Laughing It Up: Native American Humor as Spiritual Tradition

By Garrett, Michael Tlanusta; Garrett, J. T. et al. | Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Laughing It Up: Native American Humor as Spiritual Tradition


Garrett, Michael Tlanusta, Garrett, J. T., Torres-Rivera, Edil, Wilbur, Michael, Roberts-Wilbur, Janice, Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development


Native American humor is explored through a brief discussion of the current literature regarding the use of humor in counseling and descriptions of various forms and communication styles of Native humor as spiritual tradition. Implications for multicultural awareness in the use of humor and possible use of Native humor in counseling with Native clients are offered.

El humor del Indio Americano es explorado por una discusion breve de la literatura actual con respecto al uso del humor en aconsejar y descripciones de varios estilos de formas y comunicacion del humor Nativo como la tradicion espiritual. Las implicaciones para el conocimiento multicultural en el uso del humor y el uso posible del humor Native a aconsejar clientes Nativos se ofrecen.

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Once a long time ago, the dogs were trying to elect a president. So one of them got up in the big dog convention and said: "I nominate the bulldog for president. He's strong. He can fight." "But he can't run," said another dog. "What good is a fighter who can't run? He won't catch anybody." Then another dog got up and said: "I nominate the greyhound, because he sure can run." But the other dogs cried: "Naw, he can run all right, but he can't fight. When he catches up with somebody, what happens then? He gets the hell beaten out of him, that's what! So all he's good for is running away." Then an ugly little mutt jumped up and said: "I nominate that dog for president who smells good underneath his tail." And immediately an equally ugly mutt jumped tip and yelled: "I second the motion." At once all the dogs started sniffing underneath each other's tails. A big chorus went up: "Phew, he doesn't smell good under his tail." "No, neither does this one." "He's no presidential timber!" "No, he's no good, either." "This one sure isn't the people's choice." "Wow, this ain't my candidate!" When you go out for a walk, just watch the dogs. They're still sniffing underneath each other's tails. They're looking for a good leader, and they still haven't found him.

--Lame Deer, as cited in Itzkowitz 1995, pp. 59-60

understanding the true spirit of native people

Contrary to the stereotypical belief that Indians are solemn, stoic figures posed against a backdrop of tepees, tomahawks, and headdresses, the fact is that most Native people love to laugh and always love a good story, as illustrated by the preceding anecdote (J. T. Garrett & Garrett, 1994). However, even something as simple as a joke or story can offer much more insight into a culture than may be apparent at first sight. Stories, anecdotes, witty one-liners, these are all examples of an expression of the spirit of Native people in a tradition that is unique to every tribal nation but shares the same power across tribes.

Spirituality has been defined as "a way of being and experiencing that comes about through awareness of a transcendent dimension and that is characterized by certain identifiable values in regard to self, others, nature, life" (Kelly, 1995, p. 4). Native humor as a spiritual tradition often goes unnoticed by people from the mainstream culture as a powerful healing force in the lives of Native people, as it has been for ages. The fact that so many Native nations have survived the horror of countless acts of cultural genocide committed by people from mainstream America in the name of civilization serves as a testament, in part, to the resilience of Native humor, having stood the test of time (M. T. Garrett & Pichette, 2000).

That Native people have been cast as uncommunicative, distant, or mysterious by people from mainstream America says little about the true essence of an entire nation of many nations of Native people. It says more about a history of stereotyping Native people either as faithful sidekicks who are barely able to speak a complete sentence or as strangely mystical beings who seem to transcend the world of physical reality. …

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