Humor exists in many forms and is essential as a basic human need. Laughter is an instinctive behavior that binds people together through humor and play. Indeed, scientific research demonstrates that laughter is good medicine and there is documentation dating from as far back as the 13th century maintaining that humor and laughter help with healing and recovery from many ailments. Current research shows that laughter rids us of tension, stress, anger, anxiety, grief, and depression. Laughter releases endorphins, which in turn relieve pain. It also boosts your immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, increases muscle flexibility, and is linked to healthy, functioning organs. Laughing makes people healthier, happier, and more efficient—people who have fun get more done.
Laughter has always been a part of being Indian, and Native humor is culturally distinct and complex. Indigenous languages and storytelling are integral to the cultural uniqueness of Indian humor. There are male jokes and female jokes, and most all Indigenous languages accommodate a feminine or masculine version. Indian humor is unique and as such, is the heart of our resilience and survivability. Moral lessons and social order are embedded in storytelling, especially in trickster stories. Teasing someone is a way to point out that they might not be in step with tribal opinion or cultural norms. We like to make fun of ourselves and to not take ourselves too seriously. Humor is a way to understand and heal from personal or historical trauma, as well as a way to fight adversity. Today’s artists, playwrights, and comedians bring attention and focus to stereotypes and the many serious issues in Indian Country. Humor and laughing are educational and help us to foster understanding and change by making us think about and see the world in a new way.
My hunka (adopted) son, Mylo Redwater Smith, is a nationally known Indian comedian, humorist, and speaker. His personal story is one of survival. It is also rooted in humor and laughter— his chosen profession. Read his words…
I was 19 years old when I decided to put the drugs and alcohol down and begin applying what my grandma and grandpa taught me. I started attending ceremonies and understanding the power of life and the many gifts from Creator. With the encouragement of my uncle, J.R. Redwater, and my childhood hero, Chance Rush, I began working towards one of my lifelong goals of doing comedy.
This has since grown to traveling all over Indian Country and sharing my story of quitting alcohol and drugs and overcoming the obstacles of my childhood. By making this choice, I have broken cycles of abuse and it has had a ripple effect on my little brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and my own children.
My whole platform is based on working towards changing that defeated, “all we are ever going to be are drunks stuck on the rez” mentality. I encourage people to forget about that and to pursue success. We are not a broken people, but we are the people who endure and succeed because that is Creator’s plan for each and every one of us.
I am a testimony to that because I came from the rez and despite growing up with all of the negative, traumatic events, I will not be a victim or feel sorry for myself, drinking or drugging my life away. I can go out and work towards the things I want and achieve success. This was never so real to me as when I was living in Los Angeles and doing comedy. I was in this big comedy contest with over 60 comedians, not just Indian comedians but white, black, yellow, and other colors that aren’t on the medicine wheel. This was the town where the great comedians we watch on TV perform, and here I was sharing the stage with them. Out of the 60 comedians, this skinny little boy from the rez got third place! As I was driving away from L.A. and watching the skyscrapers in the rearview mirror, I thought to myself, “Man, I just did that! I can do anything.”
You see, I thought about all the negative things that happened to me when I was a young kid and thought, if I could overcome those obstacles I could do anything I set my mind to. If I can overcome those obstacles and do that—go out and achieve my goals and my passions—so can these kids, so can these adults who want to change that lifestyle for themselves and their families!
That’s the message I share wherever I go. I am now 10 years sober and traveling throughout Indian Country, sharing this message with the people. You can look out in your community and see a lot of different conferences and programs, all with different topics ranging from domestic violence awareness and sexual abuse prevention to alcohol and drug rehabilitation and suicide prevention. As Native people we are self-aware of the problems on our reservations and are no longer sitting back and doing nothing. We are being proactive and doing something about it. Each program focuses on how to get information out into the community in hopes of helping the people. This is something to be proud of, as many of us are products of dysfunctional families and are doing our best to break those cycles of abuse and poverty, hoping to create a better life for our children. We want to help our people in that good Indian way.
I do comedy to entertain the people and give back to those communities, just like the heyokas (Dakota comedians who are sacred) did long ago. Indian humor to me is much more than laughter. It has given me purpose in this world. It is a medicine, a healing agent that we all need. It’s a characteristic that is a reflection of our past and in all of us.
Indian humor is medicine. Like “chicken soup for the soul” kind of medicine. Not like you go to the medicine man and he says, “Go laugh hard two times and call me in the morning” kind of medicine. Humor and laughter are healing agents. In the book, Black Elk Speaks, he describes the heyoka ceremony and as we (Dakota and Lakota people) understand it, heyokas have power and share that power with us by doing things backwards and with funny antics. There is direction or a plan or a lesson on how to grow, to see things, or to heal based on the antics of the heyokas.
Being able to laugh is a way to cope that promotes healing and unity. Indian humor is rooted in life lessons. It means laughing at the myriad of tests thrown at us since colonization. Keeping and maintaining that sense of humor has provided Indigenous people with a healthy escape. “When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anyone drive them to extremes, then it would seem to me that the people can survive,” wrote Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. in his landmark book, Custer Died for Your Sins.
Native humorists, comedians, authors, and actors use humor to open our eyes to the stereotypes, historical trauma, and major issues confronting our communities. The weight of those burdens is eased by laughter that fosters social harmony and affirms shared attitudes and assumptions. Laughing together eases tension or negativity or anger for both individuals and the community as a whole. Humor helps us to get along better.
Indians love to tease. A while back, when I was working on my doctorate degree, I went to visit two uncles on the Sisseton reservation. After hugs, inquiries about family members, some coffee, and food, they asked me how my dissertation writing was going. I responded that things were “O.K.” and that it was coming along. One uncle said, “Well, we have a surprise for you and we’ve thought of a new Dakota name for you.” Happy, I sat up straight and said, “Gee that’s really nice!” Uncle went on to say, “Yes, my girl, a new Indian name.” I was quiet but wanted to know what my new Dakota name was. Finally uncle said, “Your new Dakota name is Kunsi Doctor,” and they both cracked up laughing—and so did I. Kunsi (pronounced “coo n che”) is translated as “grandma,” but can also mean “old lady.” So, implying that it was taking me forever to write my dissertation and finish the Ph.D., my uncles gave me the Dakota name “Old Lady Doctor.” It was a wonderful moment, and for a while I even had vanity plates with that name.
“Humor can be used to remind people—who because of their achievements might be feeling a little too proud or important— that they are no more valuable than anyone else in the circle of life. Teasing someone who gets a little too ‘tall’ may help shrink them back to the right height,” writes Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac. It is understood in Indian Country, that if you are being teased, you are “in” and part of the family and community. Sometimes non- Natives have difficulty understanding this concept. Laughing at ourselves is good medicine.
Mylo explains Indian humor this way…
Indian humor is much more than a social lubricant, it’s a tool, an attitude, a mentality…it’s much more than a medicine. Heck it’s just our way of life! We are sure lucky to have this in our culture. Think about this: as Native people we are not strangers to hardships, but no matter what the obstacles may be, we OVERCOME THEM! Not only do we overcome them, we do it with a comedic attitude that makes the difference in being resilient and achieving success! Indians, for example, could be broke down on the side of the road, in 100 degree heat, hours away from help, and sharing one bottle of water–but there will be laughter coming from the group. That is just who we are! We are constantly making lemons out of lemonade! In my personal opinion we are the only race with this humor mentality, and I have worked with many ethnic groups. As Indians we keep our sense of humor alive and it gets us through the hard times!
Native humor has grown and become such a natural way of life that we go through the day effortlessly because of the energy it brings us! Think about a typical day when we wake up, check our Facebook, scroll down, and see a photo of Graham Green shirtless, saying, “Hey girl, quit making fry-bread and come lay by me.” On our way to work we could be driving, listening to the local radio station, and DJ Virgil Taken Alive is teasing his inlaws. Maybe you’re at work and there is juicy rez gossip, then someone gets carried away, adds on something funny, and then someone else adds on. Pretty soon, you all are standing there laughing. Later on in the day someone could send you a hilarious video of Dallas Goldtooth and the 1491s sketch comedy group, and you are laughing at it on and off all day, and pass it along to friends and family because we like to share.
If you enjoy the powwow trail, you get an outstanding announcer such as Rueben Little Head or Jerry Dearly telling stories that make you turn to the person next to you and elbow their arm saying, “That’s you!” While at the powwow, Tito Ybarra might make an appearance as Larry T-Baskin, or Tonia Hall as Auntie Beachress, and they will give you a good laugh. Once in a while we get the live stand-up comedy shows at the casino where we can see the J.R. Redwaters, Don Burnsticks, and Vaughn Eagle Bears of Indian Country come out and entertain the heck out of us! When we travel to attend educational and wellness conferences we get great facilitators, presenters, and entertainers like Chance Rush and yours truly, Mylo Smith, making the time there more entertaining and fun!
Everyone likes to laugh, and humor is not only good medicine, it is good for the soul. Laughing at yourself and with others eases the tribulations of life’s journey. In the words of humorist Victor Borge, “Laugher is the shortest distance between two people.”
Cynthia Lindquist, Ph.D. (Dakota), is president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College and chair of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s board of directors. Mylo Redwater Smith (Dakota) is a professional comedian.