Published in Midwestern Folklore, vol. 27, no. 1, Spring 2001, pp. 18-36.
“HEY! GET UP! You got no relations here!”
Native American Humorous Narratives of Cultural Renewal in Michigan
In many Native American cultures people are overcoming centuries of oppression and attempted assimilation to reclaim their cultural heritage, and to build ethnicity that will shape lives meaningfully and with beauty. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the U.P.), Ojibwe people reap the benefits of casinos and resultant political and economic power through processes of cultural regeneration. During this period of renewal, as Nishnaabeg return their focus to their Native American ethnicity, they often re-imagine themselves and re-think their own culture, along with the mainstream American culture. Affirmation of the worth and special nature of this renewed Native culture involves some mocking of the social institutions and imperfections within the dominant culture. Resultant humorous narratives, like those I will present and discuss here, reflect the process of cultural recuperation, affirming Native American values and worldview, while criticizing the dominant, non-Native culture, and providing direction and enjoyment to listeners.
Native American writer N. Scott Momaday describes processes of refashioning oneself as fundamental to the human experience when he writes: “We are all, I suppose, at the most fundamental level what we imagine ourselves to be” (1998: 3). He affirms culture as a dynamic process by which “all” of us make and potentially re-make ourselves. During fieldwork in the Eastern U.P., I saw numerous examples of self-imagining and of re-making of self and community that comprise general cultural renewal. Stories and jokes help facilitate such processes. Ojibwe writer Gerald Vizenor elaborates upon the power of stories to help in imagining lives, in his discussion of a similar statement by Momaday: “Momaday was talking about Indians, about Native American Indians, that the worst that can befall us is to go unimagined. And today, we are talking about the imagination of tribal stories, and the power of tribal stories to heal. Stories that enlighten and relieve and relive. Stories that create as they’re being told. And stories that overturn the burdens of our human existence” (1993: 68). Narratives play a role in stimulating cultural growth or renewal even as cultural renewal stimulates narratives. Such reciprocity reveals that neither narratives nor culture remains fixed. Neither determines the other, since both are processes as creative and mutable as life itself.
Renewal involves reconsidering, even mocking, mainstream culture as a way to achieve community. Sigmund Freud notes the effectiveness of jokes as a means of attacking social or moral imperfections. He writes that as “a jest that betrays something serious,” a joke can direct aggressiveness toward: “institutions, people in their capacity as vehicles of institutions, dogmas of morality or religion, views of life which enjoy so much respect that objections to them can only be made under the mask of a joke and indeed of a joke concealed by its facade” (Freud 1960: 107, 108-109). Thus we expect humor to serve effectively as a means for Native people to express anger at the dominant White culture. By specifically attacking “the Whiteman,” they also help build a portrait of Native people today. Keith Basso explains that: “in all Indian cultures ‘the Whiteman’ serves as a conspicuous vehicle for conceptions that define and characterize what ‘the Indian’ is not . . . [and] constitute what Clyde Kluckhohn once described as ‘cultural portraits of ourselves’” (1979, 5). These humorous narratives represent, reflect, and may stimulate the complex interactions between Natives and non-Natives (Indians and Whites).
In addition to attacking an “other” culture as a means of negative definition, jokes may also build culture positively. Jokes convey the importance and resonance of the emergence of culture, at the same time as they affirm the worth of living as a Nishnaabe. Dell Hymes recognizes such potential of humor in establishing or dissembling social order: “The mind of man seems everywhere to analyze, and reassemble, something of the fabric of a cultural order, often in the mode of mockery” (in Basso 1979: xiii). Jokes help build and affirm “the fabric of cultural order.”
When I did fieldwork in the U.P., one consultant, John Cappa, delighted in telling me a series of humorous narratives, shortly after he had discussed the overall importance of humor in Native life. He explains the mood in many talking circles, and the fear he has of some people mocking the circles or not taking them in a good way:
It’s not an entertainment time for the people in there. But you do have elements of laughter. You do have elements of humor that goes along with that. It’s not like Sunday 10:00 o'clock morning masses, when you have to go in there and be very, very quiet. Heaven forbid don’t even chew anything. [laughs] I always found that bizarre, and when the priest was up there trying to be humorous, you don’t know whether to laugh, or you’re not supposed to laugh, you know. You look around and finally somebody laughs, and, “Oh yeah, that’s funny.”
not funny anymore, you know [laughing], and we do exactly the opposite. Be who
you are in that circle. If the moment hits you as the time to laugh,
“Yeah.” Because those [jokes/humor] are part of teaching. It’s a way of
people. It’s not one day, but everyday and night, nighttime.
John affirms that spirituality is a way of life not limited to one day of the week (as he perceives to be the case in Catholicism). As something more all encompassing, spirituality, like all aspects of Native life, may include humor. As opposed to the unnatural and uncomfortable injection of humor in mass, John feels Native humor flows naturally in various situations. For John humor doesn’t fit in mass, but it does in talking circles, demonstrating the superiority of such ceremonies for Natives. John has thus established a context in which his listeners are to feel good about the positive nature of Native humor while he also establishes a negative frame for non-Native culture.
After this discussion of humor, John broke into performative mode to relate a series of four humorous narratives. The first pokes fun at NASA—and by proxy our Western pride in science and technology. The second and third jokes mock Western religion, even to the point of making Jesus Christ the joker, and the final one mocks Whites who are over-zealous and in John’s opinion inappropriate in their appreciation of Indian culture.
first joke pits NASA – representative of the highest technological
achievements of America and Western culture generally – against the humble,
traditional Native people. Here is John’s telling of the first joke.
JOKE #1 – Cow Bones on the Moon
The people went up to the moon,
and one of the instructions that they were told
that the astronauts were told, was that
“When you go up to that moon,
the first thing that you’re doing up there,
[unclear word] bring [back] elements from the moon.”
would be rocks,
and everything else.
So upon their return they brought a sample of these things. 10
So with the high, sophisticated equipment that NASA has
they sifted through every molecule of things they found up there.
And upon their amazement, while sifting, they came across some objects.
And they didn’t know what they were.
And they looked and looked at them,
And finally one of the, ah, scientists made a lot of, you know,
an identification that said, “This is a bone, an animal bone. Wow!”
And he just could not figure out why,
why they would have this bone on the moon.
So they thought and thought and thought. 20
Finally somebody says, “You know, the Native people have been here [the moon], so they say,”
course they [ the Natives] didn't know.
they ah [were there] more than three thousand years [ago],
you know ten thousand years.
“Maybe they would know.” [quiet voice he uses for scientists – slightly excited]
So they said, “Well, why not? Let’s go and ask them.”
So they went around and they found that there just happened to be a gathering not too very far from Houston, an Indian gathering.
So they went over there, and they had asked if they could ask the head people what they wanted to know. 31
So somebody directed, telling them to go to those four elders that were
They motioned those elders to come on up, cause they [the scientists] weren’t allowed to come into the circle.
So they were talking up on the hill.
And they had asked these elders what they had found [on the moon].
So all the old people looked at one another and says, “Oh, okay.”
And as a good tradition, they’re not gonna tell you the answer right away.
“We’ll let you know.” [in the voice of an elder – slower and deeper] 40
So the NASA people says “Okay!” [with excitement]
So the elders went back down [to their circle].
They commenced to talk about it a little while, while these guys, up on the hill, NASA, were preparing for this answer.
So they got all the cameras and everything else, all stage lights ready
and microphones all set.
people are real fanatic about microphones
worried about our microphone before & during our interview]
[laughs a little]
John: I don’t why! [sarcastically; he also laughs] 50
But they were all setting up there.
And then meantime, the ah, Nishnaabeg were down on the hill
that he refers to all Indians as Nishnaabeg]
Oh they’d forgotten these guys up there,
Talking about the finalities of the day and
What those women were doing over there.
And finally one of those elders says,
“Hey wait a minute [in an elder-like voice]
We gotta go back up der” [he says “der”– pronounced “dare” – for “there” as dialect of an elder for whom English would be a second language]
He says, “Oh yeah!” [John laughs] 60
So they went back up and so the people that asked,
The NASA people asked, “Well did you come up with an answer?
Why, why are there animal bones on the moon?”
By this time these guys forgot about the question.
they’re standing around there.
So one of the guys raised their hand,
he thought he had to raise his hand
that’s the way they – white people – understood things,
raise their hand.
So – pshew! – all the cameras went on him 70
and lights came on, microphones came on, electricity,
“So why is that, why is there bones found on the moon?”
[in an excited scientist voice]
Nishnaabe thought for a long time and he says,
“Well, they have [in a deep and slow elder’s voice]
they have been up there,
for a long time,” he says.
And he said, “The only thing that we can come up with is –
one cow didn’t make it.”
[We both laugh]
So, the NASA tied up all their little things and went away. 79
Much of the joke’s significance lies in the details of John’s narrative. Forinstance, he elaborates upon scientific instruments and knowledge of NASA and their eagerness for an answer (ll. 41-46). With all their “electricity” and other impressive technology, the scientists will cannot figure out everything (ll. 11-12). They come in earnest supplication to Native people to get answers (ll. 20-31). John emphasizes that in trying to understand what they collected on the moon, NASA uses every means at its disposal: “So with the high, sophisticated equipment that NASA has, they sifted through every molecule of things they found up there” (ll. 11-12). As meticulous as they are in their methods, they cannot figure out their puzzle.
Their urgent hurry to determine the “truth” of what is on the moon contrasts with the Native people, who are relaxed and ultimately unconcerned with the puzzle. The Native people sit in a circle gossiping and joking all day (ll. 51-56). The Nishnaabeg are thereby depicted as having a better sense of themselves and the world. Although the scientists are “above,” apparently on a hill (l. 51-2, 61), the Natives appear centered, literally and figuratively, as opposed to the scientists who wait at the fringes, excited, intense, and running about in hopes of understanding the universe (or at least this one part of it). John even changes his voice to represent the over-excited scientists to convey this sense of urgency (ll. 26, 41, 73). In marked contrast, the Native people feel no sense of urgency and his voice is slower and deeper when portraying the elders (ll. 40, 74). They make the scientists wait, as part of their “good tradition”: “And as a good tradition, they’re not gonna tell you the answer right away, ‘We’ll let you know,’” the elder says (ll. 39-40). They spend the day entirely unconcerned with the problem that perplexes NASA: “And then meantime, the ah Nishnaabeg were down on the hill talking about, oh they’d forgotten these guys up there, talking about the finalities of the day and what those women were doing over there” (ll. 52-55). Their concerns are both more mundane – what the women are doing – and more centered and human finally – “the finalities of the day.” They even forget the question (l. 64).
The nursery rhyme punch line reference feels appropriate since even with all their technology, the scientists appear more like children than sophisticated men from NASA (indicated by their excitement, curiosity, and impatience). Faced with a puzzle and nowhere to turn, they think of Nishnaabeg, because of rumors of their superior knowledge, potentially even of the cosmos itself. John relates a belief that Native people may have visited the moon “more than three thousand years, you know ten thousand years,” so “Maybe they [the Native people] would know” (ll. 21-26). In contrast to the childlike nature of the men from NASA, the Nishnaabeg they seek out are specified as “elders.” In the end we realize that the elders have been toying with the scientists, offering a European nursery rhyme as mock explanation for why a cow’s bone should be found on the moon. The NASA men do not exhibit any humor: “So, the NASA men tied up all their little things and went away” (l. 79). His phrasing “all their little things” deflates the would-be giants of science. This joke thus minimizes and mocks the importance of one of the most prized institutions of Western Civilization. After attacking science, John continues in this vein, now turning his attention to the other pillar of our civilization – religion.
The next joke mocks further White self-importance, while simultaneously confirming the worth and humor of Native culture and ceremonies. John prepares us for his attitude about Catholicism by explaining some of his own negative experiences with church attitudes and actions toward his people:
We like to, as much as the Catholics and the Jesuits made fun of us,
and called us “pagans” [says this word with disgust]
and everything else,
We in turn are getting wiser in our old age,
we say, “Yeah, hey, we have some for them,” you know.
called “pagans” was unfair and distasteful, along with “everything
else” suffered by Native people. Thus John feels justified in offering jokes
that turn the tables.
So he begins his Pope joke, in which the Pope tries to make amends by apologizing to Nishnaabeg and “letting them” practice their ceremonies.
JOKE #2 – Easter Eggs
The day came when the POPE decided to apologize to Nishnaabeg,
Said, “We are sorry that, all the things we have said.
We’re gonna, we’re gonna make amends,
and the, you people can have your ceremonies.”
he says “you people,” you know,
categorizing us still.
Says, “You people can still have your ceremonies”
And he puts on a little crying, crying jag, you know.
don’t cry, not supposed to.
[John sighs and clears his throat]
So, so the Native people went ahead [practicing their ceremonies] 10
And then the high priests came over to the ceremonies,
And they wanted to know,
are the high priests of way up there,
And they, they wanted to know
from the spiritual leaders of the Nishnaabeg,
what was their idea, of Christ rising on Easter Sunday.
So they caught the elder’s, the spiritual leader’s attention right off the bat.
And he says, “you know,”
all the ears of the high priests
“huh oh, something’s gonna be
here. In our revelation of our teaching
we have taught these savages something.”
The elder turned around and says,
“you know, that if the greatest phenomenon that happens on that day, it is that day, that mystery, for all Indian people, we still wonder today, is that,
why, why is it that our rabbits lay eggs on that day –
that are colored?” 28
The extent of the damage and bad feelings caused by the Catholic Church in regard to Nishnaabeg is so great that it requires the Pope himself to redress the wrongs. Yet even in the current climate of apology, John notes a hypocritical message encoded within the Pope’s speech when he refers to the Nishnaabeg as, “you people” (ll. 4-5). The Pope tries to show his sincerity by crying, but John shows he doesn’t believe it by his phrasing, “he puts on a little crying, crying jag,” and by his disgust when he says, “Popes don’t cry, not supposed to” (ll. 8-9). He’s “putting it on” indicates it may not be sincere and it’s a “jag,” or a spree, not something he necessarily really feels or would do outside this particular circumstance.
As this narrative continues, some Church leaders approach the Native people in supplication. As with NASA, some of the highest, most honored members of non-Native culture seek out the Native people and recognize their wisdom. Even the “high priests of way up there” come to the leaders of the Nishnaabeg to learn “their idea” (ll. 11-16). As in the NASA story, the Native people taunt the religious leaders with the notion that they are serious and indicate that they have an idea about the holiest of Christian holidays, Easter: “The high priests of way up there / . . .wanted to know / from the spiritual leaders of the Nishnaabeg, / what was their idea of Christ rising on Easter Sunday” (ll. 13-16). As the Nishnaabe elder, a spiritual leader, begins to answer, “all the ears of the high priests / listened right away,” in the belief that they’re going to hear their own glory parroted back at them (ll. 19-20). The priests think, “In our revelation of our teaching / we have taught these savages something” (ll. 22-23). Predictably, the priests are wrong and the great mystery that the Native people finally inquire about is revealed in the punch line, “Why is it that our rabbits lay eggs on that day – that are colored?” (ll. 25-28). It’s unclear whether John meant to say that rabbits laid the Easter Eggs (as in the Cadbury chocolate commercials from Easter time) or whether he meant to ask why chickens lay eggs that are colored on that day. That he would confuse some of the details of the Western holiday only emphasizes his rejection of the dominant culture.
As in the first joke, this final line in the mouth of a Nishnaabe elder ends with bathos. This silly question deflates the hopes and self-importance of the priests as the NASA joke had done that of the scientists. The imbedded message is for white people to stop taking their concern with the “Truth” so seriously, whether it is Truth according to religion or science. In both cases, as well, the use of children’s folklore signals how the Whites appear to the Nishnaabeg. In critiquing two of the most believed and valued institutions of Western Civilization, these narratives further serve to affirm Nishnaabe culture, which demonstrates levity and an implied ability to live happily without worrying so seriously about the truth.
In that context, John wishes to keep telling these humorous stories. Quickly after delivering that punch line, while I am still laughing, he asks:
Do you want to hear another one?
John: [laughs again]
was on that fateful day [in a dramatic voice]
After the success of the first two stories, John officially recognizes his own breakthrough into performance and wants to continue. Interestingly he started out by approaching this interview reluctantly, not sure he wanted this on tape. At this moment, however, he consciously takes up the tone of the master storyteller, using a framing device (a classic opening line) to begin another story of what is, indeed, the most fateful day in Christianity.
As before, this joke focuses on religion, but this time John puts the punch line in the mouth of Jesus Christ himself. The setting is Good Friday, for which John gives the Ojibwe term, thus signaling a Native element to Christianity’s holiest day and setting us up for the appropriation of Jesus himself as sympathetic to Natives. In setting up the joke, John also emphasizes the brutality of the act of killing their savior.
JOKE #3 – Even Jesus Jokes
It was on that fateful day
on what they call,
k'chi dojiibaatiibuyiigiguk – Good Friday
And it was on that day,
These people put this good man to death,
They put him to death in such a barbaric way,
I mean they nailed this man to the cross.
people never do that. Never.
First, we never had nails.
They nailed this man to the cross. 10
He focuses upon the “barbaric” nature of the act for which, by implication, all non-Native people share the burden. John is certain that Nishnaabe people “never” would have committed such brutalities (for which he offers what he considers the proof that “first, we never had nails”– l. 9). This supports John’s overall message of the worth, even superiority, of Nishnaabe culture. He continues with his narration:
The man was thirsty so they gave him something that
made him more thirsty, made it more painful, gave him vinegar. [sighs]
So while this man was lying, was on the cross,
S p r e a d out,
The clouds are coming in real low
Lots of people watching this [whispering]
And in his weak, weak, deathly voice
He [Christ] says, “Peter . . .
Peter . . . ”
And his voice seemed like it echoed 20
Because there was a silence,
that sorrow, what not.
People, some of the people laughing.
It’s going on and all a sudden,
Peter hears his voice [spoken with excitement]
So he came through the crowd [spoken quickly]
And pushing, he’s,
“Excuse me, get out of the way! Get outta the way! Come on!
The LORD wants to see me, the Lord wants me!”
He goes over there and he looks up, and, “Yes, lord?” 30
Man who’s on the cross says,
I can see your house from here.”
In his telling, John continues with his disgust at the barbaric nature of the crucifixion. He draws out Christ’s agony, as when he is given vinegar when he was so thirsty (ll. 11-12). His emphasis on this “barbaric” behavior demonstrates the hypocrisy of non-Natives who so often have characterized Native culture as savage and inferior even while sharing such a story of torturing and killing their own God. In a dramatic, pained voice, John portrays Christ calling for Peter, who is full of self-importance and seriousness (ll. 18-22). Peter rushes to answer “the Lord’s” request to see him, pushing ahead and saying: “The LORD wants to see me, the Lord wants me!” (ll. 26-29). As in the previous jokes, we are led to expect to hear some profoundly meaningful words, perhaps even more so this time. John encourages this expectation by dragging out the words and phrasing and trying to build the drama with pauses between words, whispering, detailing the weakness of Christ, the sorrow of the crowd, and the echo of Christ’s voice because of the silence around him. Yet, perhaps remembering the story the way the priests told it and wanting to make it believable, John allows for some levity to the situation in the people laughing before the spectacle (further demonstrating their own delusion – l. 23).
In spite of the expectation of profundity, like the words of Nishnaabeg characters in previous jokes, Jesus’ final line deflates those expectations when he whispers in his dying breath to Peter: “I can see your house from here” (l. 33). As the deliverer of the punch line, Jesus thus parallels and demonstrates his sympathy with the Nishnaabe point of view and humor. Yet John as narrator refers to him as “Man who’s on the cross,” in contrast to how Peter describes him emphatically as “the LORD” (ll. 31, 29). Peter’s sense of self-importance and urgency matches that of NASA and the priests, as he pushes others out of the way to hear the last words of his lord. Associating levity with the darkest, most serious hours of Christianity confirms a point that John made earlier, that no event, no way of experiencing the world should be without humor. John emphasizes that he heard this joke from “a very spiritual woman.” Hence humor does not indicate an inability to value, understand, and experience spirituality, religion, or other important matters; rather it implies that even spiritual matters may be treated with a sense of humor. It also affirms that Nishnaabeg, like Christ here, are just people. This relieves some pressure for them to be super-human or perfect (which John indicated at various times – including in the last joke he’ll tell in this cycle – was an implicit burden he felt from many Whites wanting to learn about his culture).
John breaks out of narrative mode to offer an explanation of the importance of ceremonies at just this point in his joke cycle:
Ceremonies, ceremonies are real important things,
important factor for Native people.
It’s a time for renewal,
It’s a time for rejuvenation
It’s not a time to
to put all your
put all your things in one.
Ceremonies are a means to an end, methods for “renewal” and “rejuvenation.” They are not an end in and of themselves, which is apparently how John sees Catholic ceremonies (which the previous jokes show as being in contrast to Native life). Ceremonies are not all about truth, which is what I think he means by the last line, “put all your things in one,” as in focusing all your energy into an idea of truth, or the “one,” as in one dominant way. In opposition to this tendency of non-Natives to seek absolute truth (for instance in the two institution he mocks here – science and religion), Native people have shown in these various jokes their ability to incorporate into their own worldview ideas, folktales, customs, and religious traditions of others, without losing a sense of themselves. It’s not about living ONE way, but about being balanced, with humor and seriousness, as in Nishnaabe ceremonies.
As he continues his narrative cycle, John offers a final joke that highlights the distinction between Native and non-Native ways of thinking and acting. This time he focuses on a character who, like myself, keeps asking questions about Native culture, thereby annoying John:
JOKE #4 – Ceremonial Humor – The White Man Can’t Take the Heat
I was reminded about a time when –
a place called Hannahville
[where there is a school and a reservation],
and we were –
This instructor, one of the ah White instructors,
wanted to know more about the ceremonies.
And he kept on bugging us over and over again.
We had told him that this was not for white people.
But he wanted to know.
So finally we decided that, “Okay [clicks tongue], come on
and we'll, we'll teach you.” 10
So we took him out, we took him out to the woods,
me and my spiritual leader.
So we built a sacred lodge, for this, for this white teacher.
So he was sitting there,
As all white people do,
They just sit there with just sternness and listening to
Every nook and cranny things that we do.
And ah, the lodge in the, fire was going
And my elder apparently had started to say,
“Well, you know the sun is going down. We're gonna have to go into this lodge. I gotta share a story,” he says, “before we go in.” 21
So of course he said it in Ojibwe and we just cracked up laughing.
There was a few other Nishnaabes who understood.
And this poor guy, he just sat there, looked at each and every one of us.
So my spiritual leader told me that,
“You have to tell him what I said. Otherwise it’s not fair, that we believe he has to be part of that group.”
So I commenced to tell him.
I says, “you know, my spiritual leader tells me I have to tell this story.
I have to translate it in English.” 30
[IMBEDDED NARRATIVE BEGINS]
“So, it was, [clears throat]
It was one time, this, this individual who wanted to share the same experience with the Native people. He said his people, he had heard from his people a long, long time ago in Africa that the Native people here share the same spiritual beliefs and ceremonies. He wanted to trace back his roots and maybe he could find it through the, through the Native way.
And so he had asked the Native people whether or not he can be part of these ceremonies, sacred sweat lodge.”
[It’s unclear whether this man is African-American, or a White man who believes he has African roots. He is referred as both a White man and a Zhaaganaash (Ojibwe for White man)]
“After long deliberation, the Native people finally allowed him to come into the lodge.” 40
still to this day they don’t allow, you know
people in the lodge, you know.
some people do,
They don’t know any better.
“Anyway, this guy, he wanted to go in the lodge.
So the individual who was running the lodge, Nishnaabe, he had told them that, ‘well you know what you have to do’”
“He says, ‘oh yeah, yeah, I know, I know what I have to do!’”
“The man looked at him and says, ‘I don't know. I tell you what,’ he says,
‘I’ll, I’ll put you on the eastern direction of the lodge, that eastern direction is a very easy part of that lodge, cause it is not real hot, easy.
So, you sit right here, close to me,’” 52
“And he says, ‘Oh okay!’ [with excitement]
“So he went in, he sat himself down.
And they also reminded [him] when he was in there.
‘Well, you know, it’s gonna get hot in here’
“He says, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah I know it!’ [with excitement]
“He said, ‘bow down now and listen, when it gets real hot in here
you get that cedar that’s on the ground, put it up to your noise and breathe,
it’ll help you.’ 60
“‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’
“He says, ‘you know if it gets, if it gets too hot, too very, very hot,
a —[unknown Ojibwe word]— who
can put rocks on there now. They are just red, and he put water inside them,
on them, so it’ll steam, so his skin come off of him.
If it gets too hot, you can ask the door man to open the door.
We don’t allow that, but in your case we’ll make an allowance of you
Ask the door man to open that door, and, I don’t want you to leave,
I just want you to lay right by the lodge there and call for your relations,
Your relations will come and help you to give you your strength
To give you that mishkooziwin that strength that you need.
You just call for your relations.’ 72
“‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, okay! I’ll do that! [with excitement]
I know this is my ancestors,
Yeah, yeah, that’s what I wanna do, you know, find out my, get back to where it’s, where I was coming from.’
“So they all got in. They started, rocks came in CH, CHEWWW
[making the noise of steam]
Just, you know, hot.
About the second pour, pour went on and just, just hot.
“The man says, ‘huh uh huh uh [sound of very heavy breathing] 80
Oh gosh oh!’
“They nudged him and says, ‘cedar’ and he took it and, ‘huh uh huh uh’
[more heavy breathing]
Just breathing away
“Another pour went in, just steam, just –
And the man is just praying for all the – “
stay at least for the first four pours
it for all the four directions,
“And it was very hot,
And the man just could not take it.
“Says, ‘door, huh, door man’ 90
[John mimics the heavy breathlessness of his speech]
Aww, he broke the sweat lodge,”
gotta, gotta be the four,
least the first four pours,
don’t open the door.
“But, they made a promise, he had to get out, so they said, ‘Doorman!
Zhaagnaash shkwaamide! [The White man wants out] Open the door.’
“So he opened the door and he crawls outta there,
throws himself next to the lodge,
‘HUH, all my relations, all my relations!’
Oh, he just – 99
“Door was closed, ceremonies continued, door opened up, pipes came in,
water was passed around, the door was closed, ceremony continued.
You know in, when you're in there, it seems like you’re only in there for 15 minutes, but you’re actually in there for four hours, three hours you know.
“And then, we, the lodge is completed, everybody walks out and gives a good hard yell, because you’re, they’re rejuvenated. You’re born again and just, raring to go and everything else.
“And everybody’s walking by, and meantime this guy is still lying out there,
‘HUH, all my relations, 110
Oh thank god, all my relations!’ you know.
“By this time everybody’s had their second wind and had their cigarettes, and everybody passing the juice around or whatever, water, and they, you know, put on their clothes.”
Usually the individual who runs the lodge is the last one to put his clothes on.
“So he [the elder who ran the lodge] had put on his clothes and about 45 minutes already the lodge has been done, and this man was still lying there. And he [the elder] walks by,
“He [the white guy] says, ‘I said, ALL my relations, all my re—‘
“Guy [elder] walks over there and kicks him on the side,
‘HEY! GET UP! You got no relations here!’” 122
The punch line reveals the rejection of the White man, who is clearly an annoying misfit at an otherwise successful and rejuvenating ceremony. It plays on the common refrain of sweat lodge ceremonies, not coincidentally a ceremony often co-opted or sought out by White people who want to participate in Native American life. During the sweat lodge the phrase “all my relations” is used as an appropriate participatory code to signal intentions (for instance to leave). This White man who wants to be related in fact cannot take the heat of real participation in the culture. He’s proven he doesn’t belong and so he has neither literal nor figurative relations. This metaphorical rejection of non-Native culture not only turns the tables, but also helps solidify the strength of the true relations, who have no trouble participating. The play on the words and concept of “all my relations,” becoming “You got no relations here!” signifies John’s message generally.
John leads us to anticipate the White man as an annoying misfit from the outset: “He kept on bugging us over and over again” (l. 6). As in the previous narratives, the seriousness of the white man is emphasized. The Nishnaabeg finally agree to let him participate in a sweat lodge because of his persistence (demonstrating their compassion and open-mindedness). At the event, John notes, that “as all white people do,” this white man demonstrates “sternness,” and “listening to every nook and cranny, things that we do” (ll. 15-17). His intense scrutiny obviously discomfits John. These ceremonies are serious and important, but not as foreign, exotic events that will reveal the meaning of life (which such seriousness indicates is expected). The White man just doesn’t get it at all, as the preferred, embedded narrative demonstrates.
In the framing narrative (which is ultimately dropped), an elder tells a story during preparations for the sweat lodge. His story, in Ojibwe, involves another white man who wasn’t able to stand the heat and didn’t belong in the culture. In the framing story, this White man doesn’t get the joke (because he doesn’t speak Ojibwe), though the other “true” Ojibwe participants laugh heartily, indicative of White inability to understand Ojibwe culture on many levels: “So of course he said it in Ojibwe and we just cracked up laughing / There was a few other Nishnaabes who understood / And this poor guy, he just sat there, looked at each and every one of us” (ll. 22-24). The “poor” guy can only be an observer, while the Ojibwe understand (at least some of them) the embedded code. While the others laughs, the poor White guy can only stare (as they are wont to do). John again communicates symbolically that Nishnaabe culture is full of laughter and levity in contrast to Whites. For Natives, humor is acceptable even in the midst of a supposedly serious event. From this point on (l. 31), John tells in English the embedded narrative that made everyone laugh, but never returns to the framing story of the actual sweat lodge with his white colleague.
In the humorous embedded story (set off with double indentation), another white man has been carefully instructed how to act during a sweat lodge, though he had barely listened in his intense excitement to get the ceremony started: “He says, ‘oh yeah, yeah, I know what I have to do!” (l. 48, a self-assurance repeated in lines 57, 61, and 73). The skeptical elder foresees difficulties and thus gives him the easiest seat (ll. 49-52). The White man’s emphatic confidence and enthusiasm are soon revealed as misplaced (thereby confirming the elder’s insight) when he is quickly overwhelmed by the heat inside the sweat lodge. (ll.80-85). His utter discomfort (indicated by heavy breathing culminate in his crying out, much to soon, the wrong phrase: “Says, ‘door, huh, door man” (l. 90), thereby “breaking the sweat lodge” (l. 91). John previously told how this man had expressed his beliefs that we humans are all related, and thus he too can count the Africans and Native Americans as his ancestors (ll. 31-38). He seems sincere in his belief of how meaningful it will be for him to connect to “his” traditions through this sweat lodge ceremony. Yet this desire to participate and to be related is deflated quickly. He does not use the proper refrain, “all my relations,” until he “crawls” out of the sweat lodge in disgrace (l. 98).
John provides a detailed description of the atmosphere, events, and feeling inside a sweat lodge well and at some length (ll. 77-107). Such details demonstrate his intimate knowledge of the event, and his respect for it. He emphasizes that you “gotta stay at least for the first four pours / make it for all the four directions. / And it was very hot, / and the man just could not take it” (ll. 86-89). The White man can’t follow even the most basic rules or customs, so in disgust they let him out early. But as the details of the ceremony demonstrate, the sweat lodge was appropriate and meaningful for the Nishnaabeg participants (ll. 100-116).
John’s disgust continues in his portrayal of the white man as weak, in contrast to the Nishnaabeg who can stay in there for three or four hours without even noticing how long it has been. The positive exit, full of exuberance and “rejuvenation” demonstrated by the Nishnaabeg contrasts with the pitiful exit by the white man. Where he “crawls out” and throws himself on the ground, the others all “walk out and give a good hard yell . . . just raring to go and everything else” (ll. 96, 105-107). One implication is that this ceremony is for Nishnaabeg, not for whites, for whom it is inappropriate, too difficult, and misunderstood. The pitiful White man, “is still lying out there,” saying, “‘Oh thank god, all my relations!’” (ll. 108-111), when finally an elder (as usual) delivers the punch line: “[He] walks over there and kicks him on the side, [and says] ‘HEY! GET UP! You got no relations here!’” (ll. 121-122). The non-Native clearly fails to “find himself” as part of the group, in spite of his professed desires. This story helps demonstrate the logic of John’s position that the ceremonies are not for non-Natives. It also dramatizes a distinction between Native and non-Native ways of living. The punch line rejects White involvement in Native culture today. Hence the narrative asserts the potential for a Native ceremony and a world under Nishnaabe control. For the Natives the ceremony is rejuvenating, good, and balanced. This joke demonstrates self-imagining and refashioning that do not need to include Whites. John finds it important to have control over his culture and to have something apart from White participation or scrutiny, which has caused him discomfort throughout his life.
By conflating two stories within this narrative and ending with the embedded narrative, John makes his position clear. It does not matter if the man he actually knew acted well during a sweat lodge. He prefers the story the elder told which demonstrates that white people do not have what it takes to do a sweat lodge – they are not relations. Like the other narratives’ implicit messages, this one explicitly points at Whites. Clearly on one level the message is intended for me, the White researcher asking him to share his stories. Although I’m aware of this layer of the discourse, I also heard these jokes in various settings, usually with a principally Native audience. So the message is not only a rejection of Whites, but also a stimulant to a Native-centered worldview. John chose to participate in these interviews, and to share these stories with what he knew would be a greater audience of White people, not only to criticize us, but also to inform us of the meaningful renewal of culture in which he participates.
For a Native audience, I believe such humor – in its negative and positive modes – helps to allay some of the bitterness that comes after years of feeling inferior and belittled by the dominant English-speaking culture. Later in our interviews, John related what he characterized as “some other funny stories” based on his childhood experience. He confirms his description of these as funny stories through his hearty laughter after each one (in fact he laughed more than I). This first part of a related series of anecdotes helps explain to some extent the source of feelings of frustration and inferiority caused by the dominant White culture:
Yeah, language is a real, real important base for Native people.
We talked earlier of the era of the 1920's.
And just to, to gallivant in our minds of that era,
what the language state was at that time, and you know, go back in that time,
not to say that you and I were, were around there, at the time,
But we can listen to our grandfathers and grandmothers.
My Dad was in the 1920's and the things that they talked about when I was in the, when we were at the reservation –
English was unheard of amongst the Nishnaabe people.
If somebody spoke English language, that was – 10
He was understood to be very smart,
He knew something.
If a crowd, a group of people, adults, Nishnaabeg
were in the store and they were going to, they wanted to get something, they looked around and said, “Wenesh maampii ezhaagnaashiwaa?”
“Who is the one who speaks English?”
And they would say, “Oh, Davit, Davit oontaa zhaaganaashiwaa” [David speaks the white man’s language]
John confirms in this discussion the social pressure to assimilate, to learn English. The White culture was dominant and desirable. By “gallivanting” back in “our” minds, we/he can remember how overwhelming the pressure was to change and conform (l. 2-4). The jokes already discussed try to correct such attitudes. In this past era, however, the jokes pressured and valorized a different kind of social change – one to be educated and English speaking. Ultimately John is happy that his family retained their language ability. David stood out because he spoke English.
But John remembers difficulties and social stigma brought about by not knowing English. He continues his previous anecdote:
And then there was another story that he had mentioned was at the same –
There’s another guy. He was walking down, down the road, and this guy went up there and met him. It was his cousin, he was an older guy, and so, it was just by 20 chance somebody else came by, a zhaaganash, a non-Native person. And he asked,
“Israel, what are you doing walking?”
And they looked at each [other] and [Israel wondered] “what did this guy say?”
So Israel right off the bat, he thought he knew what this guy was asking,
So he wanted to answer him in English, and said,
“Oden, dadoon, da do dah bon” [His sing-songy voice makes it clear this is nonsensical. We laugh, especially John]
Everybody just started laughing away. [John is still laughing]
“Isa, what the heck did you say?” you know, “what were you telling this Zhaaganash [white] person here?”
And Isa, what he was trying to say, [was] that his car was way up there, you 30 know, and he, he honestly thought he was saying that. [John laughs so I join in]
Ah, that was so great. Every now and then we will, you know, joke about that, just laughing, you know, and here, yeah Israel thought he was really speaking English. [more laughter]
thought that was pretty good.
John remembers poor Isa as a butt of humor because Isa thought he could communicate in ways that he actually could not. Isa is foolish in his confidence. John’s stories in this section show that speaking English was a matter of pride, while not being able to speak English spurred mockery. Now the reverse is true, and speaking the English language inaccurately becomes at times a way of showing disdain, just as John and others are proud now of being able to speak Ojibwe.
John remembers how shy people were about speaking English (no doubt because of such humor directed at them):
But you look at that, in looking at those types of things [speaking English] – How was the language, how did the language, fit for people way back then?
It must have been something, because even when I was growing up, 20,
30, 40, 50, 60, um, 30 years later, that I began to be coherent and listening
to my relatives, that they were still very shy about speaking, speaking
would rather speak Ojibwe and Nishnaabe in all, in every place they went –
And like I was saying, in relation to that story that all of the
Nishnaabeg in that camp – very little, if any of them, spent the majority of time
speaking English. Ojibwe was heard, heard over all the place.
The kids, us kids, when we directed and played, it was bilingual, both English and Ojibwe and sometimes we would play on words, remember the little phrases, cutsie phrases we learned from school.
know what mine was?
John: I thought it was real –
“Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t so, was very fuzzy,
wuzzy wasn’t so fuzzy was he?”
Clearly the shyness and confusion over language abilities still continues. Although John was one of those kids who went to school and so learned English, he here reveals his continuing confusion over language and identity. At the same time that he expresses pride at being bilingual, he also demonstrates inaccuracy in remembering his rhyme (ll. 52-53). This laughter and humor has an edge of sadness to it, whereas the previous jokes were much more clever and funny, and were based on an attitude of pride and hope.
Richard Dorson discusses similar “comic Indian anecdotes” that mimic the poor English of Indians: “Spoofs on the poor Indian, even to mimicking of his pidgin English, are on record in the 17th-century literature, and comic Indian anecdotes remain a staple fare up to the present. Indians as well as White men become the tellers, and the point of view shifts” (1961, 19). In such ethnic jokes, the point is to represent the mood and worldview that was common in regard to a particular community. Being able to laugh at one’s own foolishness helps one regain or retain control of one’s identity. So even mocking one’s own culture, or as in this case, ridiculing aspects of the culture that are now valorized (e.g. speaking Ojibwe but not speaking English), is a means of rebellion. Dorson explains: “the essence of the humor lies in capturing and projecting the outlook of the immigrants by their neighbors, friends and children, and the tales are told by their sons and daughters and neighbors who know intimately the acculturative process” (1961, 25). Self-mocking humor demonstrates a desire to have control, even to the point of self-mocking. Such a process allows for control and assurance that eventually leads to the humor based on the refashioning of culture evident in the jokes that mock White men and valorize Native life ways. Taking control of and responsibility for acculturation is the key.
Dorson discusses the various roles of different kinds of humorous narratives: “But in the 19th and 20 centuries [sic] the Indian changes his role, and becomes the sly underdog who turns the situation in his favor with a single pithy remark” (1961, 19). The first four jokes I presented end with just such pithy punch lines that evince the hypocrisies and flaws of White society, while valorizing the Nishnaabeg. Dorson offers an example drawn from his fieldwork in the same community where I worked fifty years after him:
John Lufkins, an Ojibwa living at Brimley in northern Michigan, told me
of the Episcopalian bishop who came to his reservation with an armload of
presents and asked if it was safe to leave them in the wigwam while he visited
a sick woman at a distance. “Oh sure,” said Chief Ish-quay-gwon,
“there’s not a White man around for 40 miles.” (1961, 19-20)
The reversal of the standards of morality and judgement show the potential of these jokes to help buoy the desire and pride to be Native.
Most fundamentally, perhaps, stories like the jokes John tells of Jesus joking on the cross, Easter bunnies laying eggs, a White man who can’t take the heat of the sweat lodge, and over-excited NASA scientists, all exist as entertainment. They help Native people to imagine themselves through laughter. Gerald Vizenor offers a viewpoint on the simple pleasures of all stories:
Our stories are real. We come alive with the trickster in our own
imagination, and the rest is bad television. The trickster is not an image on
television. The best tribal tricksters are in the best stories shared by
people who trust imagination and the pleasures of language games. The very
first stories told, the first stories heard, the first imaginative acts and
continuous imaginative acts were not consigned to some functional purpose but
arose in a burst of enthusiasm and imagination that suited the occasion, that
enhances the moment. (1965/1993: 69)
The trick in humorous stories has changed over time, but laughter continues. Bitter laughter turns to healing laughter and finally laughter helps build the world (as does the trickster himself at times). With or without a “functional purpose,” laughter enhances the moment and enhances life.
Ogimakwe, another of the consultants with whom I worked in the U.P., confirms this feeling of enjoyment in regard to Native humor in stories: “Yeah I think as far as like stories nowadays, [they] have kind of gotten away from a lot of like, substance, or like, ‘the moral of this story is,’ you know? I think they’re more or less – Oh, they’re very fun, and we laugh. But, that’s one of the things I love about being around Indian Country is the sense of humor is just absolutely awesome.” All the stories we have considered in these pages confirm the potential of humanity to come to life with enthusiasm and imagination, to “enhance the moment” with laughter.
Throughout our interviews, John demonstrated how painful it was to grow
up believing that his culture was worthless, while being trained to believe
that the dominant culture was omnipotent and omniscient, that we had truths
and abilities unknown or unavailable to Nishnaabeg. The humor we have examined
undermines those assumptions, helping to affirm and to build a new world where
Nishnaabeg have a worthwhile place. Whereas previously (for instance in
John’s youth), Natives felt pressure to be educated and English speaking,
today they can mock the dominant culture and express pride at being Native.
These jokes help Native people to imagine themselves (in Momaday’s sense)
positively through laughter. While the Whites in these stories are
over-serious in their obsession with knowledge and the Truth, be it
scientific, religious or of Native culture itself, the Natives live
with humor and balance. These jokes communicate that whereas White men seem
fixated on unattainable answers, Native people concentrate on living. The
lives valorized do not represent perfect lives like saviors, though they are
nonetheless admirable. These jokes affirm an attainable, human level of
Keith H. 1979. Portraits of “the
Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Richard M. 1961. “Symposium on the Concept of Ethnohistory: Ethnohistory and
Ethnic Folklore,” in Ethnohistory,
vol. 8, no 1 (Winter), pp. 12-30.
Sigmund. 1960. Jokes and their Relation
to the Unconscious. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton &
N. Scott.1988. “Native American Attitudes to the Environment” in Stars
Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature, ed. Marsha C. Bol. Niwot,
CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers in cooperation with Carnegie Museum of Natural
History, pp. 3-11.
Gerald. 1965 / 1993. Summer in the
Spring: Anishinaabe Lyric Poems and Stories. New Edition. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press.
1993. “Trickster Discourse: Comic and Tragic Themes in Native American
Literature” in Buried Roots and
Indestructible Seeds: The Survival of American Indian Life in Story, History,
and Spirit, ed. Mark A. Lindquist and Martin Zanger, Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press, pp. 67-83.
 I conducted fieldwork in the Eastern U. P. between 1994 and 1996. I taught at a tribal college, studied Ojibwe language, and eventually interviewed Native American residents of the region. The Western terms Ojibwe (or Ojibwa) and Chippewa refer interchangeably to the same people living around Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding Great Lakes region at the time of first contact with Europeans. Their name for themselves in their own (Algonquian) language is Nishnaabeg (also spelled and spoken “Anishnaabeg”); Nishnaabe is singular and adjectival. I transcribed interviews I conducted; any mistakes in spelling Ojibwe words are my own.
 Talking circles are a ubiquitous element of Native American cultural renewal. Typically they are considered spiritual ceremonies and are used at important events. I participated in them at language immersion retreats, beginnings and ends of the semester at the tribal college, or during certain events at the summer language institutes. Typically a spiritual leader opens the circle (this person was often John in our community) by saying prayers and burning sage and sweet grass. Then an eagle feather is passed around and each person says whatever they feel moved to say while they hold the feather. As John notes, participants might tell stories or jokes.
 I transcribed this narrative according to insights of ethnopoetics. Specifically, line breaks approximate the rhythm of John’s speech during this performance. Set-off italicized portions indicate asides or metanarration in which John breaks from the text to explain details, background, or to offer interpretations. Other indented lines might indicate various levels of the story or new speakers. Spaces between lines probably indicate new episodes or shifts within the narrative. My explanations, fillers, and indications of laughter, performance moods (like special voices) and such are bracketed.
 It was also around this time that he started to show concern about whether the equipment was working properly and how to keep people from interrupting our interview session. The equipment was working fine, although due his suggestion, I did start putting a note on the door (the interview took place in a faculty office on the campus of BMCC) asking other teachers and students not to interrupt us.
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