Each culture possesses one or more mythic figures rooted in its legends, stories, folk oral heritage, or fairy tales. These figures may be heroes eager to appear whenever the society finds itself in the times of trouble, hardship, and decline. But more often, we find examples of various clowns, people or fairy beings of different shapes and characters, usually without aristocratic or sacred background, which play a vital role in forming a feeling of light-hearted outlook on life. As Erdoes and Ortiz point out, “tales in which the lowly and apparently weak play pranks and outwit the high and mighty delight young and old over the world for centuries” (xiii). What the Europeans would probably call clowns, Indians refer to as Tricksters.
In the Native American Indian mythology, we can trace many of these. Each tribe formed its own distinctive figure or figures bringing amusement, having educative impact, as well as playing a vital role in understanding the spiritual consequences of the creation of this world. They usually take shape of an animal but are able to gain human form as well. We can thus speak of Iktomi the spider-man, Rabbit, Wolf, and a few more without any defined shape – Veeho, Nixant, or Sitconski.
However, among the most widely recognized ones is the Coyote, whose “wild and wicked adventures are told from the Arctic down to Mexico, and across the continent from ocean to ocean” (Erdoes and Ortiz xiii). Coyote - a wild and free symbol of America – can be thus said to appear as a central figure in Native American mythology. In this chapter I am going to trace the natural, historical, etymological, as well as philosophical consequences of its deeply rooted position in the Indian thinking and humor, and give examples of Coyote trickster narratives. Lincoln notes: “Almost every Indian writer at one time or another says something about Old Man Coyote. Biologically, he’s survived the holocaust, as have Indians, and both laugh...” (132). Understanding the Coyote imagery and aesthetics is therefore necessary for any analysis of the Native American writing.
Apart from being an educative observer of the world, Coyote acts as a creator, and as such must remind us of, and requires comparison with the European concepts of creation as suggested by the Christian mythology. The first and most significant difference is the animal form in which he usually acts. Erdoes and Ortiz mention a television panel where Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man, was challenged by a Christian priest suggesting that Indian and Christian religions and rituals are in principle basically the same. After thinking for a while, Lame Deer asked: “In your religion, do animals have a soul?” and was answered: “You got me there” by the priest. (xix). Except for this crucial difference which shows how closely the Native Americans identify with nature we may assume that the priest who suggested that the Cross and the Sacred Pipe mean the same was basically right in pointing out the similarity between the two creation myths, as we can learn from one Anishinaabe tale which goes: “in the time long ago, there was no sin nor war nor suffering on earth, for everything was good, as the Great Spirit made it, and animal and man walked and talked together as brothers” (qtd. in Vizenor 124). Howard Norman concludes that the animal element in the Trickster narratives helps reorient the relation between humans and the natural world, stating: “these tales enlighten an audience about the sacredness of life. In the naturalness of their form, they turn away from forced conclusions, they animate and enact, they shape and reshape the world” (qtd. in Erdoes and Ortiz xix).
The second most apparent difference from the Christian creation concepts, and a crucial one to be highlighted in a thesis concentrating on Indian humor, is the range of the expression means Coyote stories encompass. Radically different from the rigid and dead-serious tone the Bible presents, Coyote and other tricksters always have fun, and act as figures making many mistakes, and not always learning from them - apparently leaving this possibility to their readers or listeners, and thus educating them in their own distinctive way. Also, Tricksters are often cunning and cruel; they make mischief, play tricks on innocent victims, cheat, steal, and kill. The Trickster narratives can be very naturalistic, dealing openly with sexual and other taboo topics, and often leading to rather bizarre conclusions.
The main storylines in the Trickster tales are typically based on Coyote’s (or his respective mates’) wandering about the world, observing it, meeting human or animal characters and competing with them for often low and greedy reasons – gaining a better piece of food, place to live, women to copulate with, or only to fool them and then laugh at them. He not only gains, he loses as well, and sometimes his failures are costly. Occasionally, Coyote’s efforts are driven by noble motivations – to help his mates out of trouble, make the world a better place to live. He can act as a creator and protector, but more often as a lecher, thief, and liar. Erdoes and Ortiz observe that Coyote “makes the earth, animals, and humans” and continue to claim that he is “the Indian Prometheus, bringing fire and daylight to the people. He positions the sun, the moon, and stars in their proper places. He teaches humans how to live” (xiv).
In one of the creation stories presented and retold in American Indian Trickster Tales, Coyote makes natural landmarks such as mountains, canyons and forms copper ore in the ground by punishing seven giants who terrorized the people by eating their children. Coyote with his animal mates turned the giants into stone mountains, making them stick to the ground by filling deep holes by a reddish liquid.
In another, he puts the sun and the moon in their places by first stealing them from people settling on the other side of a mountain. Summer is also believed to have been stolen, this time from Old Woman and her children, and brought by Coyote to his village struck by permanent winter. Nevertheless, when the Old Woman’s children threaten Coyote with declaring a war, both sides reach a compromise by letting the summer and winter change each half a year.
Trickster deeds often serve as explanations not only of the natural processes, but also animal and human behavior. When Iktomi, the Sioux spider-man, tricks wild ducks by making them close their eyes for a game, and then starts killing them, one smart duck opens its eyes and warns the remaining ones. The angry Iktomi turns the smart duck into a mud hen. The legend says that from these times mud hens swim alone, and dive when they feel endangered by another Iktomi’s trick. As a moral of the story goes, “Better a live, ugly mud hen than a pretty, dead duck” (Erdoes and Ortiz 117).
Coyote often helps people by providing them with supernatural abilities when they cannot achieve their goals, and later punishes them if these are not used wisely, or as advised. On the contrary, Trickster figures get often punished themselves, usually when their greed and selfishness drive them into desperate situations. Thus, as we learn in the story “Too Smart For His Own Good”, Iktomi is dropped inside a hollow tree by the Hawk whom he wanted to ridicule. The night rain makes the tree trunk swell up and crush Iktomi almost to death. Only when he expresses his regrets, prays to the Great Spirit, and he humbles himself, he becomes smaller, and is able to escape (Erdoes and Ortiz 119-120).
Another aspect of the Trickster stories I want to explore more closely is their naturalism, obscure conclusions, and openness in otherwise taboo viewed topics, particularly the sexual ones. This element, apart from the animal central figures in the Trickster narratives, makes without doubt the biggest difference from similar tales of European origin, be it the Christian creation myths, or fairy tales providing folklore morals based on deeds of various clown-like figures.
Coyote, Iktomi and others are incorrigible and always horny lechers. Though often married, their principal interest during their wanders is to seduce and copulate with every maiden or beautiful woman around. From the romantic moods such as when Iktomi is seducing girls by playing “love tunes on his siyotanka, the flute used for courting” (Erdoes and Ortiz 123), Tricksters can reach more bizarre levels of their love-making techniques. Thus, Coyote pretends to die to get rid of the boring sexual life with his wife and transforms into a young handsome man to be able to impress and have an intercourse with his own daughters (Erdoes and Ortiz 58-61).
Along with Coyote’s lustful incest, Iktomi experiments with homosexual behavior with the Rabbit. When discussing who will play the pederastic role first, a sentence with a culturally wider impact among the Indian people is uttered, giving the story a weird, and in a way funny feel: “I am the older. I go first. Respect your elders” (Erdoes and Ortiz 134). Together with its childish narrative mode typical for Trickster tales, a humorous conclusion brightens this shockingly open story up. After being tricked by the Rabbit, Iktomi comes home and exhausted by his experience refuses his wife by saying: “Not tonight, […] I’ve got a headache” (135).
Similarly shocking and obscure is a story of the talking penis. Trickster Nixant does not respect the advice and misuses a magical song. His punishment is a large penis which talks to people Nixant wants to trick, discouraging them from any contact with him (Erdoes and Ortiz 160-162).
The Trickster stories are usually told at specific occasions under strict social conditions. Erdoes and Ortiz mention different attitudes of particular tribes and families in handling these tales, such as the varying possibility to modify them with embellishments in contrast to a strict prohibition to do so, ownership of some of the tales by certain tribes or families, or traditional times of the year dedicated to their narrations including the sanctions or threats emerging if these conditions are not respected (xx).
One of the main messages of the Trickster narratives is the feeling that living marginally can reach a certain positive dimension, as Lincoln observes, and points out that he “acts out taboos as the via negativa. He becomes, as antistructural hero, the negation offering possibility (142). By calling him a “comic disarranger who dissolves boundaries, unsettles certainties, shakes up fixed ideas, and twists the stiff tail of long-faced moralists” (142, italics in original), Lincoln assumes that although his lessons may seem comically obvious, deeper complexities and contraries are here to be observed, as they “bubble beneath the surface of his antics” (142).
As the oral legacy of the Native American culture evolved into writing with time and cultural development, and as the Indian renaissance of the sixties gave rise to a whole generation of influential authors, it was only a matter of careful criticism to trace the reflections of Trickster in their works. In his essay The Trickster Novel, Adam Velie observes that even though the Trickster tales are still a popular and living part of Indian oral tradition, separately from these, and still dependent on them a new genre in the written literature has emerged – that of the trickster novel. He claims that protagonists of such works, as House Made of Dawn or Bearheart to name just the most significant ones, have protagonists who “bear a resemblance to the trickster” (qtd. in Vizenor 121). Sometimes they represent just one or two characteristics of the mythical sacred fool; sometimes they uncover the central aspect of duality present in the Indian literature and thinking. Velie notes that in Vizenor’s Bearheart, two central figures each represent one aspect of the Anishinaabe trickster Manabozho (naanabozho) – one holds the position of a cultural hero, the other plays the role of “the trickster as buffoon and menace” (qtd. in Vizenor 123). Like in the Trickster narratives, there are sequences in the book which remind us of the typical trickster figures behavior, and through this mirror the life of the society including its countless faults. Velie mentions this bizarre event:
In the dinner at the Scapehouse of Weirds and Sensitives, a group of women poets who have secluded themselves in a remote survival center sit down to a meal of stuffed kitten while one of the trickster clowns, Bigfoot, performs cunnilungus under the table. Lillith Mae Farrier burns herself to death with her canine lovers when she loses to the Evil Gambler at the spinning figure game. Finally, in what one might call the Anishinaabe apotheosis of Proude Cedarfair, Proude leaves this world through a window at Pueblo Bonito and ascends to the world above this. (qtd. in Vizenor 128)
In defense of this way of expression in the postmodern novel, Velie describes it as a form of attack on the postcolonial bourgeois way of looking at the world, and disagrees with understanding it as seemingly deficient or even deviant writing. He agrees with Vizenor that trickster here acts as an “agonistic liberator”, and a “culturally centered, communally created, highly complex, comic figure who cannot be isolated from or understood outside of the context of his discourse” (Vizenor 128 -131). This context apparently leaves the undefined time and space of the original Trickster oral tales; in the novels of modern Native American writers in which the characters live their fictional lives in more or less real surroundings, their Trickster features can act as a political and social weapon as well. Thus, Velie notices Vizenor’s resemblance to rebellious writing of Bakhtin and Rabelais, both eager to change readers’ way of viewing the world by presenting a different fiction world, using “laughter linked to rogue, fool and clown” which, according to him, are all three combined in the discourse of trickster. In Vizenor’s battle against mainstream American culture and ideology, Velie sees him applying “violence, hyperbole, surrealism and humor to develop a new sensibility” (Vizenor 130).
The Trickster stories undoubtedly represent a vivid and humorous, as well as educational and philosophical base of the Native American storytelling. Nevertheless, from the folk tales and original oral heritage, Trickster found his way to contemporary Indian fiction in a more complex shape. Without understanding the concept of this sacred figure in its many forms and representations, acts, and behavior, we can never achieve the context ground for understanding poetics of the Native American culture, writing and humor.
Teasing, Razzing, Shame Stories – A Critical Insight into the Native Community Humor
The sense of community and the word itself has become somewhat of a popular cliché often connected with the Native American life. Even though the communal and spiritual background of Indian humor is indisputable and I have explored its importance earlier in my thesis, the dangers of overusing the concept of community with relation to the Native Americans lie in the fact that it can deceive by seemingly having only positive connotations. As Raymond Williams observes, “Unlike all other terms of social organization (state, nation, society, etc.) it seems never to be used infavourably” (Williams 46). There is always a danger that if a social concept lacks its natural opposition, it continually looses balance, becomes absolute, and can lead to totalitarian tendencies of those who are eager to misuse this situation for their own profit. In literature and social sciences, an effective way of preventing such tendencies is critical examination. As far as the Native literature is concerned, its writers provide a close and often critical outlook on their community life themselves and, according to Robert Warrior, “critically consider factors such as sovereignty, tradition and community without reducing them to absolutes” (qtd. in Taylor 44).
One of the ways to scan the native communities closely and offer even the critical point of view on their development is observing their humor in its rather harsh form, balancing between humiliation, bullying, teasing, and sometimes even violent abusing. Surprisingly, these features often present in the communal interaction often lead to a closer identification of the “victim”, who becomes the butt of such joking, with his or her community, as will be seen from the following examples.
Many stories where teasing people among each other serves as a communal humorous form of communication teaching the participants the rules of behavior, enforcing social norms, and distinguishing their position within the community are given in Kristina Fagan’s essay Teasing, Tolerating, Teaching, collected and edited by Drew Hayden Taylor. An innocent family incident happens when Auntie Violet is laughing at her nephew, the Pomo-Miwok writer Greg Sarris who in this story recollects a memory from his teenage years. When trying to peel potatoes to help his aunt, he looks at her as she comments: “Just like a white man. […] So wasteful!” making everyone in the room burst out with laughter (Fagan 24). Fagan believes that we can read this incident from two different angles – the popular notion that most Indian humor is trying to subvert white society and to counter colonization effects and stereotyping the Native Americans, but, more importantly, also from the position of Greg Sarris himself, attempting at making the readers observe him and his community. She points out that “By making himself an object of ridicule, he subordinates his position to the communal values represented by his elder, Auntie Violet” (24).
Surprisingly enough, the elders make often themselves objects of humorous message by breaking the stereotypes connected with their supposed dignity and serious image. Fagan assumes that such “joking role is an indication of the respect and authority that elders are accorded in Native communities” (26). By turning the jokes towards themselves, the respected do not lose any of their dignity but on the contrary strengthen their position. This supports my observation that if a social concept reaches a position of an absolute, it may lead to imbalance later destroying the concept itself, including those who pursued it. As Métis educator Fyre Jean Graveline points out, “too much power and too much seriousness are feared, for they can unbalance life in the Community and the environment” (qtd. in Fagan 26).
However, such teasing may reach a level of real social control. In his study Ways of Knowing, Jean-Guy Goulet gives an example of a young man Paul, thought to be the reincarnation of a young girl, thus believed by his tribe to be both a man and a woman. Even though his kinsmen make him prove his male identity by having sexual intercourse with a young woman, he is constantly teased in public to remind him his female identity and at the same time shut it down (Taylor 37). Even though it may seem that this reaction by the community is seriously pushing a young person towards his “proper” sexual role and maintain social order, Fagan is convinced that it has another side: “It keeps the existence of Paul’s double identity in people’s minds, maintaining it as a possibility” (qtd. in Taylor 37).
Even though Paul, the character of the previous story is teased and his sexuality made a public affair, he laughs at the community members, and speaks of his pleasures when having sex with a girl (Taylor 37). In this case we may feel that although given a hard time, this incident did not have any negative effect on his mentality. However, the third example of community teasing I am going to mention may not lead to such a positive conclusion. Teasing in the case of two teenagers described in Eden Robinson’s short story “Contact Sports” turns into harassing and torturing, when Jeremy, the elder of the two, teases his cousin Tom about his looks, sexuality, and epilepsy. This raises the question of power relations and emotional pain which can be also involved in humor. Although Jeremy justifies his behavior as a sign of “his affection and his connectedness”, it obviously bears signs of aggressive dominance, or at least questionable pleasure in causing someone else pain, no matter if taken only as a part of game. (Taylor 40-41).
Teasing can have numerous forms, from tender humor between the aunt and her nephew, to sexual ridiculing of a young adult man, or even painful abuse by the dominant teenage boy. The levels of humorous message involved are questionable but undoubtedly express a wide range of behavior patterns.
The synonym often used for teasing among Native Americans is razzing. To distinguish its subtle meaning and connotations, we may observe that it is a form of lighthearted commenting the world while addressing people within the attendance and finding some humorous relation between them and the story being told, as Garret specifies it. As a collective storytelling technique utilizing episodes and past or present episodes, he calls it “an intentional oral art form” forming a prominent feature of Indian humor with the “use of exaggeration in lengthy stories in the group’s context” (Garret et al., 200). Apart from already mentioned funcions Native humor serves, Garret observes that it may also have powerful healing effect, and as far as the community spirit is concerned, he sees the feeling of common ties among the in-group members: “To see Native people “raising hell” with one another is a sign of the closeness between them and of the “honoring of relation” that is occurring. (Garret et al., 198-199).
One of the reasons why this seemingly surprising form of maintaining the community spirit works is that it is not performed in complete anarchy. There are unwritten rules as far as the social, tribal and age factors are concerned. These establish a certain form of hierarchy which should be respected, although it may vary from tribe to tribe. Generally, the respect to elders is the dominant rule, even though there are exceptions when young people may razz older people, or the elders make themselves objects of joking, as I have already pointed out. Pratt mentions an interesting rule which says that “it is not acceptable for those known as candidate Indians (an anthropological term referring to people who can provide proof of tribal heritage, but have not been socialized in a Native environment) to razz other Native people” (qtd. in Garrett et al. 201). Garrett goes on to explain that if these unspoken rules are broken, the offender will be punished by “silence as a form of disapproval” (201).
Another interesting feature of this form of communally bound and at first sight cruel form of humorous expression are shame stories. This form of storytelling seemingly humiliates participants of the razz, and usually happens in a peer-based community. Nevertheless, the main purpose is, as Garret observes, to keep yourself humble and a part of the group. He mentions situations when the object of such teasing even self-selects him- or herself (201). He explains that “one person becomes the object […] of the razz in which a past incident involving that person is meticulously recounted to those present”. The others then embellish the story until it often “barely resembles the original incident at all” (201).
From these examples we can trace another important function of the Native humor – the one of teaching and reminding the community members important unspoken cultural values and social rules by which they should live. However surprising this may seem to an uninvolved observer, this process often takes forms of dry humor using exaggeration in changing obvious conclusions into humorous perspectives, teasing each other in a tender and loving way or, on the other hand, in almost violent humiliation. All this may break the traditional opinion of the Native communities as something solemnly rigid and deadly serious but at the same time can provide the American Indians a chance to present their communal values with a critical as well as funny outlook.