HUMOR IS VERY GOOD MEDICINE
Photo by Richard Bluecloud Castaneda (Pima-Maricopa)
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 efficientpeople 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
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
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 thatgo
out and achieve my goals and my passionsso 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 laughingand 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 peoplewho 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
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 waterbut
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
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.