By Jim Rementer
Humor or joking is one of the basic things of human life, and people joke in all societies, but the subject of humor among the Lenape (Delaware Indian), or any American Indian people, has had little attention. In fact, the more one reads of Delaware history, the more one wonders if the Delawares have really had anything to laugh about since the Europeans arrived!
Over the years and in a variety of media—books, motion pictures, and now television—American Indians have generally been characterized as stoic people quite devoid of a sense of humor. We hope this page will help dispel some of that myth. We begin with a favorite cartoon of the man responsible for this website.
Now for some stories:
THE WEATHER FORECAST
One cold, blustery fall day the chief of the Delaware Tribe said to a tribal member, “I think we’re going to have a bad winter.” Naturally, the man told others what the chief had said, and the word got around that the chief could foretell the weather.
As winter approached a group of Delawares went to the chief and asked if it was going to be a bad winter. By this time he had forgotten his earlier prediction and was wondering why they thought he would know. He said, “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” After they left, the chief called the man at the local weather bureau and asked him if it would be a bad winter. The weatherman said, “Oh, yes.”
A couple of weeks later more Delawares went to the chief and asked if it was really going to be a bad winter. Again he said, “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” and after they left, he called the man at the weather bureau and asked him. The weatherman said, “Oh, it really will be bad.”
Several more weeks went by and even more Delawares went to the chief and asked if it was truly going to be a bad winter, and they got the reply, “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Once again he called the man at the weather bureau and asked him. The weatherman said, “Oh, it is going to be the worst in years!”
By now the chief was curious, and he asked the weatherman, “How exactly do you know this?” The weatherman said, “Well, I’ve been watching these Delaware Indians. They have ways of knowing these things, and they’ve been chopping wood like crazy for weeks!”
This Delaware Indian from Moraviantown went ice fishing. He cut his hole in the ice but didn’t have much luck. But there was a white guy not far away who was hauling in lots of fish, one after another.
So the Indian went over to the guy and said, “What are you doing to catch all those fish? I’m just over there, and I’m not catching anything.”
The guy answered in a muffled voice, “Ee yer erms orm.”
The Indian didn’t understand.
And the guy tried to speak again, “Eeyer erms orm.”
The Indian still couldn’t understand him, so the guy spit something off to the side, and he said, “I said… keep your worms warm!”
THE HUNTING DOG
An Delaware Indian man had a really good hunting dog, and he was always bringing in game. A white man who lived nearby wanted to buy the dog. He offered the Indian $100, but the Indian man said no. Every time they’d meet he’d offer a little more
until finally the price got up to $500. At that price the Indian man sold him the dog.
The next morning the white man took the dog out and they went hunting. He turned the dog loose and the dog went about fifteen feet and laid down and wouldn’t move any more.
So the white guy went to the Indian complaining about how worthless that dog was. The Indian guy said, “Well, let’s go hunting together in the morning and I’ll see what the problem is.”
The next morning they went out together, and the white man turned the dog loose and again the dog only went about fifteen feet and laid down. The white guy said, “See there! He’s worthless!”
So the Delaware man said, “Let me see,” and walked over to where the dog was. He called the white man over and asked him, “What’s the problem? Can’t you see he’s pointing with his lips?” [An old custom with a number of Indian tribes.]
HOW MANY INDIANS?
Q: How many Indians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One – plus two anthropologists to takes notes of the actions he is performing (and the significance of which they will heatedly debate for years to come), and one ethnologist to study the underlying meaning of the direction the bulb is screwed into the socket, and one linguist in case the Indian says anything.
TO BE BORN
One Indian man was asked if he was born in the hospital. His response was, “Yes, I decided it would be a good time to be near my mother.”
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
A Delaware elder was in the Indian Hospital and they were trying to figure out what his health problem was. Finally a doctor came into his room and said, “Good news, I have figured out the cause of your problem.”
“What is it?” the elder asked.
“It’s your teeth,” replied the doctor.
“My teeth? Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes, that’s your problem.”
The Delaware man reached into his mouth and removed his upper and lower plate and laid them on the table and told the doctor, “You show me which one is causing the problem and I’ll break it off!”
THE HUNTER AND THE BEAR
One old man … was somewhat of a braggart, and he told the people, “When I go hunting, if I kill a bear I don’t have to drag him up. I just go out there and nudge him, and tell him, ‘Right over there is the direct route to my home!'”
He said the bear would take in after him and chase him, and after he got him close to his home, he would just shoot him.
That way he wouldn’t have a long ways to pack him.
RUN UP AND DOWN
Some years ago, James Nairn, a Delaware Indian, County Attorney in Nowata County, Oklahoma, was cross-examining an
old fullblood Cherokee Indian about the position of the doors, windows and rooms in a house where a fight of serious nature had occurred.
“And now,” said Mr. Nairn, “will you tell the Court how the stairs run in the house.”
‘Wall,” he said, “when I am upstairs they run down, an’ when I am downstairs they run up.”
Delaware women like to joke too, and they come up with some quick and witty responses. The following is an example:
At a tribal gathering a man went over to speak to a Delaware woman he knew. As she was seated, and the place was fairly noisy, he bent over to talk to her. He had a piece of ice in his mouth, and as he started to speak he almost drooled, so he quickly stood up straight.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I have some ice in my mouth and I almost drooled on you,” he replied.
Her response was, “Oh, go ahead! It’s been a long time since I’ve had a man drool over me.”
Two Indian women were discussing the merits and faults of their respective husbands. “Mary,” said Mollie, “does your ole man talk in his sleep?”
“Nah,” replied Mary, “I jus’ wish he would. All he does is jus’ lay there an’ grin.”
THE INDIAN AGENTS
These two Indian agents were riding in the country when their car broke down. Soon an Indian and his family came along in an old pickup truck, and he offered to give them a ride into town. The Indian got out and told them they have to ride in the back, and he opened the tailgate and let them in.
On the way into town they had to cross a very old and rickety bridge, and when they got to the middle of it, the bridge collapsed, and the truck fell into the river and sank. The Indian and his family were able to open the windows and swim to safety, but the Indian agents drowned. They couldn’t figure out how to open the tailgate.
A DELAWARE’S PRAYER
A Delaware woman was at a church meeting one time, and she was praying in her Lenape language. The next morning, one old Lenape man told another man, “I think that woman knows bad medicine!”
“Why do you think that?” the other man asked.
“I heard her praying that she wanted God to watch over her as she flew through the air.”
He didn’t realize she was leaving the following week on a plane trip to Canada.
Some of the Indian humor was even reported in the early newspapers as in this example from the Bartlesville Magnet, 31 August 1900:
There was a lawyer in the Indian country who had none too good a reputation for honesty. One of the aborigines employed him to do a little legal business. It was done to the client’s satisfaction, the fee duly paid, and a receipt for it duly demanded.
“A receipt isn’t necessary,” the lawyer said.
“But I want it,” replied the red man. There was some argument, and the attorney finally demanded his reason. “Since becoming a Christian I have been very careful in all my dealings, that I may be ready for the judgment,” answered the brave sententiously, “and when that day comes I don’t want to take time to go to the bad place to get my receipt from you.”
The receipt was made out and delivered promptly.
The Delawares located in western Oklahoma also had their humor:
NO ONE LOST
Eli Reynolds, a member of the Delaware and Caddo Tribes, was delegated one day by the Superintendent of the Kiowa Indian Agency, at Anadarko, Oklahoma, to accompany a group of easterners on a tour of the Indian Reservation. After due time they arrived at the banks of the Washita River.
“Has anybody been lost in crossing this river,” asked one of the group.
“Nope,” replied Eli, “One Indian drowned here las’ week, but we found him th’ nex’ day.”
Here is an example from the Delawares on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada in their version of one of the favorite jokes among many Indian tribes concerning the White people:
NO WHITES AROUND
The Indians of that era were jolly, jocular people. They laughed easily, perhaps because they knew so much of want and suffering. They had known poverty, hunger and racial discrimination. The Indian had a real sense of humour, in spite of his hardships. He took time to talk to anyone he met on the street… A favorite story concerned a Whiteman who asked an Indian if it was safe to leave his rifle on the reserve. “Don’t worry,” replied the Indian. “There isn’t a Whiteman within six miles.”
Some good jokes come from members of other tribes who are married to Delawares, as in this example:
Amos Tiger, a professional lightweight champion boxer and a fullblood Euchee Indian who is married to a Delaware, tells this story on one of his fellow tribesmen:
“One day, Micco Behan, an old fullblood, walked into a restaurant in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, and asked for a full course dinner. In due time, the waitress brought in the first course which consisted of soup.
“‘Whats thet?’ inquired old Micco.
“‘That’s bean soup,’ replied the waitress.
“‘Well,’ retorted the old man, ‘I ain’t asking you what it’s been, I want to know what it is now’.”
THE YOUNG MAN’S PRAYER
A certain young Indian man had never learned the language of his people, and when he started going to meetings he noticed that many of the older people prayed in their own language. He was too lazy to take the time to learn all the language, so one night he secretly brought a tape recorder into the meeting and recorded some of these prayers.
He was especially fond of a prayer given by one of the women, so he learned it by heart. Later, when he was at a meeting with some of the older people, he decided to say it with the thought of impressing everyone.
The next morning he asked one old man what he thought of his prayer, and the old man told him, “Say, that was sure a good one! But I didn’t understand what you meant when you asked God to help you when you had your period.”
Black Beaver was a famous Delaware, and on numerous occasions he would serve as interpreter or guide on expeditions. He was also noted for his wit and a number of humorous stories exist about him. This story which took place in 1849 was reported by an Army Captain Randolph Marcy. Three different versions exist, and the one below is a blending of the three.
BLACK BEAVER AND THE COMANCHE
One evening I found Black Beaver and a Comanche guide seated by the fire and they were engaged in a very earnest and not very amicable conversation. I asked what the problem was.
Beaver answered, “I’ve been telling this Comanche what I’ve seen among the white folks.”
I said, “Well, Beaver, what did you tell him?”
“I told him about the steamboats, and the heap of houses I saw in St. Louis.”
“Well, sir, what did he think of that?”
“He said I’m telling him a damn lie!”
“Well, what else did you tell him?”
“I told him about the railroads, but he still thought I’m telling him a lie.”
So I said to Beaver, “Tell him about the magnetic telegraph.”
“What’s that?” said Beaver.
I said, “You’ve heard of New York and New Orleans? Say we have a wire connecting those two cities about a thousand miles apart, and which would take a man thirty days to ride on a good horse. The man at one end of the wire touches it a few times and asks his friend at the other end of the wire what he had for breakfast. His friend at the other end touches it a few times and sends the answer within ten minutes—ham and eggs. Tell the Comanche about that, Beaver.”
“No. Captain, I won’t tell him that, for I don’t believe that myself.”
I assured him that such was the fact, and that I had seen it myself.
Black Beaver replied, “Indian can holler pretty loud, maybe so you hear him for half a mile. But now you say white man can talk thousand miles! I suspect you try to fool me now, Captain; maybe so you lie!”
[Note: We can only wonder what Black Beaver would have thought of the Internet].
There are many more examples that could be given. Keep watching this page for new stories. This should show that no matter what the definition of humor might be, these stories clearly show what a good sense of humor the Lenape people have.