Humor has often been used as a tool for highlighting incongruities in the status quo. When the underdog pokes at the party in power, we laugh; when the powerful stab at the weak, we cringe. This dynamic is especially helpful and effective in discussions of colonization. Imperial European colonization of indigenous peoples has destroyed many livelihoods and nations, leaving the original inhabitants without land and, often, without recognized identity. The stories of King, Kasaipwalova and Grace take some action to reassert that ownership of the land and of the national identity, and they do it largely through humor directed at the oppressing power.
King’s story, “Borders,” deals largely with this issue of displacement in the colonized world. The mother here refuses to give up her Blackfoot heritage by identifying herself in terms of the arbitrary borders of the United States and Canada. She obviously knows on which side she lives, but she will not recognize the right of the border patrol to classify her as such. She is a citizen of the Blackfoot nation, and only of the Blackfoot nation. Her small act of civil disobedience draws media attention and forces those in power on the border to question their insistence that she declare herself.
“Betel Nut is Bad Magic for Aeroplanes,” by John Kasaipwalova, also portrays an act of civil disobedience, executed by the oppressed against the oppressor. The university student narrating the tale chooses to use his native dialect when recounting the events, but his words to the authority are in perfect standard English. He does not conform to the laws or customs of the new regime, except when helpful to his cause. He uses his mastery of their language to flummox the police, who are described with lower-than-average mental capacity and higher-than-average lust for power. By not adhering to any arbitrary whim of the police, he causes both those in power and those oppressed to question the laws and the ownership of the nation. He announces, in hearing of the crowd that this is “[a]lways like you white racists. Each time you know you or wrong or want to bully us black people, you have to use the police on us” (616). These incendiary words suggest that the power here comes only from force, and not from any admirable source. By drawing attention to this phenomenon, and thus drawing the support of all the angered onlookers, the student beats the weapon-laden police at their own game.
Patricia Grace raises a similar incongruity in “Ngati Kangaru.” When her characters take over the vacation homes of foreign holidaymakers, they do so without legal permission of any kind. They bolster the communities by placing yearlong inhabitants and they return thousands of families to their native land at negligible cost. When the holidaymakers return to find their homes occupied, the local businesses and most people who address this topic side with the indigenous, interloping inhabitants. This raises questions about the status quo and forces us to wonder who is imposing on whom in this situation.
All three of these tales address issues of colonization, displacement and power dynamics. By refusing to submit to the legal proceedings of the oppressing power, the indigenous people are able to assert their own identity. When they are laughing at the parties in power, they are winning.