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WORDS: The Last Laugh (Native Humor)

Terry ponders his use of Native humor as a survival tactic.

The Last Laugh (Native Humor). Image from personal archive

I feel that comedy has two sides: funny and serious. It is said there is a fine line between pleasure and pain and I am a proponent to that thought. As I was learning about scriptwriting, it was explained how both tragedy and comedy rely on the gap between what audiences expect and what they are shown. The wider the gap between expectation and reality creates more intense emotional pain or bigger laughs.

I have noticed within my own Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture that we have an innate sense of humor in the most strident times in our lives. For example, we have an intense and personal connection to one another after the loss of a family or community member. Traditional Haudenosaunee conduct their wakes and funerals within their longhouses. As the body lies in state over several days, family and friends unite to pay their respects. Many tears are shed and once the mourners settle into the benches, quiet conversations can be heard. Occasionally, micro giggles and controlled laughter can be heard as those in attendance share stories and reminisce about the recently departed. Although an occasional “shushing” can be heard, these outbursts are not out of disrespect. The laughter is part of the mourning process. How can this be possible? For me, I believe this convention of laughing during the most desperate times is an exercise in our survival skills over the centuries. Throughout history, many people like my own have endured times of invasion, war, disease, colonization, alcoholism and drug abuse and somehow we managed to laugh through our tears.

Everything is not gloom and doom everyday, and we do have a sense of humor. For example, when I bring outsiders onto my home territory in western New York, I preface the visit as follows: “Seneca Indians are all about making fun of each other. It is never meant to be mean-spirited. If they start to make fun of you, it means that they accept and like you…and they know you can take it.” When my guest(s) and me arrive, we are welcomed into the house with open arms and we are offered something to eat or drink. The initial ribbing would most likely be directed at me. The host may make a remark about my mispronunciation of a word or my appearance. Immediately following the remark, the host would say, “Just kidding” and somehow it makes the putdown acceptable and we would all laugh. I have never asked my guests if they felt offended by our sense of humor, but I am almost certain they had a good time.

In conclusion, I feel like I have a personal connection with clowns. On the outside, clowns try to get their audiences to laugh through their shtick routines and outward appearances. When I look beyond their gestures and makeup, I get a sense there may be some kind of profound pain lurking inside. I have been told that I am extremely polite and gentle and many have remarked they could never see me getting mad. I would not disagree that I am a nice person. However, I do feel that I have endured some extremely unpleasant experiences during my lifetime. Like my impression of a clown, I carry those profound pains and losses within me; however they do not define me. As mentioned previously, the greater the gap between expectation and reality creates the bigger laugh (or profound pain) and I feel my life lows allow me to savor the good things in my life. As compared most, I’d like to think that I am capable of having the biggest laugh…and sometimes the last laugh.

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