Daily Archives: October 21st, 2011

Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry

By: Caroline Zarlengo Sposto

Author, editor, lecturer, poet and scholar, Geary Hobson was born in 1941 in Chicot County, Arkansas. A Cherokee-Quapaw-Chickasaw, Hobson grew up immersed in the Cherokee language and culture. Last week, I was lucky enough to catch him by telephone in his office at The University of Oklahoma to talk about his poem, “A Discussion about Indian Affairs.”

H.I.A.: I find it interesting that so much Native American poetry is humorous. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Dr. Hobson: “I’m not sure how we got stuck with the stereotype of the stoic Indian. I have been in the habit of saying for many years that Indians have wonderful senses of humor. Humor varies from culture to culture. There is a Scottish sense of humor, a Jewish sense of humor and so forth. There is a great deal of irony in a lot of Indian humor.”

H.I.A.: I’m a little bit surprised to hear you using the term “Indian.”

Dr. Hobson: “I think getting hung up on the terms–Native American, American Indian, Indian–is being a little over-sensitive and calling too much attention to something that is very minor.

H.I.A.: What does bother you?

Dr. Hobson: That Indians are so often spoken of in the past tense instead of as a part of today’s society.”

H.I.A.: On that note, let’s look at your poem.

A Discussion about Indian Affairs

by: Geary Hobson

She was a white woman
from some little town
in one of the Dakotas.
“I’ve heard about Cherokees
–everybody’s heard about Cherokees–
but I always thought Chickasaws
were some made-up tribe—
one that never existed—
invented by someone like Al Capp,
a word like ‘Kickapoo,’ you know?”

“There’s a Kickapoo tribe, too.”
I said.      “Oh,” she said,
and having nothing more to say
on the subject, said nothing.
I wondered if we’d ever have
Anything to say to one another.

H.I.A.: The surface irony of this poem is about tribal names. Can you tell us what we may not be seeing beneath the surface?

Dr. Hobson: “One of the deeper ironies in this poem is that these tribal names aren’t the names that we call ourselves. The name ‘Cherokee’ comes from our neighbors the Choctaw who told the Spanish that we were ‘the people in the hills.’ ‘Navajo’ and ‘Sioux’ are imposed names, and so on. Some of the names imposed from the outside almost sound like words developed for comedy. ‘Kickapoo’ was an imposed name and then in Al Capp they would talk about ‘Kickapoo Joy Juice.’ Beyond that, ‘tribe’ is a word that was put on us. We think of ourselves as nations, each with its own language and culture.”

H.I.A.: Did the story in this poem actually happen?

Dr. Hobson: “Yes. The woman and I were teaching assistants together in the English Department in New Mexico in the 1970s. I wrote the poem to make a broader point; certainly not to make fun of her. The biggest irony perhaps was that despite the last sentence in the poem, ‘I wondered if we’d ever have anything to say to one another.’ we ended up becoming very good friends.”

H.I.A.: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Dr. Hobson: “Indian Literature is a true literary entity–not a side note or an appendage to American Literature. It deserves that level of recognition. Speaking of recognition–and it doesn’t matter if they are in North American or South America–I would love to see an Indian author win the Nobel Prize.”

* “A Discussion about Indian Affairs” was published in Geary Hobson’s Deer Hunting and Other Poems, 1990 and American Indian Literature An Anthology edited by Alan R. Velie, 1991.