"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Got any Firewater?" or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Indian Humor

Question: How does an Indian tell which way is south?

Answer: He looks at his satellite dish.

Question: When do Indians know it is safe to go out on the ice.

Answer: When the white guys quit falling through.

Question: Why is America called the land of the free?

Answer: Because they never paid the original inhabitants for it.

-Jim Northrup

On Wednesday, September 29th I had the great pleasure to meet the award-winning Ojibwe author and poet Jim Northrup. He is the man behind the works Walking the Rez Road and Rez Road Follies. He also writes the long-running syndicated column Fond du Lac Follies.

Jim is best known for his dry wit, warm humor, and hilarious insights into life on the Rez. His writing pokes fun at both Indians and American society at large. Jim also speaks openly about his experience fighting in Vietnam and his struggles to overcome post traumatic stress disorder. No matter the topic however, a evening with Jim Northrup is sure to be two things: hilarious and insightful.

Jim reciting his poem "weegwas"

While listening to Jim speak, I was reminded of my own experience with Native humor.  It was the summer of 2008 and I was working at Grand Portage National Monument tucked away in the far northeast corner of Minnesota.  I both lived and worked on the Grand Portage Chippewa Reservation giving me a crash course in life on the Rez.

It was maybe my third week on the job.  I was fresh and new, still learning my way around the site.  I was stationed in the historic kitchen inside the trading post.  I had dressed in my usual period outfit of baggy front-flap pants, loose fitting shirt, sash, and moccasins.  Visitors would walk in the back door, I'd explain how the kitchen worked, and they would depart through the front door.  Standard operating procedure.

Kitchen (left) & Great Hall (right)

A few visitors had just left the kitchen when all of a sudden this young tall skinny Native guy comes strolling in the back door like he owns the place.  He gives me a little flick of the head and with a big smirk on his face he asks me "Hey man, got any firewater?"

I freeze.  My mind immediately fills with, "You're not supposed to say that."  I check to see if there are any visitors around.  There aren't any.  The guy walks up to me.  We're now face to face.  I'm standing motionless.  He exclaims, "Hey man, you gotta loosen up.  Geez look at you!"  He laughs.

Ha ha ha, I get it.  It's pick on the new guy day.  He was just having his fun and I don't blame him.  We actually get to talking and he tells me he's on leave from the army.  He was fighting in Afghanistan.  He's spending his time off with the family on the Rez.  Now I know why he's such a kidder.  With a life like his, I don't blame him for laughing a little.

Every time I see this guy the whole rest of the summer, the same question comes out of his mouth.  "Hey man, you loosened up yet?"  He will never let me live it down.

So I learned my lesson that day.  Sometimes you just gotta laugh.  It's like what another one of my co-workers once told me, "you're laughin' to keep from cryin'."  Humor is a very powerful force and if you can't laugh about life then life ain't truly worth living.

For more tales from Grand Portage check out my previous post:

Tales from Grand Portage: The Great Hall Spirits

1 comment:

  1. favorite line from the Last of the Mohicans movie...
    Brit: there's a war going on, how is you're headed west
    Daniel Day Lewis: Well, we kinda faced to the north and real subtle like turned left