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INDIAN HUMOR See also PowerPoints on “Alexie’s Humorous Names,” and “Ethnic Humor”. by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Kachina Dancers. APACHE HUMOR.

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indian humor see also powerpoints on alexie s humorous names and ethnic humor

INDIAN HUMORSee also PowerPoints on “Alexie’s Humorous Names,” and “Ethnic Humor”

by Don L. F. Nilsen

and Alleen Pace Nilsen

apache humor
  • Apaches are fond of mocking white speech with high-pitched English exclamations like “I don’t like it, my friend. You don’t look good to me. Maybe you’re sick, need to eat some aspirins!.”
  • Such language contains much verbal play, code-switching, stock phrases, specific lexical items, recurrent sentence types, and modifications in pitch, volume, tempo, and voice quality (Lowe 198).
arapaho contraries
  • Arapaho contraries groan loudly when they lift light objects and pretend not to notice when lifting truly heavy objects.
  • John Lowe writes about ritual clowns.
  • “Dressed outrageously, frequently in rags and masks, they would mimic the serious kachina dancers, stumbling, falling, throwing or even eating filth or excrement, setting up rival fake-Gods and “worshipping” them in an exaggerated fashion, only to beat them a few seconds later.”
  • “Much of their humor was sexual, and some of them were permitted to grab spectators’ genitals” (Lowe 193-194).
  • Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man is based on Flaming Rainbow’s autobiographical Black Elk Speaks. Flaming Rainbow’s other name is John G. Neihardt.
  • In Little Big Man, a contrary clown arrives riding backwards on a horse with his body painted in motley colors. He says “Goodbye” for “Hello,” “I’m glad I did it!” for “I’m sorry.” He cleans himself with sand, and then exits by walking through the river.
In the summer, a contrary might pretend to feel cold and dress in buffalo robes. In the winter he pretends to be warm as he stands naked in the snow.
corrective humor
  • In the tribal community, humor is used to help people correct innapropriate behavior.
  • Indians often refer to their Indian brothers and sisters as being “apples.”
  • This is extending a long parade of ethnic capitulations with Whites by referring to blacks as Oreos, Asians as Bananas and Hispanics as Coconuts (Katz 77).
Sterotypical Indian art for tourist shops is sarcastically referred to as the “Bambi School,” because it creates a “proliferation of deer prancing over purple mountains” (Katz 75).
cowboys and indians
  • “Indians make the best cowboys” (Alexie 18).
  • Victor’s father tells Victor, “I remember the first time your mother and I danced. We were in this cowboy bar. We were the only real cowboys there despite the fact that we’re indians” (Alexie 29).
“Forget about the cowboys versus Indians business. The most intense competition on any reservation is Indians versus Indians” (Alexie 188).
  • Coyote, who is the creator of all the Indians, was sitting on a cloud. He was bored, so he started clipping his toenails. He looked around for somewhere to throw the toenail clippings, and couldn’t find any place.
  • So he got really mad and dropped his clippings over the side of the cloud and they fell to earth (Alexie 135).
“The clippings burrowed into the ground like seeds and grew up to be the white man.”
  • “Coyote, he looked down at his newest creation and said, ‘Oh shit’” (Alexie 135).
Talking about Coyote stories, Yellowman said that they “are not funny stories.” The people laugh at the way Coyote does things, and at the way the story is told, but “the story is not funny.”
  • The stories are told because, “If my children don’t hear the stories, they will grow up to be bad” (Toelken and Scott 80).
Coyote can be found in the poetry and prose of many contemporary writers.
  • For example, Coyote allows Peter Blue Cloud to make fun of current events: “People are still doing the same stupid and good things that they were doing hundreds of years ago, so why not tell the same stories and just bring them up to today?” (Bruchac 31).
creek muskogee humor
  • Alexander Posey created a fictional ethnic “reporter” named Fus Fixico (which means “fearless bird”) to comment on the wrongs done to the Creek people by the U.S. Government.
  • Posey sometimes used the pen name “Chinnubbie Harjo,” who in Muskogee mythology was a trickster who could change his character (Lowe 198-199).
dakota clowns
  • In Dakota cultures, clowning and exaggerating are deemed to be therapeutic.
  • Throughout Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and the movie version, Smoke Signals, a very common Indian expression is “enit.”
  • “Want to get something to eat?”
  • “Yeah.”
  • “How about a hamburger at Dick’s?”
  • “Sounds good, enit?” (Alexie 217).
hopi humor
  • In Hopi, the word for “clowning” is the same word as that used for “making a point” (Nilsen and Nilsen 27).
  • Hopi verbal humor relies heavily on puns, many of them sexual (Malotki 205).
  • In her I Tell You Now, Paula Gunn Allen talked about what she called, “an odd brand of English…a punning, cunning language that is mostly local, mostly half-breed spoken by the people around me, filled with elegance and vulgarity side by side, small jokes that are language jokes and family jokes and area jokes.”
koshari contraries
  • Koshari contraries talk backwards and know how to babble total nonsense.
mayan contraries
  • Mayan contraries pretend to be afraid of inconsequential events and fall to the ground when confronted by small obstacles.
navajo humor
  • In the Navajo culture, the first time an infant laughs, the family holds a celebration in which the child symbolically provides bread and salt to the family members and guests, signifying that he or she is now a part of the tribe.
oppressed peoples
  • Indians, like Jews, blacks, and other oppressed peoples, learn the rules and then invert them.
  • Custer was well dressed at the Little Big Horn. When the Sioux found his body, he had on an Arrow shirt.
  • He had boasted that he could ride through the entire Sioux nation. He was half right. He made it half-way through (Deloria 149).
pan indian humor
  • When Bill Moyers asked Louise Erdrich about the humor in her poems, in her short stories and in her Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and Tracks, Erdrich said that creating and enjoying ironic survival humor, often at the expense of the white oppressors, might be one of the few universal characteristics shared by all U.S. Indian tribes.
Vine Deloria observed that when the missionaries first came to America, they had all of the Bibles, and the Indians had all the land.
  • Now, the missionaries have all the land, and all the Indians have is the Bible (Nilsen and Nilsen 27).
  • Deloria says that in Indian affairs very little is accomplished without humor. “Humor is used not only for entertainment but also for education and for spurring people to action.”
In 1988, Vine Deloria named his book Custer Died for Your Sins after a bumper sticker on the Sioux reservation which was designed to tease missionaries.
Kenneth Lincoln explains that “not only do Indians bold and revitalize, scapegoat and survive through laughter, but they draw on millenia-old traditions of Trickster gods and holy fools, comic romances and epic boasts.”
  • In Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals there is a T-shirt advertising “Fry Bread Power,” and when Victor’s mother magically feeds a crowd that is twice as big as she had expected by raising her arms heavenward and solemnly ripping each piece of fry bread in half, this is known as “The Miracle of the Fry Bread.”
The KREZ radio station has a traffic reporter who reports on the two or three cars he sees from the top of his broken-down Volkswagen van. The enthusiastic announcer on KREZ shouts out, “It’s a great day to be indigenous!”
  • Meanwhile, back at home, Victor tells Thomas to shut off the TV, saying, “There’s only one thing more pathetic than Indians on TV and that’s Indians watching Indians on TV.”
pueblo clowns
  • Clowns in Pueblo communities dress in rags and masks and mock the serious Kachina dancers by stumbling, falling down, throwing and sometimes miming the eating of excrement.
  • They also pretend to worship fake gods in an exaggerated manner.
the reservation
  • “There’s an old Indian poet who said that Indians can reside in the city, but they can never live there” (Alexie 187).
  • Victor’s father in The Lone Ranger was wearing old jeans and a red T-shirt. “He looked as Indian as you can get” (Alexie 219).
“I could spend my whole life on the reservation and never once would I see a friend of mine and think how Indian he looked. But as soon as I get off the reservation, among all the white people, every Indian gets exaggerated.”
  • “My father’s braids looked three miles long and black and shiny as a police-issue revolver” (Alexie 219).
reservation quiet
  • Victor’s father left his mother. At night he would imagine his father’s motorcycle pulling up outside. He would rush around the house, pull on his shoes, socks, and coat and run outside to find an empty driveway. “It was so quiet, a reservation kind of quiet, where you can hear somebody drinking whiskey on the rocks three miles away” (Alexie 35).
reservation realism
  • Alexie says that the stories he tells are not really true. They are the vision of one person looking at the lives of his family, and his entire tribe, so they are “biased, incomplete, exaggerated, deluded, and often just plain wrong.” He calls his stories “reservation realism” (Alexie xxi).
  • Alexie says that every indian in his book is dark skinned with long black hair. “It’s the Stepford Tribe of Indians” (Alexie xxii).
“On a reservation, Indian men who abandon their children are treated worse than white fathers who do the same thing. It’s because white men have been doing that forever and Indian men have just learned how. That’s how assimilation can work” (Alexie 34).
reservation traffic
  • Adrian asked, “When did that…traffic signal quit working?”
  • “Don’t know.”
  • “…They better fix it. Might cause an accident.”
  • They both looked at each other, then looked at the traffic signal, and knew that only about one car passed by every hour (Alexie 48).
  • “Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you” (Alexie 21).
  • “What you have to do is keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons” (Alexie 21).
“Sometimes your skeletons will dress up as beautiful Indian women and ask you to slow dance. Sometimes your skeletons will dress up as your best friend and offer you a drink” (Alexie 22).
  • “But no matter what they do, keep walking, keep moving. And don’t wear a watch. Hell, Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. That’s what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now” (Alexie 22).
a sober indian
  • “A sober Indian has infinite patience with a drunk Indian. There ain’t many who do stay sober. Most spend time in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and everybody gets to know the routines.”
  • “Hi, my name is Junior.”
  • “Hi, Junior,” everybody shouts in ironic unison.
  • “Hi, my name is Lester FallsApart, and I’ve been drunk for twenty-seven straight years” (Alexie 204).
Victor’s father in Alexie’s novel says, “even though the wreck was mostly my fault, he got the blame. I was sober and the cops couldn’t believe it. They never heard of a sober Indian getting in a car wreck.”
  • “Like Ripley’s Believe It or Not?”
  • “Something like that” (Alexie 218).
the stoic indian
  • Washington Irving, after a trip to the prairies in 1832, said that Indians are “by no means the stoics that they are represented…. When the Indians are among themselves…there cannot be greater gossips…. They are great mimics and buffoons also, and entertain themselves excessively at the expense of the whites…reserving all comments until they are alone. Thus it is that they give full scope to criticism, satire, mimicry, and mirth” (Basso x).
tohono o odham clowns
  • The Tohono O’Odham Indians are also known as the Papago Indians. Tohono O’Odham clowns use squeaks and signs to beg food from the audience.
  • Karl Kroeber says that Trickster stories allow us to “have fantasy indulgence in taboo behavior, release psychic tension, and simultaneously present a cautionary tale; but more important is the storytelling itself, which the audience participates in” (Kroeber 82).
In Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller, Coyote rides a bus to the Hopi Second Mesa.
  • Northwest Indians often show Trickster as a Raven with the ability to shoot arrows and carve out canoes.
Eastern tribes favored Rabbit as a Trickster, while Southwestern and Plains tribes favored the Coyote.
  • The Deer, the Hare, the Spider, the Jay, the Wolverine, and the “Old Man” Nanaboyho also play the Trickster role (Lowe 194).
Andrew Wiget outlines the qualities of the Indian trickster as follows:
  • They exhibit independence from temporal and spatial boundaries.
  • They are creative, destructive, and amusing, often in scatalogical ways.
  • They are heroes, but they are also villains.
  • They are abnormal both mentally and physically.
They have enlarged sexual qualities and enormous libidos.
  • They represent extremes (young-old, good-evil, life-death).
  • They appear either as humans with animal qualities, or as animals with human qualities.
  • They have an endearing relationship with their mothers or grandmothers.
Most Indian languages are agglutinating so that a complete sentence is found in a single word—for example:



TRANSLATION: “I fish on my side; you fish on your side; nobody fish in the middle!”