The myth of the wooden Indian

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Flip through any 19th century collection of American Indian portraits and you’ll see many stereotypical images of Native Americans: the warrior Sitting Bull, who wears a serious expression, his eyes avoiding the camera and his chin tilted forward in a gesture of nobility; children wearing the military uniforms of a government boarding school.

The stereotypes linger because they are so deeply embedded in our national story, the one about the stoic Indian and his conquered people. Stereotypes work when people can casually say, "Oh, I know it’s a cliché, but there’s some truth to it. I know so-and-so who’s just like that."

What baffles me is how such a stereotype can persist when it’s so completely wrong.

I have a hard time even imagining American Indians as stoics — humorless, resigned, reverent — no matter the tribe involved. Ancient Indian legends are filled with humor. Whether it’s about a coyote, spider or a raven, there are hundreds of stories with jokes hidden in the morality tale.

I grew up in a reservation community where humor was a constant. One of my fondest memories is of hanging out with my grandfather at the community trading post, swapping stories and jokes with other tribal members. As I began to travel and experience places and cultures far from my own, I heard that same laughter echoed wherever I went.

I began to wonder how the non-Indian world came to believe the story of the wooden Indian.

Native writers and storytellers have chipped away at that wooden image for a long time. Creek poet and journalist Alexander Posey wrote the hard-hitting satire, the Fus Fixico Letters, in the late 19th century, about corruption in what was then the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. He poked fun at political characters, such as Teddy Roosevelt — he called him President Rooster Feather — and Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock, whom he renamed Ethan Allen It’s Cocked, because he hated making difficult decisions.

These days, Northwest poet and author Sherman Alexie loads his writing with outrageous wit and humor — not to mention his comedic genius on stage. I could also tell you about poet Elizabeth Woody, cartoonist Vincent Craig or artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, or thousands and thousands of ordinary people who use humor every day.

But these names would not mean much to most readers. They remain behind a cultural screen, hidden by stereotype.

A new PBS documentary by Seattle filmmakers Sandi and Yasu Osawa reveals one hidden treasure of Indian humor: comedian Charlie Hill.

Hill is Oneida, Mohawk and Cree, and grew up on a reservation near Green Bay, Wis. "An Indian comedian?" Hill recalls being asked. "Isn’t that an oxymoron?" Fighting words — or a stereotype that feeds Hill’s humor. Sometimes it’s a short quip: "Take my land. Please!" Other times, Hill tells a story, such as one involving a conversation with his father on a mountaintop.

"See all that land, son?"

"Yeah, Dad."

"Do you realize that one day none of this will be yours?"

What I particularly like about the PBS film is that it shows the continuity of Indian humor, from Will Rogers to just about anybody on Hill’s tribal council.

Author Vine Deloria Jr., a member of Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North and South Dakota, weaves a philosophical thread through the film, starting with a chapter on Indian humor in his 1970 book Custer Died for Your Sins. He explains how "Indian humor has been the central aspect of Indian life."

Charlie Hill, says Deloria, is fighting centuries of stereotypes. Hill says he’s prepared for that battle, and brags about his education at the "Bureau of Indian Affairs’ School for Comedy."

I wonder if Hill ever wore a military uniform as a schoolboy. That’s a picture I’d love to see. I expect Hill would be staring at the camera, an impish smile on his face.

Mark Trahant is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He heads the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, Calif., and is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, Fort Hall Reservation, Idaho.

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