Native American Humor:
Powerful Medicine in Louise Erdrich's Tracks
by Jordan Higgins
An old adage claims that laughter is the best medicine to cure human ailments. Although this treatment might sound somewhat unorthodox, its value as a remedy can be traced back to ancient times when Hypocrites, in his medical treatise, stressed the importance of “a gay and cheerful mood on the part of the physician and patient fighting disease” (Bakhtin 67). Aristotle viewed laughter as man’s quintessential privilege: “Of all living creatures only man is endowed with laughter” (Bakhtin 68). In the Middle Ages, laughter was an integral part of folk culture. “Carnival festivities and the comic spectacles and ritual connected with them had an important place in the life of medieval man” (Bakhtin 5). During the trauma and devastation of German bombing raids on London during World War II, the stubborn resilience of British humor emerged to sustain the spirit of the people and the courage of the nation. To laugh, even in the face of death, is a compelling force in the human condition. Humor, then, has a profound impact on the way human beings experience life. In Louise Erdrich’s novel Tracks, humor provides powerful medicine as the Chippewa tribe struggles for their physical, spiritual, and cultural survival at the beginning of the twentieth century.
While the ability to approach life with a sense of humor is not unique to any one society, it is an intrinsic quality of Native American life. “There is, and always has been, humor among Indians . . . ” (Lincoln 22). In deference to their history, this can best be described as survival humor, one which “transcends the void, questions fatalism, and outlasts suffering” (Lincoln 45). Through their capacity to draw common strength from shared humor, Native Americans demonstrate how “kinship interconnects comically . . . . [in] a kind of personal tribalism that begins with two people, configurates around families, composes itself in extended kin and clan, and ends up defining a culture” (Lincoln 63). In Tracks, the power of Native American humor to profoundly affect human experience is portrayed through the characters of Nanapush and Fleur.
In his role as “Nanabush” the trickster, a central figure in Chippewa (Ojibwa) storytelling, Nanapush demonstrates the power of Native American humor in his own life, when he challenges the gods and cheats death by playing a trick on them: “During the year of the sickness, when I was the last one left, I saved myself by starting a story . . . . I got well by talking. Death could not get a word in edgewise, grew discouraged, and traveled on” (Erdrich 46). The trickster figure is characterized as a man of many guises, dualistic in nature—good and bad—and often considered quite a lover. He is a survivor, physically and psychologically. As one who endures, he transcends the temporal and functions as an affirmation of the self. The trickster is also “central to the tribe’s worldview,” with power that extends beyond himself, guiding his people toward a view of themselves and of possibility that they might not have seen otherwise (Ghezzi 444). To fulfill his role as trickster, Nanapush uses humor as powerful medicine not only for himself, but also for his tribe.
Nanapush purposefully directs his own special brand of humor—raucous bantering—at Margaret, guiding her away from her hardened widow-view of life toward the possibility of a romantic relationship with him. He goads her by boasting of his sexual prowess, to which she is less than receptive. Nanapush describes her as “headlong, bossy, scared of nobody and full of vinegar” (Erdrich 47), while she calls him an “old man . . . . [with] two wrinkled berries and a twig.” When he replies, “A twig can grow,” Margaret retorts, “But only in the spring” (Erdrich 48). Through humor, each comes to view the other with new possibility. Out of their bantering evolves a deeper,...
Cited: Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.
Erdrich Louise. Tracks. New York: Harper Collins, 1988.
Ghezzi, Ridie Wilson. “Nanabush Stories from the Ojibwe.” Coming to Light. Ed. Brian Swann. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1994.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Indi’n Humor. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Sergi, Jennifer. “Storytelling: Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks.” World Literature Today 66 (Spring 1992): 279-282.
Towers, Margie. “Continuity and Connection: Characters in Louise Erdrich’s Fiction.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 16 (1992): 99-115.
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