Many of you have heard a Lakota or Indian joke or two about being Indian from an Indian.
Most of us can laugh at the humor found within our culture. This form of bonding helps us to assert our identity as Indians. We all share a common language in humor, despite our tribal or cultural differences. We who are of Red skin, heart and mind should take no offense at our friendly Lakota trickster, the Iktomi jokes. Iktomi and his humor are part of our heritage and the universal language which was gifted to us by the Great Spirit.
It is sad nowadays that certain of our promising and talented youth are being discouraged by some who are overly sensitive about topics concerning our culture. I know of a young artist and illustrator who aspires to become a physician amidst a very acculturated stronghold of Indian Mormons. He lives as a traditionalist and a stranger among some of his own people. I wonder why it is that we as Red people have allowed a foreign religion, mindset and thought to persecute the social humorist and the characters which we find within our own people?
This young man produced a cartoon which had a “bite” to it as it had an element of truth about the ancestry requirement which allows people with ridiculously low blood quantum to enroll as members in some tribes. His cartoon must have struck a nerve with those who have minimal Indian blood. As a Lakota who has been on the receiving end of many jokes over the years, I was not offended by this young man’s cartoons and I and my family could see the humor in his social commentary.
We the Red Nation have experienced many hardships and at times all that we possess is our relationship with the Great Spirit and our ability to joke and laugh. My Heyoka son has taught me that it is possible to “laugh a person right into faith.” For when there is laughter, there is no room for doubt, worry or fear. It is said that the moment between laughter and sadness is as far as east is to west, with much space to grow spiritually.
Laughter is at the same time, a playful way to disarm and break the ice for Indians. Even in times of sadness such as when a loved one has passed, we Lakota can still laugh as we cry. How many of us remember the funny exploits of a relative as well as their good deeds recalled at their wake? This is a form of honoring and memorializing our beloved by having the living share a memorable experience or connection with our loved one.
As my Heyoka grandfather, John Fire/ Lame Deer and my Heyoka son, Wiconi Was’te have spoken throughout their lives, laughter is a key ingredient to the healing of a soul, identity and nation. Grandpa John spoke of the days when the Heyoka’s humorous exploits filled the soul with laughter and hope when empty stomachs, poverty and hopelessness cast their shadows upon the people.
Today with the Heyoka nearly extinct within all of our people, I find more and more the need for their presence to live on. These sacred clowns within our people were the truth tellers who pointed out through their “clowning” and commentary those sensitive or controversial topics which would otherwise not have been addressed. Our beloved Heyoka helped us to question some of the very underlying social issues concerning our own hearts and identities. At times the Heyoka humor was pointed and it shamed people into correcting their mistakes or ideals.
The Heyoka also helped to reshape, redefine and renew our relationships with our creator and each other. My son has taught me that laughter is as loud as thunder and for it has the power to pierce through one’s surroundings. The Heyoka know that laughter resounds in a spiritual way, like an echo. Laughter is contagious. When you laugh, others may laugh along with you. When it comes to Native humor, laughter unifies people and strengthens one’s pride for their race. Remember that other races have negatively stereotyped Indians thereby strengthening their ideals of racial supremacy.
Can you count the number of movies in which Non-Indian men with big noses were cast to portray Indian chiefs in Hollywood movies? As a pre-teen, one of my Lakota brothers worried about how his ears and nose looked. One day I saw him looking at his profile with a hand mirror. Since a Non-Indian teacher had commented that he had a nose like a “real Indian,” he asked me if he looked like a Chief. We laughed but this is typical of some of the negative stereotyping which still goes on.
It is in the truth found within humor which often touches a nerve among some people. I have never seen an Indian in heart and in skin angry about laughable Indian humor. We all deep down know who we truly are and what we portray. Some portray and perpetrate under the guise of being a card carrying Indian when there is notoriety or money to be made. These minimal bloods take great offense to the Indian references to blood quantum and Native American spirituality.
Have you ever seen a real Indian afraid to enter a room full of Indians or associate with them? If your answer is yes, then you must ponder why there is disease or fear among one’s own people? I have lived my life among Indians from different tribes and social groups. I have never felt any discomfort among the rich or the poor.
Almost every Indian I know is aware of the “wannabes” and the “tagalongs.” The “hangers on” of the “hang around the fort” Indians. Interestingly, it seems that those with minimal or no Indian blood either make up such names like the “Indian Foot” tribe or the “Northern Cherokee” tribe or “Northern Zuni” tribe. The most inventive or creative among these imposters seem to use tribal designations after their names, “adopted citizen of the Ponca, Dine, Cherokee” or other tribes or they say they are “married into” a tribe.
This is a joke itself. Since this Indian impersonation has become so popular, shouldn’t each tribe issue membership cards where blood quantum is clearly stated on the face of the card? Not all tribes do so- are they ashamed? We should all be proud of who we are and not be ashamed or angry when Indians laugh about Indian issues.
As a spiritual person, the Red Road has taught me that we are all the children of a Red God. Our gift in life is laughter and our children. It is up to all Lakota and all Native Americans to teach and to never forget that we also learn from our children some very important aspects of our culture. Children are eager to laugh and are not so spiritually burdened by the world with all of its worries and hatreds. Parents love to hear their children laugh. We as a people must also learn from our children how to laugh and to re-identify ourselves with our like red people.
There is nothing quite like Indian humor, it is a different cultural experience. Yet laughter is the key ingredient of our culture. Many Indian jokes are not funny to other groups and one would have to be an Indian to understand. For example, all you have to say is the word “commodity cheese” and it brings a smile to many faces. The “golden brick” as some might call it, is long sought after by many including Non-Indians. How about “running on Indian time”? Aayy! Many of us at one time or another have owned what we jokingly call an “Indian or Rez” car. We as Indian people can have a good laugh at these expressions. It is because we are comfortable in our own culture with our own jokes which are often misrepresented by mainstream society, but which are iconic to our culture.
I have observed that in nature, those of like species and distinct similarity, especially with respect to birds, really do flock together. The same is true for humans. If one is thin skinned and sensitive about their lack of any significant blood quantum, we might ask- Do you seek to produce a generation which is even more sensitive to laughable Indian humor? Or do you re-establish and reconnect with what has been bred out of you? If you should find yourself among a group of Indians, don’t get upset if you’re wearing an “Indian” mask and the Indians tell you it’s not Halloween yet. It seems that Indian humor is specific only to real Indians and sometimes laughable cartoons hit real close to home and people find that “the truth hurts.”
Wambli Sina Win (Eagle Shawl Woman) is currently an Associate Professor and
Director of the Bacone College Criminal Justice Studies Department in Muskogee,
Oklahoma. Her grandfather was John Fire, Chief Lame Deer Tahca Uste, a well
known Lakota Holy Man from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
One of her sons is also a medicine man. She has served as a Tribal Judge for the
Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Tribal Attorney and
as a legal Instructor for the U.S. Indian Police Academy at Artesia, N.M. You
may contact Wambli Sina Win, J.D. at email@example.com She can be reached
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