Books

Outsider humor

Native cartoonist laughs at life for all of us

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A marginalized population is a group of people who exist outside the mainstream culture because they are perceived as having marginal importance, influence or power.

Native Americans are an unfortunate example of marginalization.

Representations of Native American people are rarely found in media. From television to movies to the news to advertisements to commercials, indigenous Americans are seldom seriously or realistically depicted.

Worse yet, images of Natives that we do see are either racist stereotypes, such as the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, or insulting cultural caricatures used to sell T-shirts to teenagers or velvet paintings to tourists.

Unfortunately, when marginalized populations attempt to speak up and empower themselves, people in authority get defensive. Consider recent events such as the Black Lives Matter movement and Standing Rock, both of which met with violent resistance from the powers that be.

But there might be one guy that has it figured out.

Ricardo Caté, a resident of the Santa Domingo Pueblo, has been drawing the daily cartoon, "Without Reservations," for The Santa Fe New Mexican since 2006 and most recently, The Taos News. In 2012, Caté published a collection of his comics in a book by the same name.

Caté has been drawing comics since the seventh grade but is not conventionally trained as an artist. He is an outsider artist in more ways than one.

Caté's comics portray pudgy American Indians wearing stereotypical breechcloths, war bonnets, hair feathers and braids while Caucasians usually look like General Custer with the occasional pilgrim or cowboy thrown in.

What better way to fight the establishment than to make fun of it. The art of political satire is as unassailable as it is defenseless. One can no more take offense at a joke without appearing to admit its truth than one needs to defend a statement that was merely a joke.

Cate''s satire does not hold back from making fun of Indians as well as everyone else. Jokes about Spam, diabetes, child support and Jerry Springer share the page with gags about broken treaties, The Indian Relocation Act and the near extinction of the American bison.

Many of his cartoons would justly earn the hashtag "funnynotfunny." While each comic is ingrained with genuine humor, an underlining sense of irony, a window into how things are and how they shouldn't be is always apparent. It can be difficult to laugh when the injustice is so clearly highlighted.

In one comic, General Custer shows an Indian to a barbed wire fenced area with a sign that reads: Indian Reservation. Custer says, "Think of it as your own little gated community."

In another comic, two Natives stand on a beach watching a group of English merchant ships sail toward them. One man says to the other, "Maybe we should have passed tougher immigration laws."

Many of the comics comment on modern life on a reservation and current events. In one comic a sign over a scale reads: "Your weight and degree of Indian blood 25 cents." In another, three kids in the back of an open truck bed call out to their mother as she heads into the Wal-Mart: "Hey, you can't just leave us out here in the truck -- we'll suffocate!"

On the inside cover of the book, Native writer, economist and environmentalist Winona Duke is quoted as saying, "For those of us entrenched in the greatness and depth of our communities, we find that [Caté's] heart - and gut-felt humor speaks to our minds, memories and hearts."

You don't have to be Native to appreciate his humor. Much of what he pokes fun at is the way in which mainstream media has historically and inaccurately perceived Natives. For example, in one comic, an Indian walks into a card store and asks the clerk, "Do you have any, 'Honey, I'm really sorry I shot you with an arrow' cards?"

In another panel, an Indian is demonstrating smoke signals for Custer. He says, "Check this out. It's our latest technology in wireless communication."

In the book's introduction, Caté says, "There are those who say my cartoons aren't politically correct. I would say to them that they could pick up any history or social studies textbook and find political incorrectness in the chapters dealing with Native Americans." And, Caté would know since he used to teach middle school social studies.

According to Indian News Today, Caté is the only Native cartoonist featured in a mainstream newspaper with his more than 400 cartoons seen by about 60,000 people daily. Natives represented in media is a step away from marginalization and toward giving voice to at least one aspect of their world.

Nonnatives seeking out and reading these cartoons creates stronger allies. But politics aside, "Without Reservations" is funny. It makes us laugh at ourselves and at the situations we find ourselves in. Both thought-provoking and light-hearted, it is the best of both worlds.

"Without Reservations" is widely available in regional book shops and online retailers.

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