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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature
Martin Stehlík

Native American Humor and Its Reflections in the Work of Sherman Alexie
Master’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Jeffrey A. Vanderziel, B.A.

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature

I would like to thank Jeff Vanderziel and Mgr. Klára Kolinská, M.A., Ph.D. for their valuable help and support

Table of Contents

1. Introduction Error: Reference source not found

2. Native American Humor 5

Can Humor Be “Serious Art”? 5

Where Does the “Stoic Indian” Stereotype Come From? 8

Humor As Spiritual and Communal Tradition 12

Humor As a Weapon Against Victimization 14

Can White People Understand? 17

3. Basic Concepts, Features And Aspects of Indian Humor 26

Duality 26

Tricksters – Old Man Coyote And Others 30

Teasing, Razzing, Shame Stories – A Critical Insight into the Native Community Humor 38

4. Textual Analysis Of Sherman Alexie’s Short Stories and Other Prosaic Works 44

Sherman Alexie’s Background And His Position In Contemporary American Literature And Society 44

A Drug Called Indianness 50

Violence Versus Humor 56

Demon of Alcohol – Demon of Laughter 62

Coyote Aesthetics and Extreme Duality – Where Humor Meets Despair in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian 67

5. Conclusion 81

Abstract 83

Résumé 84

Works Cited 86

1. Introduction

Native American culture has developed throughout centuries of dramatic historical and social change into a distinctive form incomparable to anything similar worldwide. After a long period of oral tradition, its written literature began first as transcriptions of interviews with significant persons of Indian life translated, written down and often changed by various anthropologists, journalists, or collectors of shattered pieces of the oral legacy among the indigenous peoples. These changes were made for various reasons. One of them was the inability to understand and accurately translate into English the symbolism and imagery in the words of Indian chiefs, shamans, holy men or warriors. Another possible reason to transform and edit the original notes or recordings was to make those stories more acceptable, attractive and even marketable to the white audience. Today we may only speculate whether also various political interests were present in the minds of the first editors and publishers of those first written accounts of the Native American life.

One step toward an original Indian writing was accepting English as a universal means of communication. Even though this process was neither a peaceful nor a voluntary one, this inevitable consequence of the post-colonial development of the North American continent meant that the Euroamerican and native cultures could begin their mutual cultural challenge and confrontation.

For the cultural audience, the word Indian and its linguistic variations evoke a feeling of many romantic connotations. The Wild West mythology (more than reality) created an ideological base for European version of the Scout movement, as well as the Czech national phenomenon of “tramping” movement in the first decades of the twentieth century.

In Europe, the interest in the Indian myth was undoubtedly intensified by the immense popularity of books by Karl May, a German writer of adventure fiction. Later made into films, those stories showed a highly romanticized vision of the Wild West conquest, with Winnetou and Old Shatterhand as central figures representing the stoic Indian and a white prospector stereotypes. Not very much different from their American fictional counterparts, Tonto and The Lone Ranger, those heroes played a vital role in shaping a widely accepted, though in many ways false insight into the white-Indian struggle, as seen from the majority point of view. In the European case, this happened without any possibility to confront the fiction with reality. May was not the only writer who, fascinated by the romanticism of the Wild West, helped create the false myth of the Native American life. His predecessor in the United States was James Fenimoore Cooper who inspired other American writers at the turn of the century and later to write works of western fiction, such as Owen Wister and Louis L’Amour.

This all leads to an interesting paradox: although many people may claim that they are well acquainted with the Indian history and present situation, not all of them will be able to tell the difference between the image they want to believe in, and the reality. Furthermore, only a very limited number of people will go beyond the works of popular culture as an “educational means” and find their way to more realistic sources, either historical or offered by quality culture. Lastly, I dare say that the will and possibility to read Native American authors and thus acquire a realistic image from the inside of their culture among the European audience except the scholars and enthusiasts is almost equal to none.

I am deeply convinced that the American Indian nations have lived through and been a forming element of such a significant - though extremely dramatic and sad - historical period in the post-colonial world that their stories deserve to be revealed in their pure and true form. Apart from the efforts of social sciences to map and describe this part of human history, also literature and other art forms must find their way to reflect the Indian world.

Since the Indian and Euro-American white majority communities are still trying to define their mutual relationship in modern-day America, and for the general public worldwide the Native American issues are an attractive topic still to be discussed, there is definitely a large potential audience for authors writing from, and being a part of the Indian background.

For the purpose of my thesis I have chosen to analyze Native American humor, a phenomenon contradicting the widely accepted “stoic warrior” image, and still one of the most crucial and defining aspects of the Indian oral, as well as written literary tradition. I am going to challenge the false myths of Indian stoicism and explore possible reasons why humor is a natural element in the spiritual as well as communal life of the Native American population. Another issue discussed in my thesis will be the possible chance to comprehend the subtle nuances of the Indian humor by listeners and readers from the mainstream white-dominated culture. To provide a conceptual and historical analysis of the Native American humor I have chosen to trace the roots of various representations of the Trickster, a crucial creation myth figure. Furthermore, I am going to analyze the element of duality as a characteristic feature of the Indian humorous discourses.

To demonstrate my findings on a particular example, I have aimed at the writing style of Sherman Alexie, the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene author, with particular focus on his short story works in the second part of my thesis. Apart from providing examples of the various shades of humorous expression described in the theoretical part, I am going to point out some of the problematic social issues which both the reservation and urban Indians in contemporary America have to face, such as alcoholism, poverty, violence, family disintegration, and search for identity.

I believe that humor can serve as a good communicator allowing the Indian and white American cultures better mutual understanding, helping them to bridge their cultural gaps, and partly redress the historical injustice the Indians have suffered. I also hope that this analysis can bring some fresh views on the Native American writing and thinking, and motivate the readers even from different backgrounds and cultures to acquaint themselves with Indian authors.

2. Native American Humor

Can Humor Be “Serious Art”?

Humor plays undoubtedly a crucial role in defining cultural and social boundaries as well as divisions. I believe it is vital to have a closer look at the role of this often undervalued expression means in the works of art, as well as to find out what position humor holds in the studies of psychology, sociology and literature, and thus explain the seemingly contradicting title of this chapter.

In her essay, Guisela M. Latorre assumes that the power in humor of minority cultures, with the main emphasis on the Chicano and Native American ones, can be both regenerative and transgressive. She claims that the humorous aesthetics of the contemporary art emerging from these cultures bears a serious message, stating that “the use of humor, wit, irony and satire in the work by these artists function in both cases as strategies of cultural survival as well as a means to expose racial, social and gender hierarchies in U.S. dominant culture” (2).

Nevertheless, humor is usually viewed as a means of popular expression, rather than a serious artistic feature. This is so probably because of a stereotypical opinion that if we watch a comedy it must function as a lower form of entertainment providing us with quick release from everyday stress. Latorre observes that “in Western culture we often find a general attitude that associates humor with popular culture and the intellect with “high culture” (3).

Yet, art historians have already seriously explored its functions and roles. Wendy Wick Reaves expressed a view that “art historians often have a snobbish distrust toward humor because of the belief that art ought to be taken seriously” and blamed extreme amount of intellectuality defining the art history studies, which according to him “rejected forms of creative expression that might be easily accessible to a non-academic audience” (qtd. in Latorre 2-3).

Popular culture, television with its soup operas, sitcoms, quizzes, and reality shows but also experimental theatre with its interactive features has transformed our understanding of the humorous from the one of Chaucer or Shakespeare to the one of a consumer in the postmodern industrialized society where we do not expect raising philosophical questions or gaining a deep artistic experience from a piece of humorous art.

Still, for those using humor as a powerful literary expression means, this can bring a certain advantage. As Latorre suggests, “humor can often function as a lure to the unsuspecting observer or viewer who doesn’t think a serious political message can possibly be couched within a humorous format” (2). Assuming this, she observes that authors slipping in the social and political critique can thus utilize the element of surprise.

Understanding Indian humor in the cross-cultural background of the Native American versus Euro-American dominant cultures is another element, which makes it not an easy matter to handle in the literary context, and the reader or listener must always be alert to catch the joke. Lincoln considers it a “risky business”, assuming that “literate” here means “verbally skilled,” [...] and crafting a good joke, telling a comic story, or simply conveying one’s humor may be the highest verbal (and transverbal) interactive art of all.” He also quotes Sigmund Freud who considered joking a kind of daily cultural poetry (7). In his studies of psychoanalysis of dreams, he frequently used the term Witz, suggesting “the ability to make things up, to create on the go, to “cobble” reality” but also “an alertness, a quick state of mind, more than gentility or the “joke” as comic relief” (Lincoln 34).

It all makes it possible to consider humor a serious and efficient literary and psychological tool, especially because of the intellectual capacity needed for its decoding. “Most theoreticians concur that joking involves some kind of insight, perception, or understanding […] when we move from bewilderment to a moment of illumination, as Freud underscores” (Lincoln 35). We can also witness an interesting binary situation when, through jokes, we are relieved temporarily of the burdens of the serious, and still invest most of our ability to read the world. Thus, “joking requires wit to decode reality” (Lincoln 36).

In the Indian context, the poetry of jokes again reminds us of duality as the central aspect of the indigenous storytelling tradition and cultural imagery. Lincoln calls it “a mediation of play and reality” acting as “holy fooling in the presence of spiritual power” (36).

The importance of humor in the course of centuries of cultural development of mankind is also visible when we take into account the etymological and linguistic connotations of the word “humor” itself. Lincoln offers some intriguing observations on the subject. Based on words “humus”, or soil, and “human”, or person, it gives a linguistic impression of a person grounded in his or her identity. When we continue to observe it from the perspective of the late Middle Ages, “humours” meant the “fluids of personality – literally the flow of coloring spirits, the protean life force of water”, suggesting “the fluid resilience of life itself” (32).

Hence we can conclude that humor as not only a literary expression means but as a mirror of human psyche has been always present in the communities from the times when the first languages appeared, and we can trace it in the works of art since the times of Homer, representing an important aspect of character. Being it a Freudian witz, or a spirit behind specific jokes, an aesthetic category of “the comic”, or simply a quick presence of mind deciphering different levels of understanding, its place in the cultural development of mankind is indisputable.

Where Does the “Stoic Indian” Stereotype Come From?

In their essay Laughing It Up: Native American Humor as Spiritual Tradition, Garrett with his co-authors claim that “contrary to the stereotypical belief that Indians are solemn, stoic figures posed against a backdrop of tepees, tomahawks, and headdresses, the fact is that most Native people love to laugh and always love a good story” (194-95). Naturally, I have to pose questions as where this “stoic warrior” image then comes from, why it has been so attractive for the romantic fiction authors, and I am going to trace reflections of this topic in Sherman Alexie’s work.

Mark Thompson quotes Clyde Hall (Shoshone-Metis) when asked: “What is the most important thing that white people still don’t know about Indian people; what are some of the big lies and cultural myths that still linger on?” The answer followed: “That Indians don't laugh. We laugh about everything, that's the way we survive. It's kind of dry, insane sense of humor. It's better than crying - we do that, too. But anytime you laugh about something, it shatters it. Then it doesn't have any power over you” (Thompson 126). As we can understand from this quote, even the Indians themselves feel the inappropriateness of the stoic image held towards them by most whites.

Another fine explanation from the inside of the Indian community came in the interview with Phil Lane Sr. (Yankton Lakota) who, when commenting on the opinion that the Indians are stoic which was held by his white relatives asserted that: “This is not necessarily true. We just wait to see the true person. Given time, he (or she) will show his (or her) true self, so we wait and time will provide the proof” (qtd. in Garret et al. 198).

In his observations of the Indian life, Sherman Alexie also had to cope with this “stoic Indian” figure, and dealt with it in his own way. A good example appeared in the award-winning motion picture, Smoke Signals. The following dialog is performed between Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire on their trip off the reservation while they are facing suspicious reactions by the white travelers on the bus:

Victor Joseph: “Quit grinning like an idiot. Indians ain’t supposed to smile like that! Get stoic, like this. You gotta look mean or people won’t respect you. White people will run all over you if you don’t look mean. You gotta look like a warrior! You gotta look like you just came back from killing a buffalo!”

Thomas Builds-the-Fire: “But our tribe never hunted buffalo - we were fishermen.”

Victor Joseph: “What! You want to look like you just came back from catching a fish? This ain’t Dances With Salmon, you know!” (italics in original)

Apart from this ironic dialogue taken from Alexie's screenplay, the author himself commented on the hatred with which he views the stereotypes connected with Indian people, and especially those fed by the romantic fiction movies. In the article entitled I Hated Tonto (Still Do) he describes how his feelings towards the cinematic Indians have evolved through years. He admits that as a boy he loved all the unreal fictional Indian characters, even those played by white actors. As he grew older, he “cringed in shame and embarrassment with every stereotypical scene” while watching Powwow Highway after years. He finds out that he came to hate the stereotypes he at first admired because they represented the values he did not find in himself:

I watched the movies and saw the kind of Indian I was supposed to be. A cinematic Indian is supposed to climb mountains. I am afraid of heights. A cinematic Indian is supposed to wade into streams and sing songs. I don’t know how to swim. A cinematic Indian is supposed to be a warrior. I haven't been in a fistfight since sixth grade and she beat the crap out of me. I mean, I knew I could never be as brave, as strong, as wise, as visionary, as white as the Indians in the movies. I was just one little Indian boy who hated Tonto because Tonto was the only cinematic Indian who looked like me.

We may thus conclude that one reason for creating the stereotypical imagery of Indians in the movies was to create an artificial object of heroic past pursued by the white majority opinions and aims, both artistic, and cultural. Ironically, it was a successful strategy affecting even opinions of the young generation of educated Indians, as we can see from Alexie's comments.

Needless to say, one of the reasons why Smoke Signals gained its reputation and admiration was the fact that in 1998 it was the very first full-length feature movie to be written, produced, and directed by Indians. Many saw it as the beginning of a new era, a cultural performance bringing fresh and not distorted insights into the Native American culture brought to a wider audience.

As we can see, the stoicism stereotypically associated with the American Indians is rather a white invention corresponding with the view the invaders wanted to create in their romanicized ideas about the first inhabitants of the American continent in the period following the land annexion and almost complete destruction of the original culture. If there is some truth to the notion of the stoic Indian warrior, it is rather a false first impression, given by the Indian art of quiet observation than a fixed feature of their character which does not have to contradict with their well-developed and distinctive sense of humor. The Indians themselves are well aware of this observation made by the whites, and quite often comment on it in their own writing.

So why do they laugh? In his book on Native American humor, Kenneth Lincoln quoted Stanley Vestal, assuming that “the Indian is actually a very human person – humorous, sexy, sensitive, touchy and quick-tempered, a great gossip and practical joker, a born mimic, a politician from infancy, and an incorrigible lover of human society” (qtd. in Lincoln 13). Apart from this vivid description, which is general as well as precisely accurate, there are a number of specific reasons why Indians find delight in laughter. I am going to explore some of these in the following chapters.
Humor As Spiritual and Communal Tradition

Following the discourse on false stereotyping the Indians as solemn and stoic figures by the mainstream society, I am going to open the exploration of reasons why and situations when humor is naturally present in the lives of the Native Americans by having a closer look at the features often connoted with their culture, and these are their spirituality and sense of community.

Kelly offers an explanation that spirituality can be defined as “a way of being and experiencing that comes about through awareness of a transcendent dimension and that is characterized by certain identifiable values in regard to self, others, nature, life” (qtd. in Garret et al. 195), and goes on to claim that despite being unnoticed by the mainstream culture, Indian humor as a valuable part of this spiritual dimension has also served as a powerful healing force throuhout history. This is especially true for the cultural survival of the Native Americans. M. T. Garret and Pichette are convinced that the Native humor and its resilience have stood the test of time as a testament in the process of surviving the “horror of countless acts of cultural genocide committed by people from mainstream America in the name of civilization” (qtd. in Garret et al. 195).

Garrett gives an example of an old Cherokee animal story with trickster features, where the Rabbit tricks arrogant Possum who takes pride in his long and beautiful tail by organizing a ceremony where all the animals would take part in a competition to let their tails be admired. To teach Possum a lesson in humility, the Rabbit promises to prepare his tail in the most beautiful fashion for the ceremony but shaves it bald instead. Embarrassed Possum plays dead when all the animals burst out laughing. Garrett points out that in Native humor, “one can easily end up as the butt (or tail) of a joke”, and that the sense of generosity an humility are highly valued among the Cherokee people, as well as their emphasis on community (198).

Other important functions humor plays in the communal and spiritual contexts is dissipating tension, dealing with potential conflicts, or subtly communicating a serious message, Garret observes, and quotes Vine Deloria, Jr. giving an example of a missionary who used to scare people with numerous tales of hell. When he asked an old chief where he would like to go after death, the chief answered that it would depend on the place the missionary was supposed to be going. When the missionary replied that as someone spreading the faith and gospel he was going to heaven, the chief replied: “Then I’ll go to hell” (Deloria 152).

Velma Salabiye believes that as far as humor and its perception in the indigenous communities are concerned “there seems to be a cultural perspective behind the individual persona” (qtd. in Lincoln 6), and looks in more detail at the Navajo’s cultural tradition. “A Navajo who can ‘see’ and express the humor of situations is highly cherished and appreciated as a family member, a guest, a visitor, or a fellow worker,” Gary Witherspoon adds. He continues to explain that “Navajo humor emphasizes wit and is often very subtle. At the basis of this humor are creative thought and creative expression” (qtd. in Lincoln 6).

Lincoln adds another fine example of the importance of humor in the cultural and spiritual life of the tribal community among the Navajo – the so-called first laugh rite. When a Navajo child laughs out loud for the first time, the extended relatives are invited to be symbolically given salt and bread. “This crystalline cut of daily sustenance, good humor, and grace ensures lifelong generosity as a facet of Navajo tribalism”, concludes Lincoln (6).

It should be evident that humor acts as a forming element of the communal life of Native Americans as well as an important spiritual value with strong relieving and even healing effects. In my investigation into these aspects of Indian humor I have found out that although there are numerous variations from tribe to tribe, and it is thus dangerous to generalize, even a simple joke or a comic story can provide us with a serious and enriching insight into a culture, community, and spiritual understanding of the surrounding world.

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