Humor: When Cultures Go Bump In the Night

Autumn_LakeHumor is at the heart of many shamanic traditions around the world. Indeed, Indigenous people, contrary to popular perception, are very funny.  We like to laugh; at the same time, our humor often has teeth. A splendid example of this is the writing of Sherman Alexi. Another, more recent set of poignant, heartbreaking, often hilarious truth statements can be found at the Twitter hashtag, #ColonizedAnonymous, most beginning with “I was so colonized….”

Laughter is often, for oppressed people, an act of resistance and solidarity. Shared humor builds community and improves mental and physical health. It also may honey coat difficult messages, replacing shaming with play.

Humor can also be used to shame and bully, yet I would suggest that is a misuse of a powerful healing tool. My teachers would tease me even though I would usually take it poorly, all too routinely feeling marginalized and shamed. It took me many years to be able to join them in poking fun at my folly; eventually I came to the place where I could give as good as I got. To my surprise, I discovered I reveled in that good-natured, loving, playful teasing; when I finally mellowed and joined in, I found myself held softly by the very humor I had rejected previously.

Sadly, in the dominant culture humor is frequently used to ridicule and demean, to keep people “in their place”. How often have you heard standup comics rail against minorities and persons with disabilities? Ethnic and disability jokes can be hilarious, but are seldom so when they come from people who live outside those cultures.

Speaking of cultural appropriation, tomorrow night is Halloween. Once again folks will put on Native attire and prance off to parties. I’m not speaking about children playing at being Indians; hey, more than once as I child I went out as a cowboy! (My parents discouraged me dressing up as Native, but that’s another story.)  I’m speaking about grownups who should understand that the Native dress they are copying is ceremonial, and often very sacred. Non-Natives dressing up as Indians for Halloween is demeaning to most Native people; it would be better to use one’s imagination and go as something else.

By the way, one year shortly after college a few friends and I went to a big Halloween party dressed as well-educated, middle class European Americans. We spent the entire night explaining to others that we were indeed in costume!

Being Halloween, the weather is finally beginning to cool off. That reminds me of an Indian oft told joke. This version is from They have lots of great Native humor.

How to tell if it’s going to be a cold winter

The Blackfeet asked their Chief in autumn, if the winter was going to be cold or not. Not really knowing the answer, the chief replied that the winter was going to be cold and that the members of the village were to collect wood to be prepared.

Being a good leader, he then went to the nearest phone booth and called the National Weather Service and asked, “Is this winter to be cold?” The man on the phone responded, “This winter was going to be quite cold indeed.”

So the Chief went back to speed up his people, telling them to collect even more wood to be prepared.

A week later he called the National Weather Service again, “Is it going to be a very cold winter?”

“Yes,” the man replied, “its going to be a very cold winter.”

So the Chief goes back to his people and orders them to go and find
every scrap of wood they can find.

Two weeks later he calls the National Weather Service again and asks “Are you absolutely sure, that the winter is going to be very cold?”

“Absolutely” the man replies, “the Blackfeet are collecting wood like crazy!”

There are many Native jokes on-line. Take a look. Remember, laughing WITH others is good for all of us!

9 thoughts on “Humor: When Cultures Go Bump In the Night

  1. That joke is wonderful. It’s just the sort of thing that happens in life.

    You remind me in this piece of Perry Como. It is said that joke writers had such a hard time writing for him because he wouldn’t tell any jokes that were at the expense of others. He was a gentleman.

    1. Hi Shery, Laughter is so much a part of our traditions. We laugh at ourselves and with one another.It is good! By the way, there are some older posts about raven, crow, and coyote, that I enjoyed writing, and I like to think are funny, at least to Natives.

    1. If the shaman is the vessel between divine communication and physical manifestation, then coming at it from the perspective of the Medicine Wheel, that places him / her squarely in the South, Grandfather Coyote’s Den. Here the healer dances the light through the darkness and into the physical world that All might reap its benefits.

      Part trickster, part shaker-loose of dead things that no longer serve, the healer uses any means to open the gates to the healing that is needed. Teaching others to laugh at “the monster” is a powerful means of de-fanging it…

      1. Ben, well said. I find myself now in the north, bear’s home, or buffalo’s. The place of reviewing life and teaching the next generations. It is a different kind of healing, perhaps more a weaving together of many threads, and a reweaving of much that was broken. Blessings.

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