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Indian Humor During Thanksgiving Week? Ha Ha!

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According to the Lakota/Navajo cultural coordinator at the American Indian Center of Chicago, this is not only American Indian Heritage Month, aka Native American Awareness Month, but, as he put it, Rent-an-Indian Month.

And this coming Thursday? In some circles, it is commemorated as Thankstaking.

Serious tweaking is going on in Indian Country. Or rather, humorous tweaking.

In the years I have interviewed Native people about their lives in contemporary America, I have been struck not only by their humor, but by my fellow non Natives' frequent surprise it exists, as if this essential human trait somehow skipped Native DNA.

"They're funny?"

Yes, I answer. Often hysterical, I may add. Ironic. Witty. Most Native people I met either make puns, tell risqué jokes, do impersonations, or make fun of themselves or others. Occasionally, the joke (the same joke) is on me. "Oh, you're a vegetarian? In my language" -- it does not matter which language -- "vegetarian translates as`bad hunter.'" I dutifully groan.

Most Native people I know realize that mainstream Americans have no idea Indian Humor, as it is called, exists.

"We're either stoic and noble or tragically flawed, you know? I get so tired of that," an Osage lawyer in Washington, DC told me, sighing, before returning to what she called her "roast beast" sandwich. Disconnections run deep.

Non Natives ask me, furtively, "What do you call them?" Them. Well, because I'm not a them, I say Native Americans. Those who are them, though, generally call one another -- if the group goes beyond family, clan, or tribal affiliation -- Indians. Here again, though, is joke opportunity.

A Lakota woman told me an uncle often carried on about having been "just an Indin," as old folks tended to pronounce it, then figured he had to call himself an American Indian, then worked on being a Native, then Native American, then to keep all bases covered, identified himself as a Native American Indian, while going from being considered Sioux to Lakota. At some point, he felt he should call himself "indigenous," too. His recital ended, life was much simpler when he was "just an Indin."

Of course, everybody laughed.

Actually, the word Indian -- that nomenclatural mistake of continental proportions
-- has been reclaimed. As some gays proclaim yes, they are queer, and some feminists identify as grrlz, so do some Natives write out ndn. Make that NDN! Check out REZ NDNS motorcycle club or the Navajo Times video, "NDNs Don't Let NDNs Drive Drunk."

Where did the risible notion of Native Americans not having a sense of humor come from? Maybe it started with photography, when people had to stand unsmilingly still rather than blur the image. Maybe posing for photo ops with federal officials who were trying to seize more of one's land did not bring smiles, either.

Nor have I ever seen happy faces in photos of Native people waiting for promised rations (in exchange for the land) that were late, spoiled, meager, or all three. Photos of Native children unwillingly taken from their homes to boarding schools to be "civilized," by stripping them of their own civilization, also are bereft of humor -- bereft the operative word.

Things are much funnier now. There is, for example, the assumption by many nons that since the advent of Indian casinos, all Indians are rich. That's rich. The mascot issue is another laff riot: naming sports teams for a group of humans as if they are inhuman.

The Washington Redskins! Idaho's Salmon Savages! Hardy har har.

Sometimes overlooked is the basic fact that Native Americans are American Americans.

Around the world, Americans are known (among less desirable traits) for their humor. Why shouldn't Native Americans contribute to that reputation, as they contribute to America's Armed Forces and, yes, tax base? Furthermore, how does any minority group cope with mind-boggling cluelessness from outsiders? They laugh.

At a Native conference I attended, a Yakama woman described her frustrations trying to educate clueless nons about tribal fishing rights.

"College students," she said, as if they should know better, ask, "`Are you full-blooded?'" The hundred or so conference attendees gasped at this rudest of questions.

"I say, `No, I'm a pint short. Just came back from the Red Cross.'"

People laughed so hard, the woman could hardly finish her speech.

This Thanksgiving, let us solemnly remember what one Native person said to another while watching the pilgrims arrive.

"There goes the neighborhood."

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