The power of Indigenous humour — sharing Indigenous experiences and voices through laughter

Guest speaker Stephanie Pangowish discussed how humour is an integral part of Indigenous communities

Stand-up comedian, Northern Style Women’s Traditional dancer, educator and backup singer, Stephanie Pangowish does it all.

Part of the Anishinaabekwe from Wiikwemkoong on Manitoulin Island, Pangowish is known for her community involvement.

In an online seminar organized by the Feminism and Comedy Working Group at Concordia on April 1, Pangowish spoke about the importance of Indigenous comedy and storytelling.

“Humour was always part of our family – growing up, I’d listen to elders joke about hard situations to minimize them, or I’d see my family tease each other out of love and appreciation,” said Pangowish.

Pangowish was even further drawn to comedy when she started watching comedy specials on television with her parents.

“When I saw someone on stage make this big auditorium full of people laugh, I knew there was good medicine attached to humour.”

As she grew older, Pangowish noticed that, despite humour being an integral part of her communal life, it was often overshadowed by stereotypes surrounding Indigenous communities.

The books written by authors who had not experienced Indigenous cultures, “failed to include our humour in their narrative,” she said.

Resilience through Indigenous humour

While visiting different Indigenous communities across North America, Pangowish realized she could connect with anyone through their humour despite speaking different languages or having different ceremonies.

“When I first started getting into comedy, I noticed that humour in our community was used to soften some of the experiences of everyday life,” said Pangowish.

“That is one of the things that helped our people become more resilient.”

Pangowish recalls that, even while attending the annual imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto, she noticed humour being widely integrated into the films that were being presented.

“Though these films were about residential schools or being removed from your land, there was still laughter,” said Pangowish.

When she began her masters studies, Pangowish explains that she was promoting the fact that Indigenous humour was a topic worth exploring. After encouragement from a classmate, Pangowish put forth a topic to the TEDxTalk panel and was accepted.

As part of her research on Indigenous humour, Pangowish began reaching out to different community members until she came across the findings of Dr. Michael Yellow Bird of the University of Manitoba, who focuses on the effects of colonization, methods of decolonization, and genetic science in Indigenous people.

Dr. Yellow Bird talked about the 5HTTLPR gene — a serotonin transmitter that is shared among many Indigenous community members around the world and mediates happiness, among other emotions.

“Our dances, ceremonies, prayers, celebrations and singing, are all part of our communal life which bring us good energy, and laughter.”

Pangowish explains that Indigenous humour helps to cope with difficult situations by making fun of them.

“We’ve taken misfortune and turned them into funny stories with lessons attached to it,” said Pangowish, during her TEDxCentennialCollegeToronto talk.

Educating through Indigenous humour

When Indigenous stories are being told through books or movies, the storytellers are often non-Indigenous, mostly white authors who often have no connection to the culture itself, explained Pangowish.

“I’ve always wanted to share that we are not just what society and media portrays us — we are not just those stereotypical images …  I use humour to make fun of those images, and talk about how powerful our people are, and how amazing our culture is.”

Though the Indigenous communities across Turtle Island — the Indigenous name that some Indigenous peoples use for North America — are very diverse, Pangowish explained that there are many aspects of humour that are similar, including teasing, making fun of difficult situations, and punching up instead of punching down.

By this, Pangowish explains that Indigenous humour avoids jokes about people with disabilities or minorities, for instance. Instead, it aims at institutions of power, such as governments.

“Sometimes there are controversial topics, but if you approach them carefully and are thoughtful with your words and delivery, there are many that we can joke about. But what I won’t do is oppress another group of people,” said Pangowish.

Through her stand-up comedy, Pangowish also aims at sharing stories beyond Indigenous communities to bring awareness to non-Indigenous folks.

“I wanted to bring forth our experiences to Canadians by trying to bridge the gap and talk about policies and other important aspects that are part of our life, that they might not be aware of,” she said.

During her acts, Pangowish includes jokes about policies such as the Indian Act or the First Nation Trust Fund, all with the intention of bringing awareness to these topics in a comedic way.

“The Indian Act that’s over 150 years old, determines who is Indian and who isn’t,” said Pangowish.

“If I were to have a child with a non-status Indian or Canadian, and my child goes through the same thing, my grandchild will not be acknowledged as an Indian through the act.”

Joking about the effects of policies such as the Indian Act is a way to discuss them and educate people about the experiences of Indigenous people, explained Pangowish.

Beyond poking fun at stereotypes and building inter-communal resilience, Pangowish explained that, “Humour is truly a huge part of who we are.”


Graphic from event page on the Concordia University website

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