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The Impact of Native American Humor

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  • Topic Humor
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Humor that Heals: Native American Humor and its Impact on its People

During one of his sketches, Chris Rock, a well known African American comedian, talked about racism. He said, “Black people yelling ‘racism!’ White people yelling ‘reverse racism!’…and the Indians ain’t saying shit, ‘cause they dead” (Gillota 31). The punch line of this joke caters to the idea that Native Americans do not exist in today’s society. However, this is completely untrue assumption. Not only do Native Americans and their culture live in modern day America, their voices are beginning to be heard through their humor. Just as Chris Rock has helped bring black humor into multiethnic awareness, as evident in David Gillotta’s ‘Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America’, certain pieces and people are slowly bringing Native American humor slowly into mainstream America. This type of humor serves to create a solitary group that is not only aware of their culture, history, and ethnic issues, but is able to grasp them in a humorous way that heals and empowers them.

One of the most frequented topics in Native American humor involves “the white man,” with which the Native Americans have a long and eventful history to take material from. Although there are occasions where other races will be poked at lightly or impersonated, like in the Indian American Comedy Slam, the white race is brought up most often and with the most ferocity. Charlie Hill, the Native American comedian that hosted “American Indian Comedy Slam”, explained these unrestrained quips not as “white bashing” but as a “spiritual spanking” the white people are long due for. Both the articles “Humor and Resistance in Modern Native Nonfiction” and “Laughing It Up: American Humor as Spiritual Tradition” provide one liners as examples of Indian jokes that make fun of the white race. One example is “Why is the white man in such a hurry to get to Mars? They think we have land up there” (Salaita 137). Another is “Do Indians have psychic powers? I knew you were going to say that. I just knew it” (Garrett 199).

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According to Asa Burger, all jokes, including the aforementioned ones, have both manifest and latent functions (Berger 93). The manifest, or intended function, is to make listeners laugh. The latent, or hidden function, is to express common grievances of Native Americans when it comes to white people or outsiders in general. Salaita even goes as far to explain that these one liners reveal the “most pointed criticisms of American and Canadian colonization” (Salaita 137). The first joke distinctly points out “the white man,” a vague character representing the white population as a whole, as the butt of the joke, then goes on to make the absurd claim that white people are simply trying to get to Mars to take over Native American territory. Jokes about the white people taking land is incredibly common in the Native American humor; Charlie Hill take great advantage of the theme, using it several times during his sketches and teasing the white people in the crowd by directly calling them out and interacting with them. With items on his setlist like a parody of “This Land is Your Land,” changing the lyrics to “This land is our land” and “get the hell off our land,” even Richard Pryor had commented that he “talk[s] to those white people like dogs” (American Indian Comedy Slam). Still, the audience laughs at this humor, including the white people in the crowd. Taking a humorous approach on grievances not only helps the Native Americans communicate in a more positive manner, but also gets the outsiders to laugh along and even listen to them in a way they would not otherwise.

The second joke asks if Indians have psychic powers, presumably in the voice of a curious yet ignorant outsider. The answer is “I knew you were going to say that,” which, in context, is fooling the gullible inquirer with a fake answer (assuming that psychic powers don’t exist). There have been other jokes that call out the annoyingly foolish ways some contemporary outsiders interact with Native Americans, including an essay called “White Men Can’t Drum” by Sherman Alexie. In his piece, he talks about the “misrepresentation” of Native American culture “by white men” who, with presumably good intentions, want to integrate themselves into the Native American culture. The mostly nameless white men Alexie speaks of in this piece do things that the average reader would find absurd, such as picking the Tyrannosaurus Rex as a spirit animal even though they are extinct, or buying shards of broken glass from the Native American thinking they were healing crystals. However, further along in the essay, Alexie mentions some presumably ignorant things readers may be more guilty of doing, like misunderstanding the context of a sweat lodge or believing that Native Americans can and will provide them secrets to better living (Humor Me 163-166). Salaita can add to this discussion on page 147 of his article “Humor and Resistance in Modern Native Nonfiction,” where he quotes from Paul Chaat Smith’s piece of nonfiction, “Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong,”

Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright…the less interest [white people] have in Indians, the more likely it is that one…could have an intelligent conversation with them.

The purpose of these jokes a Native American audience laugh by establishing “the white man” as a fool. It would be easy to say that the reason behind this is that Native Americans simply hate white people and hold a grudge over their history. However, this point is reductive if not entirely untrue; Sherman Alexie identifies one of the white men he’s talking about, John, as his friend (Humor Me 163). Several of the comics in the American Indian Comedy Slam claim to be friends with white people as well (American Indian Comedy Slam). On page 196 of the “Laughing It Up” article, Clyde Hall, a Native American, gives a great insight into the use of white people in Native American humor: “Anytime you laugh at something, it shatters it. Then it doesn’t have any power over you.” Even though the betrayal, fighting, and genocide are over, the Native Americans find themselves living in a completely preventable world where white people are seen as the dominant race, as evident by the Redskins football team name, offensive bumper stickers (Salaita 138), and misinformed catcalls like the ones Larry Omaha has endured (American Indian Comedy Slam). This branch of Native American humor serves to bring down the white people as a presumably superior race, subsequently bringing up Native Americans, leveling the field and bringing Native Americans closer together as a group. When Victor in Smoke Signals calls Columbus a “bitch” (Smoke Signals), that joke becomes one of many that gradually belittle a once genuinely frightening and dangerous white force, making light of a relationship that has a dark and bloody past.

The past, for Native Americans, is full of catastrophic and disheartening blows. It would seem like a good idea to try and let go of or forget this troubling history, but instead, through humor, Native Americans have owned their history, and share it willingly in their humor. To open his act in the American Indian Comedy Slam, Marc Yaffee yells excitedly, “We’re gonna party like its 1491!” Jim Ruel, when talking about a scary movie about an old Indian burial ground, asked, “where are all the Indian ghosts? Did they get relocated by the white ghosts?” Larry Omaha speaks of a game he and his friends made as a kid: “Tag! You Got Smallpox” (American Indian Comedy Slam). In Smoke Signals, when trying to negotiate a hitchhike, one of the characters blurts, “you know how Indians feel about signing papers.”

It is apparent that Native Americans are not afraid to make jokes about less than favorable circumstances. As Mark Twain said it, “Humor is tragedy plus time.” According to Gil Greengross of Psychology Today, humor from tragedy occurs when there is distance in either time or the people involved. In the case of the history of Native Americans, there could be distancing in either or even both situations depending on the individuals and the subject matter. Even if there is pain to be felt, humor could possibly make upsetting events less painful if used appropriately (i.e. among Native Americans in the right context), since it is argued that humor is used by purging “unpleasant feelings through laughter…to relieve stress and anxiety” (Berger 97-98) or “defusing hostility and anger” (Berger 31). In a way, facing their history through humor has a similar effect as facing the white oppressor through humor; they bring it down to a more manageable level.

Perhaps even more disheartening than the past is the present, but Native Americans are not afraid to tackle that issue in their humor as well. As an ethnic minority, the Native Americans have to deal with the consequences of being disprivileged and the stereotypes that may or may not derive from that position. A recurring topic is alcohol. In Smoke Signals, alcoholism was seen as a destructive, even life threatening disease that plagues those in the Native American community, as it is in reality. However, the comics in American Indian Comedy Slam allow the alcohol issue to become a joke. Vaughn Eaglebear brags that his community “managed to save all the beer coolers” from a wildfire that destroyed everything else. He also tells a classic bar joke, stating “three Indians walk out of a bar sober,” the crowd laughs, and he responds “it could happen…a salad bar?” JR Redwater jokes about the DUI that forced him to get sober, and states “everyone says ‘all Indians like to do is drink’…okay I’ll give you that one” (American Indian Comedy Slam). The comedians imply through their humor that drinking is a Native American issue instead of just an individual issue, and Eaglebear even goes as far as to covertly show that alcohol is more important to them than anything else. The absence of alcoholic jokes in Smoke Signals indicates that not all Native American comedians are willing to discuss this topic through humor, but the idea is not entirely off limits, either.

There is also themes of poverty, disprivilege, and the feeling of being stuck in the jokes of Native Americans. Redwater jokes that he didn’t know one could literally, physically leave the reservation. He claimed that getting off “the rez” was like “Gilligan getting off the island” (American Indian Comedy Slam). The thought that someone couldn’t get off a normal piece of land is ridiculous, but it speaks to the feeling of being stuck that many minorities find themselves in. Marc Yaffee talks about his broken home, calling his presumably deadbeat father “Runs from Responsibility,” alluding to the “Indian” names Natives give each other. Larry Omaha complained about being poor, and that all his toys were “donated, defective toys” and that he “had a Scrabble game with no vowels” (American Indian Comedy Slam). Again, the use of ridiculousness makes a realistic and otherwise dark subject matter humorous.

The ironic truth is that, according to Clyde Hall, outsiders think “that Indians don’t laugh.” But he claims that they “laugh about everything” (Garrett 196). This seems to be true: from poverty to smallpox to racism, Native Americans will find a way to humor themselves with what they got out of life, but it is not just the negative. Humor also reaches into the culture that many Native Americans are proud to be apart of. It is even discussed as a large part of the pan-Native culture itself. Native humor is described as an unnoticed “spiritual tradition” and an “integral part of life” that is good for the general well-being of those who enjoy it (Garrett 195-196). In fact, it can be argued that humor is essential to the Native Americans in order for them to maintain their cultural values of humility. According to the “Laughing It Up” article, teasing or “razzing” (alluding to participants’ lives in a humorous matter during storytelling) is utilized by the Native American people in order to not only humble those who are subject to the joking but also to create a connected, group atmosphere (Garrett 200-202). In fact, humor seems to be the only truly sacred tradition to the Native Americans. Charlie Hill speaks of these “deep rooted traditions” that kept Native Americans strong (American Indian Comedy Slam), but even if the Native Americans appreciate and hold close to these traditions, they do not see any reason not to make fun of them.

Smoke Signals depicts Native Americans making light of their own culture frequently, from mentioning “the oral tradition” as a double entendre, to creating Native chants about trivial things like basketball and John Wayne’s teeth. In fact, “John Wayne’s Teeth” was an actual chant written for Smoke Signals by the Native American musician Vaughn Eaglebear (American Indian Comedy Slam). It is important to note that, despite being an interested and active participant in the preservation of this genre of traditional Native American music, Eaglebear did not believe it would undermine or disrespect the tradition by making a parody of it. This situation serves as evidence to the fact that Native Americans are able to laugh at themselves and their culture. It may seem strange that a people so proud would find it so easy to poke fun at themselves like that, but, in context of the movie, Smoke Signals, Thomas and Victor make up this chant to cope with a rude encounter in which two white people took their spot on a bus, which serves as a parallel to Europeans taking their ancestors’ land. The silly song visibly made them happier. In Garrett’s “Laughing It Up” article, humor is stated to have served as an important coping mechanism for those “who have learned how to survive in the face of persecution, exploitation, and genocide” (Garrett 202). It is possible that being able to laugh trumps all other things in the Native American life, as an aspect of their culture that makes them happy in times where it seems impossible and that can never be stamped out by any sort of oppressor.

In the final slot of the American Indian Comedy Slam, Charlie Hill states that “you cannot extinguish the human spirit…we’re like that little Energizer Bunny, we just keep going and going and going” (American Indian Comedy Slam). Humor has greatly contributed to the development of this inspirational attitude in the Native Americans. According to several of the sources used in research for this paper, humor heals. Charlie Hill calls for action, saying “it’s time to heal” (American Indian Comedy Slam). The Native American’s unique brand of humor is not only there to lift them up and bring them closer together; their humor is a large contributor in the strength and resilience of the Native American people.

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