NATIVE HUMOR: PART ONE
By Ernie Bulow
WARNING: The following text may be offensive to certain people. If you know you have little or no sense of humor, please turn the page now.
I will never forget the first time I heard the song “Rita” on the radio. I was just leaving the old trading post at Tse Lani (Many Rocks) and I was going down the narrow gravel track through the fabulous rock formations that gave the place its name. Like most of the reservation trading posts, the store was torn down years ago.
Vincent Craig was telling the story of a Navajo boy whose love for Rita turned him wrong – with dire consequences. It was hilarious. Craig, with his modern folk ballads and his Muttonman cartoons, became an icon of Indian humor. One of many.
And whenever I think of the Navajo sense of humor I always recall an incident at the University of Utah in 1971. I had been asked to guest lecture in a class on minority literature. The class had just read a short story by William Eastlake, a piece excerpted from one of his Navajo novels.
The main character is a young man who has returned from a stint at an Ivy League university back East. He is the trader’s best friend. It is a wonderfully funny piece. One of the students rather relentlessly pursued a line of questioning about this character. It finally dawned on me that he was skeptical about the man’s sharp wit and sense of humor.
What he was questioning, clearly, was whether or not a reservation Navajo could be that smart, that quick-witted, and that funny. I have to admit I was a little stunned. Especially when I saw the look on the other students’ faces. Many of them had the same question.
For more than forty years I dealt with this problem in my relationship with the Navajo Cowboy Artist, Ernest Franklin, friend and colleague. Once I set up a one-man show for him at a small gallery in Santa Fe. When I showed up with the paintings and drawings the owner refused to hang the show.
It was too funny. The gallery owner was afraid of the backlash. It seems that Indians aren’t allowed to have a sense of humor. Even Franklin’s landscapes almost always had a hidden joke. One of his prize-winning water colors appeared to be about red rocks, junipers and sagebrush. A closer look showed a cow in the distance mooing at space. Under some brush, almost invisible, was a newborn calf, sound asleep.
In Ernest’s illustrations for Tony Hillerman’s children’s book, Buster Mesquite’s Cowboy Band, almost every panel has a small animal, sometimes a spider, sometimes a mouse, pursuing its own agenda in the background. Franklin’s first paying gig as an artist was doing caricatures of his buddies in Vietnam.
As a theatre major in the sixties I once took a whole class on the subject of humor. Defining humor is as impossible as defining beauty, but it is fun to try. Repetition, exaggeration, juxtaposition, the unexpected – just a few of the tools of humor.
But why, after all these years, do we still laugh when somebody slips on a banana peel? Why is it even funnier if the fallen is a minister, a lawyer, a politician, or granny?
I have never been a fan of the pratfall. Slapstick isn’t my cup of tea. The three stooges deserve their name. But I’m a tiny minority it seems. Then, recently, I saw some Indian clowns put a whole new spin on the gag. One of the group pulled a bunch of grapes out of his coat pocket.
From another pocket he pulled out a large butcher knife. He took his time elaborately peeling the grape with the oversized knife. He dropped the skin on the ground, popped the grape in his mouth and chewed with relish. Then slipped and fell on the peel. The bit brought a roar from the crowd.
I couldn’t help thinking – and perhaps I’m wrong – but a good bit of the humor seemed to come from the fact that the pratfall being spoofed was Anglo in origin. In the midst of broad, physical humor – often very bawdy – it is the subtlety – the subtext – of the clown humor that gets to me.
Like Franklin’s paintings, there is always a hidden joke in there somewhere.
Most folks who live in the Southwest, and pay any attention at all, come to realize that Native life is not compartmentalized. Religion is tied to everything, and it works seven days a week, not just on Sunday. In the same way, humor is tied to everything. It is never absent.
The clowns are too complicated to analyze here, but everyone has them. The Hopis have dozens of different kinds. The Zunis only have three. The Navajos and Apaches have clowns attached to serious groups of dancers. Dancing and singing are healing rites for all.
There are, for example, five dancers in an Apache Ghan group. These masked figures were known for many years as the Devil Dancers and have been a popular staple at Ceremonial since the first year. One of the five – usually the little one – functions as a clown.
Missionaries, soldiers and bureaucrats have been trying to stamp out Native religion for a century. The clowns – the so-called mudheads in particular – are high on the agenda. Thank goodness the Anglos don’t understand what they are saying.
But they have a very serious role in the ceremonial scheme. Typically, a dance is performed in four segments, with breaks in between when the dancers leave the plaza. The clown groups fill in the gaps. They are bawdy, excessive, outrageous and very, very funny. They are making fun of all the foibles of society, sexual and otherwise.
Their function is to demonstrate what a decent person is NOT supposed to do. To behave in all the wrong ways, and to entertain while doing so. Moral lectures go down better that way.
I have been around Indians all my life. They are very funny people. It amazes me that other folks can’t see that. Quick wit is highly prized by all the Native groups I have spent time with. Repartee – sometimes in two or three languages at once – is a staple of social interaction. Not everyone can be funny – but almost everyone appreciates the individuals who are good at it.
The great clowns never stop performing. Agapito of San Ildefonso was famous even in the Anglo world. Two clowns at Zuni stand out – Crazy Joe, who once “escaped” from the hospital and thumbed a ride into town so he didn’t miss Ceremonial, and the great Oscar Nastacio. Oscar is a legend in Zuni.
Recently the Zuni artist Alex Seowtewa was telling me Oscar stories. (Nastacio raised Alex after his mother died.) For years Alex was the director of the Zuni Tribal band. One day he got a call from Oscar to assemble as many band members as possible and meet him at the bridge.
The clown group was there, out of sight, and one of them was made up and dressed as the well-known majorette. Oscar was turned out as a very funny Miss Navajo and mounted on a horse. The majorette led Oscar and the band into the plaza where some small tents were set up.
The group spent the afternoon holding a mock Ceremonial for the audience – complete with performances by all the various tribes. It was a classic moment. I have seen them do send-ups of a graduation ceremony and a wedding.
Satire is not particularly popular in America. Mark Twain, the best satirist we’ve turned out so far, has his most famous works relegated to the “boys’ books” shelf. Remember the bit in Huckleberry Finn when a shooting victim is crushed to death under a huge Bible somebody placed on his chest to comfort him? One of many delicious passages. I’m not sure anyone actually reads that book.
Recently I have been doing research into the early Zuni silversmiths, trying to sort out who did what and when they did it. There is very little reliable information on the subject before World War II. I couldn’t help noticing a recurrent statement by various traders.
At least three well-known dealers of Zuni art have made statements about how the Zunis would copy anything – any design that they saw – in their jewelry. Any item that caught their fancy, from pictures in a Monkey Ward catalog to a cigarette pack. The implication was that they had a childish attraction for shiny objects and a similarly childish knack for imitation.
That’s not the way the Zunis see it.
One of my wife Michelle’s favorite stories from childhood goes like this. All children in the village are exposed to art and its creation from birth. It is virtually the only means of income for most Zunis. She comes from famous families of silversmiths on both sides of the family tree.
Of course she had seen relatives carve fetishes for the local traders. She went out and found some likely pebbles and turned them into frogs. The trader bought them. She is still laughing about getting cash money for some rocks she picked up off the ground.
Who is laughing at whom when a Zuni sells a trader a nice piece of inlay which copies the design off a pack of Camels?
The Apache leader known as Geronimo still makes the news a hundred years after his death – something that can’t be said for most U. S. presidents. In his autobiography he recounts some experiences he had at an exposition in Chicago and his impressions of American institutions, including the only time he rode in the “little house that flies through the air.” At first the passage seems naïve and a little sad. I think there is a lot of tongue in cheek there.
I love the book Sun Chief by Hopi, Don Talayesva. After spending his youth far from home, a virtual prisoner at the Indian school in Riverside, California, he sums up his education: “I knew hundreds of Bible verses, could recite all the state capitals, and tell Dirty Dutchman jokes by the hour.”
That’s pretty funny.