So-called “Indian humor” isn’t easy to describe. It’s offbeat, often veering suddenly to make a ninety-degree turn, and it gives the reader that great gift of getting to poke fun at themselves and their own foibles. Cartoonist Ricardo Caté, creator of the delete: syndicated comic Without Reservations, describes Indian humor as the result of “us living in a dominant culture, and the funny part is that we so often fall short of fitting in. Sometimes we don’t even get it, and that’s humorous.”
This distinction is not always clear to Anglos, who sometimes misconstrue the comic as making fun of Natives and Native culture. And that’s hilarious to Indians, too–because, that, they get.
Ricardo uses a story from his own life to illustrate Indian humor. “One day, I was supposed to take my grandmother—that’s Lucy M. Garcia—to town for 25 new picture frames. She’d just had her walls re-plastered. So I dropped her off at WalMart and drove back home. After supper, my mom said, ‘Go help her with the frames,’ so I went back over to her house. My grandma said, ‘They’re already up. It’s all done, as you can see. Sit down and eat.’ So I did. I was facing the wall, and I said to her, ‘Grandma, the wall looks very nice. But who are all those white people?’”
He started drawing comics with his friend David in seventh grade. “It was our first year of junior high. Suddenly we had six or seven teachers now instead of just one, and each one had their own personal classroom-management style. We thought it was funny to draw about it, these comics about our experiences in those classes, starring him and me and our teachers.”
He stops to quickly sketch the characters of himself and David from those days: Ricardo, serious, deadpan, wearing glasses and a button down shirt; David with a sort of bowl cut, beady eyes and buck teeth. “We were misfits, academically advanced, and a lot of time, we’d finish ahead of the class. We drew the girls’ gym teacher, who we thought seemed more like a guy; the fun teacher; the dictator; the pristine one; the military-style guy from Texas—you didn’t even want to cough in his class!—the cooks in the cafeteria, awful, mean. And the janitors, especially—one of my best friend’s grandpa. He’d give us words to spell, and if we got them wrong, he’d send us to the back of the line.”
Ricardo remembers his childhood on Santo Domingo Pueblo fondly. His friend David was half–Santo Domingo, half-Sioux from South Dakota and so didn’t speak the language very well; Delete–. was half-German; Jamie half–African American. Add– and neither Aloise nor Jamie were full-blooded Santo Domingo. Everybody else on the pueblo was full-blooded, so their little band stood out. “We didn’t have a lot of resources, but we’d make our own fun. Like daring each other to do crazy things. Kiss a certain girl—I had to do that—say the Pledge of Allegiance in the Texas teacher’s class. David had to ask Althea for her hand in marriage. Other kids would be making turquoise jewelry with their parents. We were weird, but we had each other. Add: And we traded comic books a lot.”
Ricardo’s dad broke his back and ended up having to spend a long time in the hospital. “He was in searing pain. My family became pretty bad off financially. Christmas was not very good. My mom was always crying, and so I started to draw these cartoons about our family. They would lift her spirits. That was the first time I realized that humor has such huge healing powers.”
He read comic books voraciously “and I had a crush on Blondie.” But it wasn’t till he discovered Mad Magazine that humor really changed his own life. “That’s when I discovered that other people had that same sick humor as me! I used to think something was wrong with me.”
In 2001, Ricardo’s dad passed away. “He’d been involved on the pueblo with veterans’ meetings, education and housing committees, meeting with senators in Washington, D.C. for many years, and he’d ask me to make cartoons for certain senators as a gift. ‘This guy likes to hunt,’ he’d tell me. Then I would draw a cartoon about hunting, because he used those cartoons to break the ice with them. He said my ability to make people laugh is a gift.”
Still, Ricardo didn’t really do anything more with his gift until 2004. “I went back to school for my job, and I got involved with the student paper. Everybody else knew each other, and there I was, in my 30s, this new guy sitting in the back of the class. They’d be talking and I’d be back there doodling—cartoons, of course, about college life, mostly. When it came time for the first edition of the year to come out, they suddenly noticed they were short one whole page. Everybody was in a panic, and then I slowly raised my hand. ‘I might have some stuff to fill your paper,’ I told them.”
He didn’t start drawing Native cartoons until a few years later, for The Southern Ute Drum. “I liked doing those more, because I had more to contribute, more to say, and the ideas came easy.” But the way he became the first and only Native cartoonist whose comics appear in the mainstream papers was less straightforward. “I walked into the New Mexican office one day, applying for a journalism job,” he says. “It was already filled, but I had my drawing pad with me, and I asked the editor, Bernadette Garcia, if I could show her my comics. She said, ‘You can’t just walk in here. We buy all our comics through the syndicates,’ and she explained all about what that was. When she finished, I said, ‘Would you at least look?’ At first she got impatient, like, wasn’t I even listening? But once she started leafing through them, she was laughing. She called the sports writer over, and pretty soon eight or 12 people were all standing there laughing at my comics. She said, ‘We’ve got to have this!’”
One recent Without Reservations that Ricardo likes (his own worst critic, he pans more than he actually approves, once they appear in print) shows two panels of the same Native woman in her old pick-up truck, the back loaded with black garbage bags. The only difference is in the top panel she’s frowning, and in the bottom she’s smiling. The caption underneath reads “Trash day, laundry day.” When Ricardo was diagnosed with diabetes not long ago, he included that in the comic, as well. “I was having all these morbid thoughts when I first found out, thinking, ‘This diabetes monster might kill me!’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe I can draw a whole week’s worth of comics about this, a way of making fun of it, get it out there on the table, like ‘Hi, I have diabetes, this is me, nice to meet you.’”
Sometimes the humor is more pointed, biting even. Delete–(We’re the caretakers, and we’re destroying Mother Earth.) Add–We Natives are the caretakers and we’re watching Mother Earth being destroyed. I don’t want people to dismiss the fact that there was a price for this land. It was paid for with blood. The population of Native Americans in the U.S. is now 0.9 percent—not even 1 percent! This is my voice; this is my way of communicating.”
The characters in the strip are mostly Native, except for one he calls The General. “In 2007, I did a play with the class about Columbus being put on trial by the Taino, the first indigenous people he encountered. He and Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were all being tried for the murder of millions of indigenous people. I’d read more about Columbus—his wife had passed away, for instance. ‘Look,’ he says in the play, ‘I’m an explorer, this is what I do. If not me, someone else would come along. We’re sorry about the diseases, but I also took some of yours back to Europe, and I have a twelve-year-old boy to raise at home.’ At the end of the play, the foreman of the jury comes out and says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the court, the jury finds the defendants—’ We left it up to the audience.
“I actually have a respect for Columbus and Custer. Custer was a formidable foe. He played his role in history. Delete–(; he did a bad thing.) And he represents the dominant culture. Add– I don’t hate them, but I am aware of what they were capable of and what they and oher Europeans did that affected the Natives of this country. That’s why I just call him The General.”
Ricardo’s youngest child, Nicolette, 13, just started last year at the Santa Fe Indian School. Because he’s done a lot of speaking to classes there, whenever students see him, he’s greeted with cries of, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s Ricardo!’ and Nicolette is proud of him for that. His mother, who sells jewelry under the Palace of the Governors’ portal, comes home telling him which of his comics’ panels were popular with the other vendors.
“People need hope,” he says. “We can’t turn into something we’re not. But in Without Reservations, everything’s on the table.”
Not pushed under the rug. Plus—we’re all laughing!
Story by Gail Snyder