Cold Shoulder: An Indigenous Road Trip to Eskimo Joe’s in Stillwater

I have to admit I’ve never been to Stillwater’s somewhat famous Eskimo Joe’s, a college-town eatery best known for their burgers, their cheese-fries and, especially, their wholly damaging mascot, a caricature of a snowbound Indigenous man that has given many mindful Oklahomans second-thoughts about wearing that ever-popular shirt.

Since my article about the Indigenous slur that makes up the restaurant’s name was published last July, I’ve grown curious about the food and, as it turns out, so did fist-raising activist Tati Hayton, the filmmaker behind Dear Esk*mo Joe’s, We Are Not Your Mascots as well as the mastermind behind the trouble-causing petition asking Joe’s to change their name.

(Of course, they declined.)

In Oklahoma City for a few weeks from her current home-base of Atlanta, I gave her a call and asked if she’d like to accompany me to give Joe’s a more-than-fair shake. An Oklahoman for most of her life, when living here she had done a good-enough job of avoiding the place, one of the few teenagers in a hundred-mile radius to rightfully do so.

As we drove to Stillwater, we talked about the raucous life of this pro-Indigenous endeavor, from how friends began to treat her to the time Kelly Ogle made her the subject of one his My Two Cents rants. As she told me about her own fears of eating at Joe’s—all valid, I might add—I told her that I knew what I was going to write if it was bad and I knew what I was going to write if it was good.

Unfortunately, I had never planned for the third option, if it was just…meh.

As we walked under the weathered wooden sign featuring the minstrel-like Joe hanging over the door—shades of the infamous restaurant chains of America’s racist past—the host seated us upstairs in the slim restaurant, the superstore next door obviously taking up most of the place.

Our server was wearing a facemask featuring the red-handed logo dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women. While I wasn’t sure if it was a silent protest of sorts, to be honest, I was just glad someone was wearing it and supporting the cause within these wooden walls. After ordering, I walked around for a few minutes to get a historical feel for the place.

Usually, when I write about a restaurant, I’ll make a snide note if they have a so-called “wooden Injun” propped up somewhere, a hateful reminder that is pretty typical living and eating in Oklahoma. But I feel Joe’s goes one step further with this, the offensive distortion and his mile-wide smile plastered every place you turn and, even worse, normalized to the point of state-wide fame.

I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t nearly taint the food I was about to sample.

We started off with, of course, Joe’s supposedly-addictive Cheese Fries ($6.99). The server reassured me they were freshly hand-cut with a variety of melted cheeses on top and that’s why people like them so much. And perhaps they do, but today it was a bit of soggy overkill, the limp fries and hard cheese coming together to leave me wondering what the fuss is all about.

But, to be fair, the bowl of Joe’s Homemade Chili ($4.49)—loaded with a comical amount of sliced jalapeños and diced onions, per my request—reminded me of my father’s homemade chili he would make in the winter when I was growing up, a meaty mixture that he professionally seasoned with a well-known Williams silver-packet or two.

Tati and I both laughed about how so many angry people accused us of “trying to destroy Stillwater’s history” as our burgers arrived on the scene, hers the Sweet Peppered Bacon and Cheddar while, keeping with my theme, I took in a single-patty Joe’s Classic ($9.49).

She immediately set hers down, a look of absolute displeasure coming across her face; “I can’t tell if it’s too salty or too sweet…” she whispered to me. And while I didn’t have that visceral a reaction to my classic, the dry meat hanging over the sweet bun brought someplace canned like a Friday’s or Chili’s to mind more than a lifelong Oklahoma legend.

As we were waiting for the check, Tati summarized it best, saying that it’s a “great place if you’re a college kid tired of eating ramen all week,” which is an honest critique I can get behind and can justly agree with.

Before we headed out the door however, we stopped by the gift shop for a look inside the true testament of Joe’s, a tribute to Oklahoma’s willingness to not only buy clothing that celebrated over 500 years of oppression against Natives, but also holding up high some of the most routine burgers and fries in the state and bragging about it to the whole Goddamn world.


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28 Responses

  1. Thanks, Louis. I had the unfortunate experience of having gone there once when I lived in Oklahoma. Sounds like they should change the name of the place to “Greasy Joes.” And perhaps they could use OSU’s Pistol Pete as their image sans mustache, or alternatively an oil “squirt” can that looks like an animated Disney character. Just trying to help with the marketing….

    1. “Greasy Joe’s” would probably offend all those immigrated from Grease.

      1. Well, they could just call it “Turkey Joe’s” and then everything would be good—

        —ah, shit, I forgot about the Turks.

        Never mind.

  2. Okay, so I’ve never been to this place, and never paid much attention to the name controversy. I do not understand, however, how the word “Eskimo” is racist, since it simply means someone who laces up snowshoes. Earlier attempts to trace the etymology of this word have been shown to be mistaken. Many Alaskan natives till prefer the term. Some of the people that are now referred to as “Inuit” are not Inuit.
    Racist treatment of indigenous peoples is undeniable. But is this word really part of that?

    1. it’s the offensive mascot mostly

    2. Non-Inuit and Yu’pik people debating whether or not the term is racist is a waste of time and insulting to them because so many who have been called that word have asked us to stop. They’ve asked us to stop. That’s the end of the debate.

      I grew up using the word, but from what I’ve learned listening to Alaska Natives in Twitter and the video the writer linked in this article, it isn’t the translation of the word that’s the main problem, it’s who gave the name to them and why. Colonizers who oppressed them enforced their “otherness” by assigning them that term.

      Some Alaska Natives don’t mind the term, but many do. And in Canada, where many Inuit live, the slur has been officially retired, and it was dropped by the Edmondton hockey team earlier this year.

      But again, all this context is beside the point. They’ve asked us to stop. Let’s stop.

      1. Actually, as I understand it, the name originates from a native term, “ayas̆kimew”, not one given to them by colonizers. A bunch of northern peoples object to the term. Others don’t, like you said. I betcha that is in part generational. However I can debate whether the term is racist, because I’m human, with a brain, and such etymological questions interest me. But don’t worry, I’m not going to be spitting the term out in some road rage incident at someone that looks like they may have that sort of heritage, as long as they don’t call me “Hun”.

      2. You goofed…it’s the Edmonton pro football team (CFL) who had the nickname. Actually went to Edmonton in 1990, months before moving to Oklahoma. It was O.K. nothing special although that area has a lot of oil wells.

  3. As a professional beer bartender I always appreciated bars with dirt floors. Vomit was always easier to clean up with a shovel.

  4. I went to school in Stillwater and ate there maybe twice. Honestly, I thought it was overrated back then.

    Cheese fries are cheese fries, let’s be honest. It’s almost impossible to mess up fries, cheese, and bacon together and there’s nothing about Joes’ version that you really couldn’t get at any casual sit-down place. Everything else was really just overpriced to me. I’d always go to Shortcakes instead. Nothing outstanding, but the prices were impossible to beat and it was open 24 hours.

    1. Actually, thinking bout it, the waffles at shortcakes were amazing and I haven’t been able to find them as good elsewhere.

  5. A year ago, while in Stillwater, I took my son (13) to Eskimo Joe’s upon his request. It was his first visit and we went for an early dinner around 4:00 or so. We ordered the Chili Cheese fries as a starter and much to my surprise… when they arrived at he table, there was no chili on them. I asked the waiter about this and he told me they just forgot it and I would not be charged for them. He never offered to put chili on them or bring out a new order that was correct. The food was totally average. My son, who is not a picky eater, told me it “wasn’t great” and didn’t finish his meal. I was totally disappointed in our visit and was charged for the “chililess” chili cheese fries. I bought him a football in the gift shop to make up for the disappointing visit, so it wasn’t a total loss for him.

  6. I am not at all familiar with the language of racism against indigenous people of the north country (IPNC), so I’m not qualified to judge whether the “E” word is racist or not. I would leave that to the IPNC themselves. Some say that their opinion is mixed.

    By virtue of living in Oklahoma most of my life, I am much more familiar with racist language of Indian Country and the American South. I see that Tulsa’s Union High School has, at long last and by lopsided vote, followed the lead of the Washington Football Team by dropping that same nickname for Union teams. The times, they are a-changin’.

    But how can we overlook the horrible logo caricature of the Cleveland baseball team, which is perhaps even more offensive to Native Americans than Joe’s mascot.

    Tulsa had a restaurant named “Sambo’s” sometime in the 1970s.

    Regardless of the name’s association with the names of its owners or with a fictional South Asian boy of that name, my thought way back in those unwoke days was “How in the hell do they get away with that?”

    1. It’s curious how these things work – the mysteries of language evolution. “Colored person” was a non-racist term promoted to replace the horribly offensive “n-word”. It is now a racist term, but “person of color” is not. “Colored” was replaced by “black”, which was in turn replaced by “African American”.
      I have a couple of close friends who are on the roles of two different tribes, and they refer to themselves as “Indians”. That might be an age thing, because they are in their 70’s. They had friends at Wounded Knee. I thought that maybe that that term had perhaps undergone the same sort of transformation that the word “queer” has for gay folks – in that maybe Indigenous peoples had taken back a once offensive term as a badge of honor. But what do I know?

      1. Hello. I’m biologically Anglo and around my 10th birthday I was adopted by a Kickapoo man. Our family is Americans of Kickapoo and French descent. They hate(d) the political correctness…………………………… Native American? Anybody born in the good ole’ USA is a native American per their attitudes……………………

  7. I went to college at OSU but never gave it a thought of eating there. Not sure but that may have been before Joe’s time.
    Anyway, I’ve always thought it was a stupid looking mascot / stupid looking shirt IMO.

    1. Before the place became Eskimo Joe’s (around 1975 I think), the location on the corner housed a place called “Williams Dining Hall” or something like that. Maybe named after the folks who ran it. I used to go there in the late 60’s while attending OSU. It offered a family style meal where for a sum total of ONE DOLLAR, you could get one serving of whatever meat was being served that day along with lots of mashed taters, veggie of the day and rolls, which where passed along “family style” in big bowls. It was a very affordable alternative to campus dining halls and very good food.

      1. I showed up in Stillwater around 1973. Seems like Joe’s turned up around 1975 or 1976.
        When did Williams Dining Hall disappear? I don’t think it was there when i arrived.

        1. I was at OSU from the fall of 1966 through the spring of 1970. Then I was back in 1974 for grad school and Williams Dining Hall was gone.

  8. The people that like Eskimo Joe’s are the same people that like Chili’s and Applebee’s. Enough said.

    1. Not true.
      Enough said.

  9. People postulating over the word “Eskimo” are missing the point. It’s the clear use of a caricaturized and exaggerated cartoon character to represent an entire race of individuals that is offensive/racist. The word Eskimo is secondary to this, but still inappropriate, in my opinion.

  10. Nice, even-handed treatment of an establishment you really didn’t want to support.

  11. He would never admit even if he did like it…
    He had his mind made up before he got there.

    1. Well, lets be honest, the food is average at best.

      1. I always thought of it as a place you take parents on parent’s weekend because it’s “famous,” or when you went for a football game, but always went somewhere else when you live there.

  12. Huskies everywhere are also offended by the caricature of Buffy.

  13. I thought the food was good in the times that I’ve went up there. Although, I do have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the clothing and/or the mascot. It always looked ridiculous and corny to me.

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