I’m a Johnny Cash sort of writer – usually work good under pressure, though not 100%, especially when it comes to weekly columns. I don’t know how Tim Giago has churned out one a week for going on forty years. I’ve only been at it since 2011 and sometimes wonder how to drum up 1,000 words about something which may be of interest to the good readers.
It’s about 3;00 a.m. in the morning as I cobble this together, because while mulling topics I kept getting distracted by the giggles. That came from a recent telephone visit with my brother-cousin Dennis Limberhand, who has the greatest sense of humor and we spent nearly an hour sharing old Cheyenne jokes. For such a fun-loving and humorous people, it’s ironic that Indians got labeled stoic, but I think I know why. If they do not like you, skins have this way of looking right through you, as though acknowledging your very existence isn’t worthwhile. A lot of white folks probably were subjected to this treatment, not seeing it for what it was or still and dubbed us a bunch of mute dummies.
Nothing could be farther from reality: if an Indian likes you teasing, at your expense, is an acceptable way to show affection. Physical displays of affection are not cool, but the more teasing, joking and laughing the better. Teasing among Indian people is also a good teaching technique: tease children into better behavior; learn to laugh and not be so full of yourself and see the humor in everyday situations. One of the hardest things about living in an urban area surrounded by non-Indians is the lack of teasing and good old joking, especially at their expense. Ever notice the difference in white and Indian humor? White jokes always have a punch line and are rarely personalized, about anonymous person such as ‘Ollie and Lena”. We got punch lines too, but all the better when it is at the expense of someone that we like. I have to watch myself, because several of my non-Indian friends are not used to a bold sense of humor.
With that, here’s a sample of some ‘goot’ ones from Cheyenne country:
Crow jokes: At one time there was true enmity between the Crows and most other Plains Tribes, but due to intermarriage, the rez system, pow wows etc., that is dying off and there are a lot of connections and consequent joking between members of the two Tribes, at least the older ones. Cheyenne love to tell Crow jokes and vice-versa as do the Sioux.
Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting with my very Crow good friend, Henry Realbird. The subject was our old rodeo days, telling funny stories, exaggerated of course. Henry, formerly a real good bronc rider said he sometimes dreams about jumping on a wild one again. “The problem is, I’d have to go to a bronc riding school,” he sighed. “Because there’s a hundred pounds of me that’s never been on a bronc!”
I shared that funny and put it to good use with my brother friend, Butch Small, former team roper and dogger who is now rather portly. “Butch if you start dogging again, you’ll have to go to school twice!”
And then there’s the old Crow pow wow joke which has caused belly laughter among Indians for decades, caused no doubt to language defugalties. Edison Realbird, patriarch of that large clan was then Tribal Chairman, one of his most important duties announcing the annual Crow Fair rodeo and believe me those Crows can talk. Extolling the virtues of the ‘Teepee Capital of America’ and the legendary hospitality of the Crow people, he welcomed the audience by commenting: “We have visitors from many other Tribes, across America, the world and…. various other places.”
That’s just a sample of about a zillion Crow jokes. Others might be unprintable in this family-oriented and intellectual publication.
Language/culture-related jokes: This is rich territory, especially for those who speak the tribal language first. Not too long ago, the Tribal Vice-President, a fluent Cheyenne speaker, but not writer, decided to use his Cheyenne name on campaign literature. Not knowing how to spell it properly (writing the language which has its own alphabet and pronunciation symbols is quite challenging) he approached a good ‘brother-friend’ conversant in that, explaining his purpose, asking for the proper spelling. The brother-friend, whose name cannot be used in this context or I’ll get my head chopped off, scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it over. A slight frown creased the Vice-President’s brow as he studied the paper. “Are you sure that’s how it is spelled?” The brother friend had written out TONTO.
Here is another one, passed in my family for years. Traditionally, Cheyennes did not speak to their mother or father-in-law, a particularly good system which avoided many troubles. However, years ago, my Auntie Helen, living with husband’s family had to take her father-in-law to the clinic, because no one else was available to drive the old model T Ford. She climbed into the front seat and upon hearing the back door slam took off for the clinic. After arriving and several minutes of silence and waiting, she risked a peak into the backseat. There sat one of her children! Maybe you must be Cheyenne to really appreciate that one.
Family Jokes: I’ll close with a ‘goot’ one my mother got on me. Years ago, when I was besotted with cowboys and running around on the rodeo circuit, it was a greatly frustrating to my very well-behaved mother. “All most of them have got is a bag of rags, a bucket of rust (an old pickup) and if you’re lucky, one good rope horse,” she’d preach.
The occasion was a family dinner, which is a lot of people. As we were eating, she suddenly asked me a question which everyone paused to hear. “What is that in the middle of your forehead, Clara Lee. Right smack dab in the middle.”
“Dunno,” I responded rubbing my forehead, even hitting it with a lick of spit. “What is it?”
“Looks like a peckerhead magnet to me,” she smugly pronounced.
That was many years ago, but even now invariably at some family gathering someone will ask about the peckerhead magnet. Myself, I think it is fading out, but you cannot convince them of that.
That’s just a sample of Cheyenne humor. If not for the word limit of this column, I could write a book. Heck come to think of it, I might!
(Clara Caufield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)