|In his study Indi'n Humor: Bicultural Play in Native America, Kenneth Lincoln emphasises the |
essential role that humor plays in binding together Native American communities in the face of
historical and continuing colonisation. For him, the role of humor in Native American literatures is of
'ethnic glue' that acts as a means to subvert the power of colonialism; his thesis is borne out by
recent humorous works by writers such as Gerald Vizenor, Sherman Alexie, and Thomas King.
However, if we look to the recent past, hard-hitting writing from the 1970s by writers such as W. P.
Kinsella about Native Americans living on reservations provides a warning to the adoption of this
Lincoln's study proposes that Native American humor is a
threefold positive force. Firstly, it is an ethnic glue by which
'[w]e laugh at ourselves to "play" with common ties' and,
secondly, it is a celebration of survival that retrospectively
laughs in the face of terror.
As he states '[t]here is always hurt in humor, and vice
versa [...] It's the way one learns the truth [...] and the joy of
having survived to the moment' Thirdly, Lincoln makes the
strong claim that humour which plays with the frictions and
differences between peoples, such as the colonized and the
colonizing, is a way to release intercultural and interracial
He states that 'having fun with tribal disconnections makes
their dissonance into something more than snarled warnings
to the "others." In fact, such play or humor indulges the
negative charge positively, reversing its field to include rather
than exclude "them"'.
These three types of humor occur in the majority of well-known contemporary Native American texts
such as The Heirs of Columbus by Vizenor, Green Grass Running Water by King, and The Lone
Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Alexie. The works contain a variety of approaches and
uses of humor, from the sardonic self-deprecating joke that repeats the prejudices of the dominant
culture against Native Americans, to the joyful and triumphant tales of trickster figures that gain
revenge for the wrongs of colonialism. This paper will focus on the contrast between Kinsella's
failed attempts at finding humor, even ironic, in Native American life and the joyful trickster tales by
King, with additional reference to Vizenor and Alexie's writing.
All Native American humor shares the context of colonialism in which it exists and to which it
frequently refers. Many of these texts are based on reservation life and they include illustrations of
mass unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, child abuse as well as wrongful imprisonment, racial
prejudice, and degradation by dominant society. Even King's joyful work Green Grass Running
Water, which for the most part focuses on positive aspects of reservation life, has characters such
as Latisha who as a working single mother relics too heavily upon her eldest son to look after her
What is common to Vizenor and Alexie's work is the use of humour in order to defend themselves
and their cultures, and to survive the attacks on their communities by the dominant colonial society.
Lincoln calls this 'dark red humor' and explains: 'They laugh hard and deep among themselves and
grimace around whites, exorcising their pain, redirecting their suffering, drawing together against
the common enemy--cultural ignorance'. All of these books are exemplars of the Native American
attitude expressed by Paula Gunn Allen in her groundbreaking 1986 study The Sacred Hoop:
offer; and much that needs to be treated with laughter and ironic humor; it is the spirit
of the trickster that keeps Indians alive and vital in the face of horror.
As these texts attest, Native Americans have long recognised humor as an essential element of
their lives and cultures. Paula Gunn Allen explains that:
Indian gatherings are marked by laughter and jokes, many directed at the horrors of history, at the
continuing impact of colonization, and at the biting knowledge that living as an exile in one's own
There is little recognition of this outside Native America where the stereotypical image of the
inscrutable, stern-faced 'injun' full of wisdom and proverbs remains. In this context, these texts
battle against this aspect of cultural ignorance to which Lincoln refers. For Lincoln this partly
explains the heavy use of ironic humor in Native America. He recounts a television interview with a
Native American activist, John Trudelli, who 'consistently reversed the [white] interviewer's
questions with the straightest face possible, and warped the projections back on white
However, many Native American humorous texts contain jokes that can be understood only from the
perspective of a Native American person. The humor in these texts is often employed in order to
reinforce a sense of community. Since humour, when referring to a particular situation or people,
demands shared cultural knowledge, it is a means of reaffirming a sense of shared experience and
community. As Vizenor confirms, 'comic situations are not possible without a group, without a
community experience'. This of course means that they can be understood by someone who adopts
a Native American perspective during the reading who is not necessarily Native American herself,
but who has access to a degree of culturally specific knowledge.
According to the critical commentary of Vizenor, Kimberley Blaeser and Lincoln, Native American
humor is a means of healing the damage caused by colonialism through both its community building
and cathartic effects. Vizenor calls his style of humorous writing, filled with puns and twists of
history, 'serious play'. Indeed, Native American humor is considered to be educational, community
building, exorcising, and a weapon for protection. It comes as a surprise, then, to find that much of
this humour is directed at Native Americans themselves.
The self-mocking humor of Native American fiction often concerns the negative treatment by whites,
alcoholism, and gambling. For instance, Alexie's famously amusing writing includes a joke mocking
Native American reliance on gambling: "'How do you get one hundred Indians to yell Oh, shift?" [...]
This self-mocking humor is heavy with irony and alerts the reader to the difficult living situations of
many Native Americans, particularly on reserve lands. It acts as a form of ethnic glue in that it elicits
empathy from those who recognise or share such difficulties. Moreover, the self-mocking aspect of
this humor encourages those who empathise to recognise their part in the negative aspects of their
lives and take action against them. However, this form of humour is subtle and complex as the
heavy ironic tone indicates a recognition that such aspects are at least in part also imposed on
them by the circumstance of living under colonialism.
A more overtly positive and optimistic type of humour in Native American fiction, and particularly
that by Vizenor and King, occurs in the form of trickster tales. The figure of the trickster is complex
and multi-faceted and so is its humor. The humour of trickster tales comes not only from the trickery
of the character itself that often challenges authority but also from frequent word play. This means
that trickster tales are often filled with jokes which release the language from the strictures of
As Blaeser explains: 'Trickster is a marginal figure, a mediator who breaks down any hard and fast
distinctions. Trickster is [...] imaginative energy'. Jeanne Rosier Smith explains that '[t]he trickster's
medium is words. A parodist, joker, liar, con-artist, and storyteller, the trickster fabricates believable
illusions with words--and thus becomes author and embodiment of a fluid, flexible, and politically
radical narrative form'.
Following this philosophy of storytelling, Alexie's narrator claims 'imagination turns every word into a
bottle rocket'. Moreover, in the works of Vizenor, King and Alexie there is an ironic humour derived
from the recognition of the difference of importance given to storytelling in Native American and
dominant cultures. Part of the joy of storytelling for Vizenor and King is their awareness of the
power afforded to them by their stories and the storytelling process.
Alexie extends this joy and ironic humor in storytelling by writing a story about a man who is
arrested for telling stories. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is arrested because, as a man from the Bureau
of Indian Affairs notes, he 'has a history of this kind of behavior [...] a storytelling fetish
accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth. Dangerous'.
Although the idea of being arrested for storytelling is in one sense comically absurd, the idea
acknowledges the real Native North American perception of the power of shared imagination. It is
comically ironic that a non-Native man from the Bureau of Indian Affairs shares the Native American
view of the power of storytelling but the comedy of the story is contrasted by the violence of the
tales that Thomas tells.
Recognising himself as a target of racist prejudice which groups him together with all other Native
North Americans, Thomas assumes that he is to stand trial for all the acts of defensive and
retributive violence against European American settlers from the beginnings of colonization. As he
comments, 'I call myself as first and only witness to all the crimes I'm accused of and, additionally, to
bring attention to all the mitigating circumstances'.
In Vizenor's Heirs of Columbus, almost all the Native American protagonists are storytelling
tricksters. Although coming from the borderlands of Canada and the mid-west United States, they
claim to be the descendents of Columbus and claim that in fact Columbus is Mayan. By creating
these new historical facts, Vizenor's text is a game of imaginative play and an attempt to persuade
the reader to perceive received knowledge differently. As he states, '[t]he best tribal tricksters are
in the best stories shared by people who trust imagination and the pleasure of language games'.
The protagonist of Vizenor's The Heirs of Columbus claims that his tribal band are descendants of
Christopher Columbus and that Columbus himself journeyed from the 'New World' to the 'Old World'
to educate the Europeans. This topsy-turvy way of thinking encourages us to playfully imagine an
alternative history and an alternative cultural authority without being concerned with truth or fact.
For Stone Columbus, his imaginative stories are essential to his production of a Native American
historical perspective. As he explains, they are the foundation stones of his tribal culture: 'The
stone is my totem, my stories are stones, there are tribal stones, and the brother of the first
trickster who created the earth was a stone ...'.
Alan Velie astutely observes that contemporary literary trickster tales often involve historical events.
In this manner, Velie asserts: 'Through their play and intellectual bantering they force a
reconsideration of the processes and powers of historical reckoning and thus, essentially, liberate
the reader from preconceived notions and incite an imaginative re-evaluation of history'.
This is particularly true of King's Green Grass Running Water, in which King's protagonists, similarly
to Vizenor's, are tricksters named after historical and mythologically important figures who are
attempting to alter the lives of a group of Native Canadians. King's group of narrators (a shape-
shifting group of 'old Indians') are attempting to 'fix up' the world . What in fact they are attempting
to do is to revise history and myth in order to improve the lives of Native Americans.
Their names are indicative of their links to cultural myth concerning Native Americans: Lone Ranger
(the partner of Tonto, the 'Indian guide'), Robinson Crusoe (the opposite of his aboriginal man
Friday), Hawkeye (the protagonist of The Last of the Mohicans) and Ishmael (the companion of the
South Pacific Islander Queequeg of Moby Dick). These tricksters, rather than altering history
directly, alter the way in which Native Americans are perceived and perceive themselves. They
influence a video of a John Wayne-type 'Cowboys and Indians' film so that to the delight of the
Native Canadian viewers, the 'Indians' win.
These stories also include the heavily ironic tale of how the mythical figure of Old Woman during a
creation story gains the name Hawkeye from Fenimore Cooper's protagonist. The tale recounts a
meeting between 'Nathaniel Bumppo' (the actual name of the character who becomes known as
Hawkeye when he sides with the Mohicans in The Last of the Mohicans) and Old Woman. Bumppo
(here referred to as 'Nasty Bumppo') mistakes Old Woman for his Mohican companion
Chingachgook because she looks like a Native American. When he is shot dead (possibly by
Coyote), he gives Old Woman his own name and she is then arrested for impersonating a white
The story is an absurd topsy-turvy version of the original tale in which Fenimore Cooper's
Hawkeye/Natty Bumppo adopts the identity of a Native American and thus becomes a hero. King's
version of the story reveals the double standard of the colonial position, implies that Bumppo's view
of people is highly racialised, and also enacts fictional retribution on 'Nasty Bumppo' when he is
killed by the trickster Coyote.
The humour in both King and Vizenor's novels relies heavily on the fictional aspect of their writing.
For instance, King's narrator recounts in a matter-of-fact tone the absurd occurrence of Nasty
Bumppo dying twice so that he can comment on his own death. Moreover, the tricks and victories of
the trickster figures which they include in their writing rely heavily on the reader suspending their
belief in favour of the fiction during the act of reading.
Their figures are a combination of traditional and adapted storytelling elements and their written
fiction owes much to oral storytelling techniques. The role of the trickster in both the Heirs of
Columbus and Green Grass Running Water is not constrained to the tricks of the traditional mid-
west tricksters Nanabozho and Coyote, although they do make their appearances in both these
It is the tricksters themselves who actually narrate the stories and who influence what happens
during the narration. This occurs most strongly in Green Grass Running Water, in which Coyote
asks questions during the telling of two simultaneous tales and, by adding commentary, he changes
the course of the stories. When Coyote is told by the narrator that 'Thought Woman' doesn't like
coyotes he adds a transforming element to the story stating 'there are soldiers waiting on the shore
to capture Thought Woman. How do you like that?'.
Thus, Thought Woman is captured and imprisoned. At the end of the novel it is clear that it is
Coyote who has the power to determine events. He uses his powers to positive effect when setting
several elements in place which interact to bring the community together. It is Coyote who causes
an earthquake leaving the protagonist of the tale, Lionel, to start his life afresh with the newly
pregnant woman he loves.
According to Paula Gunn Allen 'traditional tribal narratives possess a circular structure,
incorporating event within event, piling meaning upon meaning, until the accretion finally results in a
story'. This structure is employed in King's novel as a result of the involvement of Coyote in the
narrative process. At various points in the novel the narration is interrupted by Coyote with the
refrain: 'Oh, boy, [...] It looks like we got to do this all over again'.
This circular and fragmented structure is used comically in King's work, almost like a shaggy-dog
story, but for the serious intent of indicating the need to continually reconsider, rebuild, and repair
the world. By doing so, he creates a 'happy ending' for the characters of this tale and, more
importantly, he takes control of the fate of the people who are released from the control of the
conditions of colonialism under which they live.
King empowers Coyote with the ability to influence these characters' lives much as the tricksters in
Vizenor's Heirs of Columbus are also able to do. Thus, the tricksters of both King and Vizenor
create alternative stories, futures and lives for their Native American characters. For the duration of
reading, the reader is able to experience the joy of imagining a world which is not restricted by the
prejudices created by uninterrupted colonialism.
Trickster stories remind Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike that 'there is no final,
ultimate answer, no infallibility that we can blindly accept and follow. Power, like life, is in motion'.
For this reason, the humour of modern trickster tales is a powerful weapon, a challenge to colonial
By revelling in the disruption caused by the tricksters of these tales, the reader is able to
experience catharsis through their humour and also to share in a sense of joyful victory over the
usually dominant holders of power. Reading such a text is a community-building experience; it
serves as ethnic glue that relies upon a heightened imaginative aspect to present the possibility of
overwhelming power. In this respect, these are highly optimistic fictions.
However, Lincoln's notion of ethnic glue is being tested to the limits by works such as Dance Me
Outside by W. P. Kinsella. Kinsella's tales of murder, rape, alcoholism, and damage are told in the
form of humorous tales by his narrator Silas but the punch-lines are missing and the pain
screeches from behind the text, working in tension with the jocular tone of the narration.
Silas Ermineskin is a naïve narrator, writing stories for his local college course assignments. His
tutor calls them his 'funny stories' and the book opens with a covert invitation to the reader to
expect humorous tales: 'Mr Nichols says I got a funny sense of humor, so I should just write about
the funniest thing that ever happened to me'. His first tale is indeed humorous in that Silas and his
family living on the Ermineskin reservation, in trickster tradition manage to trick their white brother-
in-law so that their sister, his wife, has the opportunity to become pregnant by her childhood Indian
boyfriend and the brother-in-law is forced to leave his brand-new car on the reservation.
The triumph of this tale is that the 'reservation Indians' outwit a 'white man,' a representative of
dominant capitalist culture. To the narrator and the people on the reservation the police who come
to look for the car all '[l]ook just like Brother Bob'. Whilst this may appear to be a story of
empowering colonial revenge, racial division heavily outweighs family connections, and the family
reject their sister's choice of partner even at the risk of damaging her marriage.
Subtly, Kinsella narrows the distance between the narrator and those readers who are troubled by
the assumed comedy by eventually making Silas reflect: 'I'm not so sure anymore that it is such a
funny thing'. The first line of the next story is a stark warning of the coming tension between the
humorous tale form and the painful content: 'Little Margaret Wolfchild got murdered down to
Wetaskiwin one Saturday night last fall'.
The title story with the upbeat heading 'Dance Me Outside,' is actually the explanation of how
revenge was taken for the death of Margaret Wolfchild. The retribution takes place at a dance
where at least seven people are plotting to kill the murderer Clarence Gaskell and one of them
succeeds. The police have no chance of discovering who the real killer is and so no one is charged.
There is little that is overtly funny in this tale, although the success of the retribution and the fact
that the colonial authorities are unable to control the situation or issue their own punishment
provides a sense of a triumphant ending. On the other hand, the murder of Margaret and the sheer
bloody violence of the events leave the participants traumatised and the story ends with Silas'
girlfriend asking him for human warmth and comfort.
Kinsella's work too owes something to oral storytelling. Although the narrator informs the reader
that his tales are written assignments, he narrates them as though he were relating a tale orally. As
he is the sole narrator, where interruptions occur in the narration they are from the narrator himself
commenting on his own stories rather than from a participating audience. There is no other voice to
offer alternative versions of the harsh realities that he recounts. Unlike the trickster tales, his are
texts that do not offer alternatives to the effects of colonisation.
His tone, like the tone of King's narrator, is matter-of-fact, but unlike King's work this tone is not
used to contrast with the absurd elements of the story. A matter-of-fact tone is often used to tell
humorous tall-tales as it heightens the humor and often the irony by contrasting the content with
the narrative tone. However, Kinsella employs this device to create anticipation of a humorous tale,
only to emphasise the harshness of what follows without euphemism or softening embellishment.
In effect, what Kinsella's text seems to suggest in the context of this study is that reservation life is
too painful and too disparate to benefit from the use of the cathartic cultural device of humour. The
irony of the text, in contrast to that of Alexie's fiction, does not indicate a collusion concerning the
negative aspects of reservation life between the colonial powers and the colonized subjects but has
degenerated into defeat.
In contrast to the trickster tales of Vizenor and King, where there is triumph over the colonial
authorities, in Kinsella's work, the bitterly negative effects of colonialism outweigh it. Where irony
does exist in the text, it has become a metafictional irony created by using the form of a humorous
tale in combination with depressing content.
Although there is continuing need for humor in Native American literature to celebrate survival and
to provide a release and a means to see things alternatively, Lincoln's celebration of humor as
ethnic glue breaks down under the weight of suffering recorded by Kinsella's work. If, as Lincoln
suggests, 'tribal humor stitches the frayed cross-cultural fabric of multiethnic America', then
Kinsella's work reveals those stitches unravelling. In the face of ongoing colonialism, Kinsella's work
reminds us to be wary of being comforted into complaisance by the use of humor in contemporary
Native American fiction.
Alexie, Sherman. Tonto and Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven. 1994. New York: Harper, 1997.
Alexie, Sherman. The Toughest Indian in the World. London: Vintage, 2001. Coletti, Laura. 'Gerald
Vizenor: The Trickster Heir of Columbus--An Interview.' Native American Literatures Forum 2-3
Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions.
Boston: Beacon, 1986.
King, Thomas. Green Grass Running Water. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1993.
Kinsella, W. P. Dance Me Outside: More Tales from the Ermineskin Reserve. 1977. Boston: David
R Godine, 1994.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Indi'n Humor: Bicultural Play in Native America. New York: OUP, 1993.
Smith, Jeanne Rosier. Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature. Berkeley: U
of California P, 1997.
Vizenor, Gerald. The Heirs of Columbus. Wesleyan: UP of New England, 1991.
Vizenor, Gerald. 'Trickster Discourse: Comic and Tragic Themes in Native American Literature.'
Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds: The Survival of American Indian Life in Story, History and
Spirit. Ed. Mark A. Lindquist and Martin Zanger. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1995. 162.
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|20th Century Native American Literature