- Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature: Reimagining Nativeness
Eva Gruber’s Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature: Reimagining Nativeness has something of the feel of an end to an era about it, even as its concluding segments reach beyond, gesturing toward scholarship that most likely defines the coming decade in North American Aboriginal/Indigenous humour studies. A book like this has been too long in coming. Gruber’s encyclopaedic survey of critical literature on the subject, combined with her strong and clearly stated governing thesis, may remind readers of Linda Hutcheon’s Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. I strongly recommend Gruber’s book, especially the early chapters that survey the critical field, as one of two starting points for any scholar at or above the undergraduate level interested in Native North American literary humour—Drew Hayden Taylor’s Me Funny is the other. It is also a pleasant surprise to see that, despite Uncle Sam Coyote on the cover, “North America” means North America to Gruber. As a reader from the snowier side of the great Anglo-colonial divide, I cannot help but wriggle a little in delight to see how integral Canadian literary and critical production is to Gruber’s explanatory model.
The book’s structuring argument builds on Allan J. Ryan’s The Trickster Shift, another of the rare full-length monographs on the subject: humour, in its juxtaposition of incongruous elements, opens a space for readers to reimagine and renegotiate disempowering, predominantly colonial representations of Native identity. Native literary humour is vital because the discourses so deployed subvert—often from within—Euroamerican stereotypes that justify the oppression of North America’s original nations; further, humour allows an opportunity for Aboriginal people to reconfigure their own sense of themselves in the face of potentially overpowering institutional and media constructions. [End Page 214]
Before articulating this premise, Gruber offers a brief, dense chapter entitled “Humor in Native North American Literature and Culture: Survey,” which does exactly that: she begins by extrapolating tribal humour from traces in Le Jeune and his compatriots in the early colonial period, follows this with ethnographers from the early twentieth century, and concludes with roughly current Aboriginal critics. She suggests that literary humour more readily shows the bitter impact of colonialism when compared to the laughter of “traditional ceremonies and everyday life” shared among friends and neighbours (9). Next, a chronological look at “pan-tribal Native humor in written form,” dating back to Alex Posey (Creek) at the turn of the twentieth century (12); Gruber discounts the much earlier, biting satire of writers like William Apess (Pequot) or Elias Boudinot (Cherokee). Although pockets of sarcasm and humour mark the Native American Renaissance—especially, one might think, Vine Deloria Jr’s non-fictional Custer Died for Your Sins, although it isn’t mentioned in this section—it is not until the late 1980s that writers like Erdrich, Vizenor, then Owens, King, Wagamese, and Alexie come to the forefront. Noting the genre confusion that can be caused by authors’ admixture of oral tradition and standard European forms, Gruber summarizes an impressive range of contemporary comic novels, short stories, poetry, and theatre.
Chapter 2 addresses identity as the central issue in Native writing, discussing the topos of White Man’s Indian in popular culture, historical accounts, and legislation. A quick rundown of the material causes and effects of legislative identity could have proven useful here, but Gruber’s focus is on the lack of positive modeling for Aboriginal individuals, as well as the potential for intracommunity discord sewn by internalization of essentialist, inaccurate stereotypes. Gruber makes a good case that literature can provide a starting point around which people can articulate new, beneficial possibilities of self-representation that not only contest but harness and subvert hegemonic imagery. Carefully picking her way through critical models of cross-cultural negotiation, she advances an agential model of the subject who—especially if this subject is an author—picks, chooses, and manipulates hybridized colonial discourse to advance an...