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Humor As a Weapon Against Victimization


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Humor As a Weapon Against Victimization

The fact that America has formed a large part of its cultural development in accord with the ethnic humor can be demonstrated by John Lowe’s comment that apart from pleasure, ethnic humor has a “connection with mythical concepts of aggression, struggle, and our national passion play and ritual, “Americanization”. Though Lowe admits that in writing, Indians become often solemn and serious, he immediately adds: “although minorities have often entered into full citizenship through long and arduous struggle, this procedure has sometimes been both shortened and sweetened when they have made up their minds to enter laughing” (qtd. in Lincoln 17).

One aspect of postcolonial development of the Indian versus Euroamerican relationships is that the dominant society views the Native minority as something other. Latorre suggests that this was due to the romantic notion of the noble savage beginning in the nineteenth century, and also the devastating influence of the institution of anthropology (4). By this division between the majority and minority, the majority culture often ridiculed the natives, and “humor became one of the many tools dominant culture utilized to further colonize, marginalize and attack the cultural other” (2).

Generally, the dominant groups in postcolonial settings turn their humor against the oppressed ones and thus consolidate their power and supremacy. Anyway, this oppression is not always based on the notion of the unlimited power of the dominant. It can arise from completely opposite feeling, the one of fear. Chicana/o studies scholar Guillermo Hernández commented that “stigmatized members of a social group may be subjected to the antagonism or even hatred of majorities who feel threatened [by this group]” (qtd. in Latorre 3). His idea is developed in an observation that those tendencies to ridicule the cultural or ethnic Other are usually accentuated when there pervades a feeling that the minority is not assimilating to the mainstream as quickly or smoothly as desired by the dominant group.

The Native American artists did not hesitate and began using the same weapon for their own protection, believing, according to Latorre, that presence of humor deeply rooted in their cultural make-up can act as a unifying element not only for the mutual relationships among tribes, but giving all indigenous peoples of North America the feeling of a “broader hemispheric consciousness” (12). This is also in perfect accord with the art historian Elizabeth Childs’s observation that “when the dominant ideology seeks to repress its opposition, the less powerful may forge solidarity and identity through humor and satire” (qtd. in Latorre 3).

More radical words were uttered by Paula Gunn Allen in her responses to Kenneth Lincoln’s questionnaire on Indian joking: “Not to make too much of it, but humor is the best and sharpest weapon we’ve always had against the ravages of conquest and assimilation. And while it is a tiny projectile point, it’s often sharp, true and finely crafted” (Lincoln 7).

When pointing out the common history, culture and political consciousness between Native American and Chicana/o populations in the United States, Latorre suggests that comparative ethnic studies have already covered the fact that the “shared history of displacement, colonization and marginalization has allowed Native and Mexican populations in this country to connect in political, cultural and spiritual ways” (1). This supports the above-mentioned arguments that Indian humor can act as a form of a cultural counterstrike fighting back the oppressive tendencies of the dominant white Euro-American culture. Latorre also argues that the humorous aesthetics of the contemporary art of both native American and Chicana/o authors is a clear consequence of the discussed cultural fight. She goes on to claim 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) and quotes Maciel and Herrera-Sobek, adding that “when marginalized communities go from passive objects of ridicule to active agents of mischief, they are definitely subverting the social order” (4).

As we can observe, the fact that Native American as well as other minority groups throughout the American continent have been using humor extensively in their works of art can be viewed also from a political and socio-cultural perspective as a form of fighting against oppression from the dominant culture. Except for providing escape from the pain of the limitations and injustice of the post-colonial order, humor can also function as a powerful means of defiance and resistance. This not only offers an opportunity to unify more ethnic groups in reaching their common goals, but when these groups transform from their passive roles into the more active ones, they can achieve a stronger position within the dominant cultural background.

Can White People Understand?

In a multicultural society, the choice of the common language (or languages) necessarily influences not only the political or social supremacy of the dominant ethnic group but also mutual cultural understanding among the particular groups forming the structure of this society. When analyzing Native American humor as a communication means, I naturally have to pose a question whether and to what extent the humorous massage can be reached and comprehended by the white majority.

It appears that humor in this context can be perceived at three mutually interconnected levels – ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. Before I explore these and advance further arguments, the primary concern which should be mentioned is whether it is always desired to let the message be grasped by the “out” group. As I have pointed out earlier in this thesis, humor often acts as a weapon, which definitely calls for its comprehension when it should be used against the majority group. On the other hand, humor as a spiritual and communal heritage among the Indian communities sometimes acts as a unifying element bringing along the feeling of unity and sharing the common burdens, as well as a protective or releasing feature. In this respect I believe that its message may, and even is supposed to remain hidden from the outside world. As Lincoln observes, “Indians laugh with special significance among themselves” (23).

However, as most of the analytical works dedicated to the topic of Indian humor have been written by Native American authors, and are intended to be read by the general public with the intention to explain and research the subject, I am convinced that the confrontation between the Indian and white understanding should be explored further.

When Taylor raises a question whether the Native American humor is fundamentally different from other nations’ one, he asserts that yes, but not exceedingly. “We are talking nuances, subtleties. It’s as if the chicken is the joke, but the sauce or the unique flavours of the joke’s humour come from various cultures” (1). Another metaphor he uses is the one of making love. In discussion about a film project aimed at explaining some elements of Indian humor, his white friend wondered why this was a topic worth exploring, suggesting that like with sex, Indians do “it” the same way as the whites. Taylor responded, in a very Indian way: “Except our tan lines are a little less obvious.” (1). This view represents the ethnical level of understanding a particular people’s sense of humor. The division between them and us suggests that the ethnic background can to some extent pose a difference in creating, accepting, and understanding the humorous discourse. It can be argued that with more than some five hundred tribal variants all around the United States, the Indian ethnicity should be divided further into local branches, and as Lincoln observes, some tribes “are not much unified on anything but resistance to Anglo encroachment” (22). Still, he believes in the ethnic glue of Indian humor, and pan-Indian alliance in sharing the same features in humorous expression, when pointing out that “Not only do Indians bond and revitalize, scapegoat and survive through laughter, but they draw on millennia-old traditions of Trickster gods and holy fools, comic romance and epic boast” (22). In accord with another Lincoln’s observation that “law, religion, literature, social science, and the comic spirit can have a common axis in Indi’n humor - integrative spirit of Native America” (23), we may thus conclude that the Native American ethnicity does stand as a separate category in the efforts to understand the Indian humor, and as readers outside this ethnic group, we must be aware of this fact.

Closely related to the ethnical issue is the cultural level of perception. Different historic consequences, religious development, and understanding the surrounding world make the indigenous people necessarily differently equipped with linguistic and other artistic means of expression, as well as motivations to describe the world around. To understand the humorous subtleties, readers from the outside groups must, at least to some extent, be acquainted with the cultural background to decipher them. As it is the case with the countless Jewish anecdotes, an informed reader will gain better comprehension if he or she is well aware of all the historic, religious, and cultural consequences and stereotypes based around this ethnical and cultural group. The same situation appears when we are to grasp a famous Indian one-liner, recorded by Deloria, which very well represents the Freudian economy of release in dreams, jokes, and poetry: “What did you call this country before Columbus?” “Ours”, comes the answer (qtd. in Lincoln 23). The bitterness of this utterance gets even brighter contours when the reader is acquainted with the enormous hatred the Indians feel towards the white expansion across the Indian land, the history of land annexion, broken treaties, and racial as well as cultural holocaust. The numerous Columbus and Custer jokes are fine examples of comic confrontations with this common feeling among the Native Americans.

Why should then the white people try to understand Indian humor from the cultural perspective? I am convinced that though sometimes harsh and cruel, sometimes sad or accusing, humor can serve as a good communicator bringing the majority Euro-American and Native American cultures together by providing more light to their respective feelings towards each other, and giving a better chance to overcome the past and present wrongs in their mutual future relationships. As Deloria observes in his timeless account on white versus Indian struggle, Custer Died For Your Sins: “When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive” (167), and he adds: “One of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh” (146). In this respect it is also possible to agree with Lincoln believing that “Indi’n humor may well be an undiscovered index to America’s first people” (23).

Needless to say, getting closer to each other through humor is not an easy process and it requires enormous efforts on both sides. Different attitudes to life are rooted in the very basis of the white colonization of the American continent, and in the values held by the first white settlers. When describing some of the Native religious rituals, seemingly contradicting with the European-based behavior standards, sometimes containing humorous aspects (such as libidinous tendencies in the pan-Indian Trickster creation myths or drinking urine and bathing in dung to stretch the limits of gods by the Pueblo koshares), Lincoln asserts that “The particularities here are not easy to assimilate for non-Indians, steeped in the American work ethic, plain moral styles, and a Puritan exclusion of humor from serious or sacred sites” (22).

To complicate the process of mutual understanding between the white majority and the Native Americans further, yet another significant element which makes it not an easy thing to pursue, is the linguistic aspect. Drew Hayden Taylor comments on a denial to participate in his collection of essays on Native American humor by the noted Anishinabe storyteller Basil Johnston who declined, stating that “any analysis would just leave mistaken impressions in the academic world; too much of Indian humour rests in the language” (qtd. in Taylor 2). Although admitting certain truthfulness in this observation, Taylor nevertheless pursued the effort to compile his collection, and argued that even though a different level of understanding can be achieved in the applicable indigenous tongue, “like the air in a worn out tire, the humour can and does leak out in many different places” (2).

This contradiction shows how sensitive the question of the used language is as far as a humorous message is concerned. We can trace the origins of this observation in the fact that originally, Native American storytellers created, transformed and passed on their stories as oral narratives, without the deconstruction criticism tendencies of the written texts. We can thus conclude that this long-practiced oral heritage still has an effect on different thought processes of the Indian authors. Walter Ong, in his influential Orality and Literacy, argues that oral speech is natural to human beings and rises out of the unconscious. He claims that “the spoken word is always an event, a movement in time, completely lacking in the thing-like repose of the written or printed word” (qtd. in Vizenor 200-201), and concludes that writing and print isolate. Vizenor pointed those notions out after studying possible misinterpretations of the Trickster creation narratives, retold with the help of a translator seemingly reducing their original sexual motifs, as Barnouw even outrageously evaluated when commenting that such different interpretations “suggest the existence of repression, which is also suggested by the origin myth, with its avoidance of women and sex and its recurrent oral and anal themes” (qtd. in Vizenor 199). Another proof that the millennia-long oral storytelling tradition can not be captured without any loss of quality by the written and/or translated texts into English is provided by Archie Phinney, a Nez Perce translator who answered the question whether the whites can co-opt Coyote, stating that “a sad thing in recording these animal stories is the loss of spirit – the fascination furnished by the peculiar Indian vocal tradition for humor. Indians are better storytellers than whites. When I read my story mechanically I find only the cold corpse” (qtd. in Lincoln 140).

As I stated in the introduction to this thesis, the necessary step towards original Indian writing was accepting English as a universal means of communication since many indigenous languages did not have any, or had only very limited possibilities to be written down. Although it was a forced side-effect of the colonial expansion, the possibility of using a “lingua franca” on the continent made possible the mutual cultural challenge and confrontation between the Anglo-American and the Native cultures, as well as the later pan-Indian tendencies to gather various tribes together in their search for the definition of common social, political and cultural space called “Indianness”. Nevertheless, the partial loss of the Indian storytelling magic was probably inevitable.

When one reads Native American writers, be it works of prose or poetry, it really seems as if the rhythm and narrative voice were far too distant from the “white” writing. The Native American English became known and distinguished as “red” English with its regional dialects, “concise dictions, distinctive inflections, loping rhythms, iconic imagery, irregular grammar, reverse twists on standard English, and countless turns of coiling humor”, as Lincoln describes it (15). He also asserts that literary critics and social historians should be more attentive to red English in America because of a better definition of peoples among themselves through their dialogics and poetics of humor, supporting Mattina’s urge: “Rather than changing the way Indians talk I advocate educating those who hear Indians talk” (qtd. in Lincoln 15).

In a grammatical as well as stylistic analysis, Lincoln continues to give examples of typical features forming the elements of a language variant generally called the “red” English, concluding that these are “differences in cultural register as separate tongues within a polyglot English” and explaining that considering that Navajo has thirteen distinct tenses whereas Hopi in effect has no verb tenses at all, the result must be in sharp contrast with Latin and French influenced, Germanic-based standard modern English. This all supports the thesis that “Indi’n English invents itself as distinct from the mainstream schoolings, European origins, and class properties of America” (Lincoln 16).

We may thus assume, however speculative thought it is, that if the Native Americans had not accepted English as a common communication tool or had not been forced to do so, and if they had stuck with their indigenous tongues they would have remained much more isolated from the outside America. This would have given them a chance to keep their traditional way of life and cultural and religious values but on the other hand would have prevented them from a possibility to influence the cultural, social and political development of the United States and Canada. The current situation when English in its various forms is widely accepted by the American Indian populations in speaking as well as writing results in an interesting cultural and linguistic phenomenon. The humorous messages are uttered, coded, and indicated making it not an easy task for the white majority to understand. If we want to comprehend them we have to accept the general observation that “humour requires intelligence. It calls for the ability to take in information, deconstruct it and reconstruct it in a new, refined format” (Taylor 3). Nevertheless, when dealing with fine subtleties and nuances which to a large extent form the core of the American Indian humorous expression, we must also bear in mind the ethnical, cultural and linguistic connotations which make the Native American authors different and not always easy to be perceived by the reading public outside their cultural background.

3. Basic Concepts, Features And Aspects of Indian Humor


Indian humor is always very close to tears and, on the other hand, when Indians cry they may very often burst out with laughter to release their grief. A condition remote to the white understanding of the comic and the tragic becomes even less comprehensible when it comes to breaking the white-invented humorless stereotypes, such as “the noble savage, the poor Indian, the stoic warrior, the libidinous princess, the dogged squaw, the medicine witch, the cigar-store totem, the tearful ecologist, and the rainmaking shaman”, as described by Lincoln (4). What these seemingly illogical relations uncover is the duality of the Indian humor. This, as far as I am concerned, is its central aspect, and by tracing its roots and bearing it in mind when reading Indian literature we are capable of understanding its humorous moods better, even as non-Indians.

The forming element of this approach lies in the millennia-old tribal legacies of Trickster, an antiheroic comic teacher and holy fool, as Lincoln calls him, and offers another explanatory feature of tribal comic wisdom – heyoka, a Lakota sacred clown (5). Tricksters in their many forms, as will be described later in my thesis, together with heyoka, show the extreme dichotomy of powers. Lincoln explains that: “the power to make live and the power to destroy, [...] to heal and to hurt, to bond and to exorcise, to renew and to purge remain the contrary powers of Indian humor, Lakota-based, tribally binding, universally human” (5).

In search for the possible roots of dichotomies present in Native tribal narratives, Gerald Vizenor presents a notion that “the trickster unties the hypotragedies imposed on tribal narratives”, and goes on to explain that history concentrates on the past and criticism on close study of the narrative but the trickster ignores both. That leads to an observation that “the tragic mode is not in structural opposition to the comic sign” (11) which is in accord with Richard Sewall’s claim that “without a sense of the tragic, comedy loses heart, it becomes brittle, it has animation but no life” and “without a recognition of the truths of comedy, tragedy becomes bleak and intolerable” (qtd. in Vizenor 11). This may provide a sociological as well as critical base for understanding the ubiquitous duality of expression in the Native humor. The very central figure of its storytelling heritage, Trickster in his many forms, embodies the aforementioned theory. Although he teaches how to live through often funny and ridiculous stories, the hidden message usually remains serious. The dichotomy in his behavior is also obvious – he can help whole communities out of trouble but often ends up in it himself. He knows how to be generous and friendly but does not hesitate to betray his mates if this can bring him some advantage. He represents good and evil, winning and losing but what always remains, is the laughter. Still, as Vizenor believes, these elements form a mutually interconnected unit, as “comic signs and tragic modes are cultural variations, the mood and humor in a language game; but they are not structural opposition” (9).

This pervasive feeling of duality in Native narratives evokes another consequent thought – transforming the fixed order of things and reversing them backwards to gain humorous conclusions from the resulting contradictions. As Kristina Fagan observes in her essay Teasing, Tolerating, Teaching, “the reversal of norms is also a common element in humour” (Fagan 30). She gives an example of a clown-like figure known as “the Town Joker”, who is the central character in Ruby Slipperjack’s novel Honour the Sun. A small Native community is often struck by raids of drunken men who break into cabins, assault people, destroy the houses, and bring a constant feeling of danger. With his silly humor, the Town Joker turns the often traumatic situations around. The symbol of such reversing is a “backwards door”, built by the Joker for one family who became victims of the night raid. This door which can be barred from the inside serves also as a source of humorous comments. Owl, a small girl who is a daughter of a single mother, the head of the affected family, comments: “Whoever heard of a door opening backwards?” (29). Fagan believes that such reversal is typical in Native transformation stories, and quotes Julie Cruikshank who is convinced that “the physical characteristics of this domain are the revere of those found in the more familiar world” (30). Fagan explains that “the reversal of norms is also a common element in humour. So the “backwards door”, representing transformation, humour and a very practical means of fighting back, becomes an appropriate symbol of the Town Joker’s role” (30).

Another level of duality which can be traced in the Native American humorous expression is deeply rooted in their communal life and hierarchy. I am going to have a closer look at central aspects of communal humor in a separate chapter. However, a discourse on duality as a pervasive element forming the base for understanding the Indian humor requires some introductory thoughts. It may seem surprising that in the Indian narratives, a funny message is often delivered through a story of a character living on the edge between respecting strict communal norms and some form of conflicting behavior – violence, alcohol or drug abuse, unemployment, or homelessness. This contradiction can be a source of humor, as Fagan observes, and offers an explanation that although “comic characters embody excess, enjoyment, rule-breaking and disorderliness”, they at the same time represent “a sense of moral and social order” (35). This negotiation between the individual freedom and communal norms, which can be a painful process, reveals an interesting insight into the social dimension in the Indian narratives. Fagan also sees another important function of humor as a bridging element between these contradicting powers. To become a member of community, one must respect and admit a certain level of conformity. Although we may agree that “while humour can reinforce social cohesion, the flip side of this is that it can be used to pressure people into such cohesion” (36), humor can also serve as a practical means to push people into conformity without negative emotions, criticizing, blaming or interference with other community members, and thus help maintain social harmony (Fagan 36).

Whether we perceive the humorous message often present in the works of Native American authors through a certain feeling of hypotragic sadness, shocking descriptions of breaking the communal rules, reversal of the usual behavior norms and patterns, or elements of the Trickster narratives legacy, the pervasive connecting element of duality provides us with a key to understand the relation of the Indian humor to sociology, history, anthropology, politics, and culture as a whole.

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