March came in like a lion and so you hear a lot of Lakota people saying “lila osni,” which translates to “very cold.”
When those winter winds came howling across the wide open plains of the reservations, the Oyate (People) would rush to the grocery stores to stock up on groceries. My father, Tim, worked as a clerk and butcher at the Wounded Knee Trading Post many years ago when I was a boy. The store was burned to the ground after the armed occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
My Dad’s first language was Lakota. Whenever he waited on the customers coming into the Trading Post, he always spoke to them in their Native language. But more than that, he always had fresh joke to tell them, and when either Clive or Agnes Gildersleeve, the owners of the Trading Post, were standing at their cash register waiting for a customer, the Lakota elders would line up at my Dad’s cash register and when Clive would motion for them to come to his register, they would just smile and point at my Dad with their lips, an old Lakota trait.
In other words, they were saying, “We’ll wait for Tim.” And as always my Dad would have a joke for them. As an example he would tell them, “An elderly Lakota man was walking past a liquor store in Gordon, Nebraska, when two young men stopped him and told him that it was their friend’s birthday, and they wondered if he would go into the liquor store and get them a bottle of cold duck. He took the money they handed him and walked into the store and got in line. It took several minutes for the clerk to wait on those ahead of him so by the time he got to the register he couldn’t remember the name the boys gave him. The clerk said, “Can I help you?” He blurted out, “Osni quack, quack.”
Another of his favorites was about two elderly Lakota women sitting on their porch in Kyle and enjoying a warm summer evening. One of them was listening to the choir practicing at St. Sophie’s Church and the other was listening to the crickets singing. The one listening to the choir said, “They sing so beautifully tonight.” And the one listening to the crickets replied, “And I hear they do it by rubbing their hind legs together.”
Some folks might scratch their heads when hearing these jokes, but they sounded so much funnier in the Lakota language. And my Dad always had a new joke to tell his customers at the Wounded Knee Trading Post.
It is said that there are so many Jewish comedians because the Jews had to have a sense of humor in order to survive. And many non-Indian South Dakotans may not know this, but it was the same with the Lakota. We had been through so many traumatic events in our lives that humor was one of our escapes.
There was so much laughter among the boys and girls at the boarding schools, because it kept us on an even keel. If you got a group of Lakota men and women together, the jokes they told each other and the laughter in the room would have surprised many who only thought of the Indian people as stoic.
The other day when it was so cold I said to my wife Jackie “Osni” and she said, Quack, quack!