Portraits of the Whiteman

|| Academic Paper |

In his work, "Portraits of the Whiteman", Keith H. Basso described and analyzed the attempts of Western Apaches to understand Anglo-Americans by determining how they view themselves and the world around them, and making profound observations about their peculiar ways through the technique of verbal humor. Appropriated this way as a dominant topic of jokes and other humorous oral narratives, the "Whiteman" according to Basso is an informal abstraction of Anglo-Americans based on the "typifications and relevances" that Indian people employ in order to rationalize their collective experiences with Anglo-Americans. 

This subgenre of Native American humor has evolved through decades and covers various types of engagements. Moreover, it allowed Indians to define Whitemen by juxtaposing Anglo-American values against those of other people. Implicitly, the goal of such juxtapositions involved communicating the essence of what the Whiteman stands for or what he represents, and what this eventually means to the Native American people. As a result, the abstraction "Whiteman" has evolved into a "social category," a "cultural symbol," and a "multipurpose instrument" that Native Americans use not only for lending meaning to the actions or statements of Whitemen, but also as a channel for social commentary and dissent.

The telling of Whiteman jokes is prevalent among Native Americans and varies greatly. This is because the juxtaposition Indian vs. Whiteman is relatively fixed and general but the manner they are narrated is flexible, specially in the context of which particular Native American people (Apache, Hopi, Sioux, etc.) controls the telling. That is, the Whiteman is portrayed differently because the Indians in the narratives are also depicted differently. The socio-cultural outcome of the narratives remains constant, however: by lending meaning to the Whiteman, the meaning of being an "Indian" is articulated as well. In particular, during Apache "joking performances" Apache jokers who imitate the White Man assume the trappings and identity of Anglo Americans and succeed in creating a social portrait of their subjects. At first, such imitations were rare, with Apaches believing that Anglo-Americans do not have the equanimity to personally absorb jokes or parodies of themselves such as the Apaches do, making the humorous impersonations somewhat dangerous during the days when the Whiteman was just beginning to visit and stay in the reservation.

In Apache joking art, the 'primary message' is usually based on a collage of real experience and commonly believed history. The joker builds from this resource to construct 'secondary texts,' which are made more colorful or ridiculous through the use of different techniques including caricature, hyperbole and the poetic license to disrupt. As impersonations in the thinly demarcated lines of "joking acts" and "acts of joking" became more frequent, Western Apaches came to appreciate jokes about the Whiteman as both 'funny' and 'dangerous.' This is because impersonations in different joking performances stand open to any interpretation, including those that could be socially disruptive as when models used in the verbal play are slurs, criticisms, and insults that may be initially directed at the Whiteman but could also more painfully extend to people in the audience.

If the joker reneged on his responsibility to his audience by losing control of the different nuances his joke attempts to communicate, then the performance fails, usually resulting to some of the play participants getting hurt-either emotionally or physically. This is specially so when secondary texts-which are often extremely derisive of and potentially character-damaging to the particular person who is the butt of the joke-are perceived to be the primary message. This effectively breaks the joking framework and the verbal performance is then interpreted not as a sanitized joke but as a direct insult.

An example is when a joker fails to deliver a performance flawlessly where the result only reminds the Indian audience of the "unfunny" fact (primary message) that Anglo-Americans do make them feel very small. However, perfectly executed performances such as those wherein the joker establishes a well balanced reflexivity between his message and the audience are commonly interpreted as valid, dramatized denunciations of the ways by which Anglo-Americans usually treat or interact with Indians. In this sense, one key feature of Apache life is depicted: "serious things are always getting said in what appears to be unserious ways."