With a new series on Showcase, Aboriginal humour is going mainstream
While there are lots of jokes about bingo, life on the reserve is largely ignored by the five novice native writers who wrote Cashing In as part of a joint training program between the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the National Screen Institute. The centre of the action is the opulently kitsch North Beach Casino, with its fake palm trees, blackjack tables, and beautiful people. There is some social commentary about compulsive gambling and the disparities between rich and poor natives, but overall the storylines are light and the tone goofy. “We’re playing with the assumptions people have about Aboriginal culture,” says Trevor Cameron, a Metis stand-up comic who started writing the comic animated children’s series Wapos Bay before working on Cashing In. “We don’t all use bedsheets for draperies. We have our own upper class.”
Cashing In writer Mike Gosselin, a Metis from Saskatoon, believes humour is naturally present in cultures with strong oral traditions. Spinning a tall tale or telling a good joke is what native people do when they get together, he says: “It’s in the Aboriginal nature to make fun of each other and to tease and laugh heartily. There is nothing like going to visit people on the rez or sitting around with a mix of Metis, Aboriginal, even Inuit people. It’s incredible how many jokes there are.”
[Thomas King] once told a Globe and Mail reporter that natives are funny because they need the laughs. “I think it’s a survival strategy,” he said. “If life is so bad, you either kill yourself or you laugh. Colonized people can see humour as a strength, as a medicine.” Hayden Taylor, who edited Me Funny and directed Redskins, Tricksters and Puppy Stew, a documentary about the healing power of Aboriginal humour, agrees. Aboriginal people have used humour in the same way as Jews used vaudeville and black Americans stand-up, he says: “Humour kept us sane. It gave us power. It gave us privacy.”
It's interesting how some people who tell Native stories get this and some don't. And it isn't limited to the obvious "Natives get it and non-Natives don't" breakdown. True, Native writers such as Alexie, King, and Taylor base much of their work on the Native sense of humor. But the non-Native writers of movies such as Little Big Man, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and Thunderheart also show some of the eccentricity and humor in Native cultures.
For more on Cashing In, see Cashing In = Cosby Show? and No Payoff in Cashing In. For more on Native humor, see Event to Showcase Native Humor, All About Indian Humor, and Native vs. Non-Native Humor.