Category Archives: Native American Humor

Top 4 Reasons to Teach Sherman Alexie

“Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds.” – Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

When I was a college freshman, a beloved English professor first introduced me to author Sherman Alexie. I have had the opportunity to pay it forward and teach Sherman Alexie (most notably his novel Flight) to freshman students for the past 6 years. Here are my top 4 reasons you should be doing the same.

1. He’s funny.

We teach in a modern, text-filled world where laughing out loud and rolling on the floor laughing are common phrases that now appear in our inboxes, piles of essays to grade, and classroom discussions. While this reliance on slang always reminds me to make a note, ‘AVOID SLANG’ in my syllabus, I am pleased to present an author who creates a safe space for readers to ‘lol’ and/or ‘rotfl’ and aim to generate a similar environment in my college classroom.

I usually introduce Alexie with a brief biography and a lot of excitement – I affectionately create an ‘S.A. Opening Day’ complete with an interactive Prezi on the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington. In recent years, I have begun our discussions with clips from Time’s 10 Questions Series and Big Think’s Interview with Sherman Alexie below. While these videos help to promote different works, they also provide a context for young readers to see and hear from the author directly. When I ask for first impressions, students comment on Alexie’s passion about subjects like banned books, Native American history, and novel writing. They applaud his frankness and his ability to tell it like it is. Mostly, though, they talk about his humor. They continue to do so while reading his novel Flight.

2. He’s seriously funny.

In the midst of reading, students always exchange tales of laughter – they dog-ear pages to later share with classmates. Interestingly enough, students also inquire about another side of Alexie’s humor. They begin to question if they should be laughing at some of the outrageous stereotypes, politically incorrect statements, and explicit innuendos – and they dog-ear these pages as well. While they may not be aware of it, Alexie helps students become more active readers and critical thinkers. He helps them to formulate differences between types of humor such as slapstick, dark humor, and satire. Through satirical portrayals, he presents serious issues many of my students face on a daily basis such as alienation, peer pressure, and stereotyping.

In class, students create an ongoing list of ‘seriously funny moments’ from the novel, and explore these instances in their final papers. They use humor as a tool to talk about thoughtful social and cultural issues, an idea garnered from the pages of Alexie’s own work. For their final essays, they answer one or more of the following questions in an effort to explore, expand upon, and showcase their understanding of humor’s impact on society: How do humorists (like Sherman Alexie) use humor to get us to think about the world?; How does the type of humor in Alexie’s work impact, change, progress, and/or regress our worldview?; How, if at all, might this type of humor used in Alexie’s work help us to prioritize our values?; and How, if at all, might the instances of humor in Alexie’s work help us to change American society?

3. His writing is accessible.

I am a big proponent of challenging my students’ abilities – their writing skills, reading comprehension, and critical thinking – in my freshman English course. On the other hand, students often have a different agenda. With such a varied student population with an even more diverse set of skills in each classroom, I find their motivation to learn on a broader spectrum than ever before. Alexie’s writing, through culture references, simple sentence structure, and descriptive language, connects his characters’ thoughts to his readers’ world. Often, lofty diction and complicated sentence construction can alienate young readers. After a semester of trying to challenge their comprehension and deciphering skills, Alexie is a breath of fresh, easy air. Through his writing, he illustrates that language should promote critical thinking about sober, cultural issues plaguing the current American landscape.

His writing is also a great model for students. I often ask them to write and speak what they know – to avoid using the right-click feature found on their computers that allows them to replace their vocabulary with less familiar, obtuse words. I want them to focus on effectively communicating their ideas onto the page, and Alexie acts as a bestselling example.

4. He helps develop empathy in readers.

Call it what you will. Whether it is social consciousness, social awareness, or social understanding, Sherman Alexie has a true gift of facilitating empathy for other human experiences. As my freshman students study, humor, specifically the kind utilized by Alexie, helps to create a shared experience. These shared experiences produce stories, which are often told in the classroom, and build understanding and tolerance across different cultural boundaries. Alexie explores Native American stereotypes – the drunken Indian, the noble savage – and shows their harmful effects on the psyches of young men growing up both on and away from the reservation. He discusses cultural boundaries and often shatters preconceived notions of Native Americans, all in an effort not to acquire sympathy, but instead to illustrate the destructive force of willful ignorance. True understanding of another’s pain, isolation, and successes combats this deliberate cultural obliviousness. His interview with Bill Moyers, “Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Borders” is a poignant example for this discussion.

We spend a great deal of time on historical context as the novel presents it. History is important to Alexie, and it is often the place to begin a discussion on empathy. We discuss historical injustices, legendary battles, and prominent figures, such as Jackson’s dismissal of the Supreme Court ruling for the Cherokee nation, leading to the Trail of Tears, Custer’s Last Stand, and Crazy Horse. My young students grapple with an historical understanding of these cultural experiences, and in weekly reflections, they often discuss with their own values, ignorance, and biases, senses and stories of personal betrayal, alienation, and cultural seclusion. Considering different histories and perspectives aids in the development of a more informed, empathetic, and socially conscious society. While habitually reliant on bland, disingenuous phraseology regarding their emotions, twenty-first century readers learn through Alexie’s affirmation that true emotions and deep, sincere empathy builds lasting, valuable human connections.

© 2014 Tara Friedman

Tara E. Friedman currently teaches English and Professional Writing at Widener University in the outskirts of Philadelphia. She is ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and hopes to complete her dissertation on female resistance and agency in select late nineteenth and twentieth century American novels and graduate in 2014 with her PhD in Literature and Criticism. While she has presented on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy at the CCCC, her other research interests include nineteenth century British novels, the sixties in America, and American humor.

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In the Archives: Mr. Dooley in Peace and War, “On the Indian War”


Luke Dietrich

Finley Peter Dunne was a second-generation Irish American, born in 1867 and schooled in Chicago journalism alongside such late-nineteenth century writers as George Ade and Theodore Dreiser.

Finley_Peter_Dunne

Throughout his life, Dunne took his non-fiction journalism seriously, maintaining hopes to publish his own newspaper.  But he became most famous for writing his “Mr. Dooley” columns, a series of fictional pieces narrated from the perspective of the title bartender, Martin Dooley.  In 600-800 word sketches – in comedic, Irish vernacular – Mr. Dooley offered everyday advice and political opinions to his South Side Chicago clientele.

These weekly articles, initially popular with Chicago’s Irish communities, became widely syndicated when Dunne turned to national politics, satirizing the Spanish-American War.  As Dunne’s chief biographer, Elmer Ellis notes, the first Mr. Dooley book collection sold over 100,000 copies from 1899 to 1900.  Booksellers ordered more than 25,000 copies of Dunne’s second collection, Mr. Dooley in the Hearts of his Countrymen, before it was even published. Dunne’s writing was admired by Henry James and Edith Wharton, as she describes it in her autobiography A Backward Glance. Dunne was even influential for Langston Hughes’s invention of Jesse B. Semple.

The piece below is taken from Dunne’s first book collection, Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War.

Dunne Mr. Dooley The book itself is divided into two sections: “Mr. Dooley in War” and “Mr. Dooley in Peace.”  This column, “On The Indian War,” is paradoxically included in the second section. It gives a good sense, not only of Mr. Dooley’s humor and Irish brogue, but of his complex response to American politics and race relations.

 

“On The Indian War”

“Gin’ral Sherman was wan iv th’ smartest we iver had,” said Mr. Dooley. “He said so manny bright things. ‘Twas him said, ‘War is hell’; an’ that’s wan iv th’ finest sayin’s I know annything about. ‘War is hell’: ‘tis a thrue wurrud an’ a fine sentiment. An’ Gin’ral Sherman says, ‘Th’ on’y good Indyun is a dead Indyun. An’ that’s a good sayin’, too. So, be th’ powers we’ve started in again to improve th’ race; an’, if we can get in Gatlin’ guns enough before th’ winter’s snows, we’ll tur-rn thim Chippeways into a cimitry branch iv th’ Young Men’s Christyan Association. We will so.

“Ye see, Hinnissy, th’ Indyun is bound f’r to give way to th’ onward march iv white civilization. You an’ me, Hinnissy, is th’ white civilization. I come along, an’ I find ol’ Snakes-in-his-Gaiters livin’ quite an’ dacint in a new frame house. Thinks I, ‘‘Tis a shame f’r to lave this savage man in possession iv this fine abode, an’ him not able f’r to vote an’ without a frind on th’ polis force.’ So says I: ‘Snakes,’ I says, ‘get along,’ says I. ‘I want ye’er house, an’ ye best move out west iv th’ thracks, an’ dig a hole f’r ye’erseilf,’ I says. ‘Divvle th’ fut I will step out iv this house,’ says Snakes. ‘I built it, an’ I have th’ law on me side,’ he says. ‘F’r why should I take Mary Ann, an’ Terence, an’ Honoria, an’ Robert Immit Snakes, an’ all me little Snakeses, an’ rustle out west iv th’ thracks,’ he says, ‘far fr’m th’ bones iv me ancestors,’ he says, ‘an beyond th’ water-pipe extinsion,’ he says. ‘Because,’ says I.  ‘I am th’ walkin’ dilygate iv white civilization,’ I says. ‘I’m jus’ as civilized as you,’ says Snakes. ‘I wear pants,’ he says, ‘an’ a plug hat,’ he says. ‘Ye might wear tin pair,’ says I, ‘an’ all at wanst,’ I says, ‘an’ ye’d still be a savage,’ says I; ‘an’ I’d be civilized,’ I says, ‘if I hadn’t on so much as a bangle bracelet,’ I says. ‘So get out,’ says I. ‘So get out,’ says I, ‘f’r th’ pianny movers is outside, r-ready to go to wurruk,’ I says.

Continue reading →

Painfully Funny

Even before I got cancer, my favorite kind of humor was the type you might call “painfully funny.”   One of my favorite short stories, to read and to teach, is “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” by Sherman Alexie.  Jimmy Many Horses has spent his life “laughing to keep from crying,” as the old song goes, telling jokes to gain some illusion of control in bad situations, to claim his humanity in the midst of chaos, death, or inhumanity.  Problem is, he can’t stop telling jokes, even when telling his wife about his visit to the doctor, giving him his diagnosis of terminal cancer:

“I told her the doctor showed me my X-rays and my favorite tumor was just about the size of a baseball, shaped like one, too.  Even had stitch marks.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“No, really.  I told her to call me Babe Ruth.  Or Roger Maris.  Maybe even Hank Aaron ’cause there must have been about 755 damn tumors inside me.  Then I told her I was going to Cooperstown and sit right down in the lobby of the Hall of Fame.  Make myself a new exhibit, you know?  Pin my X-rays to my chest and point out the tumors  What a dedicated baseball fan!  What a sacrifice for the national pastime!”

Sherman Alexie Lone Ranger Tonto Approximate Size of My TumorWhile Jimmy’s wife needs him to be serious for a moment, to give her a chance to process her shock and grief, and while she might even have been willing to join him in jokes to cope later — Jimmy cannot stop and give her that time, even when she tells him she’ll leave him if he says one more funny thing.  But even in the midst of his fury at this unwanted and useless “sacrifice” that has been pressed upon him, Jimmy’s joke is brilliant, both inside and outside the context of the story.

The historical allusions to baseball and Hank Aaron’s supplanting of Babe Ruth’s home-run record (with his 755 career home runs) raise issues about the racism that plays a low-key but omnipresent role in the rest of the story.   Even in 1973, when Aaron was getting close to breaking Ruth’s record, he received about 930,000 letters, the majority of them death threats or wishes that he would die:  “Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.”   Another letter that has been widely quoted wishes on Aaron a disease primarily connected with Africa and her descendants:  “Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”

But cancer, as Jimmy reminds us, does not discriminate; it is not a respecter of race, class, or power.  Cancer, like humor, is an equal opportunity offender.  And cancer has become almost like a national pastime.  You can’t go anywhere without running into those damned pink ribbons and pricey pink items commodifying death and infantilizing the very personal, protracted, and agonizing fight to survive against breast cancer, a phenomenon some angry breast-cancer survivors have labeled “pinkwashing” — all purchased with the best of intentions and the hope to find a cure.   But that support ironically creates a sense of audience, of fandom and voyeurism, the pink ribbons becoming our admission tickets to the new national pastime.  Cancer itself is like a bad joke that just won’t quit.

To me, it is this kind of humor that reminds us of who we are, how little we actually control, and why it all matters anyway.  Continue reading →

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.