Fighting Racial Oppression with Humor and Wit

In a report, “Native Americans and the Public,” prepared by Patricia R. Powers of the Friends Committee on National Legislation from several sources, there is much important overview information on the conditions faced by Native Americans today.

After much discussion throughout the report of white-imposed oppression and the harsh conditions faced by Native Americans (see other sources in chapter 6 here), as well as resistance strategies, one section argues thus:

Many stories from Indian Country in the past 50 years have been about desolation and misery on reservations and awful problems resulting from alcohol… creating a weariness for some. This focus may cause journalists and the public to run from the narrative. So much is serious about indigenous history, about current communication challenges, about critically important bills in Congress, that dialogues between indigenous and non-indigenous people can grow grave. Sharing humor can help create understanding, openness to change, and real bonds. And humor is a genuine facet of Indian life.

The risks are enormous when generalizing about people from hundreds of tribes, from different regions of the country and language groups, and from widely varying families. However, “outsiders” – including writers, photographers, philosophers, and anthropologists– frequently generalize, as they explore the spiritual dimension of Native Americans. Less frequently have they paid attention to the playful dimension of the culture. An ironical stance and wryness appear to be the norm rather than guffawing or thigh-slapping jokes. Of course, as in any group, a good number are quiet but others are quick to hug and laugh and tease. Depictions by “outsiders” omit the light-heartedness, fun, and desire to connect that is a staple of family and tribal life.

Then there is discussion of using joking and wit as part of resistance:

Native people share jokes, including political jokes, between themselves and also with non-Natives who are viewed as part of the extended community. Sometimes a joke is used as a way of keeping going a chat or conversation that seems to have ended. The director of a Native business association whispers “illegals.” He continues, more loudly, “Illegals, illegals, illegals…. Everyone is always talking about illegal immigrants. Well, the only people in the country who aren’t illegals are Native Americans.” He smiles broadly and taps his chest.

And indeed he is right. I was listening tonight to a “blue dog” Democrat talking in an interview about keeping “illegal immigrants” from getting any health care coverage under the health care “reform” bill in Congress, and I was wondering if he meant everyone but indigenous Americans?

Then this section of the report has this great story from Sherman Alexie, the famous novelist and filmmaker, who

told Bill Moyers in a television interview: “I was walking in downtown Seattle when this pick-up truck pulls up in front of me. Guy leans out the window and yells, `Go back to your own country,’ and I was laughing so hard because it wasn’t so much a hate crime as a crime of irony.”