their intransigence was beginning to overcome the whole movement!”
“What tribe was that??” I asked, totally taken in by the story.
“The FUCKING SIOUX!!” he emphasized peevishly, shaking his head. “They won’t agree with anyone! They’ll ALWAYS find some fucking reason to disagree!!!”
He clapped me on the shoulder, smiling, and said, “And that’s why I came up here to speak to you. Because my friend — who you’ve already met — is Sioux. He’s my best friend. But he’s Sioux. So don’t take it personal. He’ll always find something to disagree with or take offense about.”
At that, and without a word from me, he turned and walked back to the table with the others. The Sioux greeted him with a slap to the back. They all laughed at something he said, and took a big drink.