There’s only one way in the North to deal with an arrogant prick (Lord knows we’ve had our fair share) and that’s a damned-good practical joke. Some of the legendary ones include Old Joe Bourque convincing a smart-ass city kid he’d met in the bar to come over to his place for a dinner of roast goose. The kid picked his teeth and complimented Joe on the deliciousness of his cooking. But he threw up for three days after Joe told him what he actually ate was a raven.
Another one that still makes its rounds is about legendary CBC hosts Louie Goose and Les Carpenter of Inuvik. They had a co-worker who wouldn’t shut up about how tough he was. They got him drunk and convinced him to fry up a slab of rancid muktuk in a red-hot cast iron frying pan. The guy got thrown out of his apartment after the landlord had to evacuate everyone on the second floor and air out the building for nine days.
But practical jokes are not reserved exclusively for smart-ass cheechakos; they can be used to put your friends in their place, as well. Case in point.
I was at the Moosehide Cultural Festival this summer, in Dawson City, and was happily reunited with legendary Han Elder Victor Henry. I met Victor 30 years ago when he packed me out of the snake pit, thirty seconds after I told a bunch of hippies that they looked worse than us Indians. If you know Victor, not only is he a cultural icon; he’s also a pretty decent bullshitter, to boot.
We were sitting around the fire, trading licks, when I made the mistake of showing Victor up with one of my jokes that had everyone doubled over. One thing about elders … you don’t show them up. No matter how good you are. You’re simply the opening act, and they’re the main attraction. And anyone in showbiz will tell you, you don’t show up the main attraction.
Victor’s got pretty thick skin and he took it in stride. Just then, a raven flew over and Victor got dead serious. He told us to gather around cause he was gonna tell us a legend of the raven. “Especially you,” he warned me. He went on to tell us about how his culture holds the raven in highest regard. The raven is a good friend and needs to be treated with the greatest respect. Victor had us in the palm of his hand as he recounted the numerous times raven led him to fresh moose tracks, knowing that he would be rewarded with a fresh gut pile after the kill. He handed me a pair of fancy moose-skin gloves and told me he was going to show me how to do the “coveted raven dance.” He assured the crowd that this was a sacred dance and he only showed a lucky few how to perform this sacred dance. I puffed out my chest and felt like a big shot for this special attention.
There was a smattering of tourists, kids and elders. The tourists, hungry for culture, edged to their seats and gave us their full attention. The kids balanced open cans of pop as they jockeyed for a ringside seat. Unbeknownst to me, the elders jabbed one another in the ribs and tried to hide their amusement. Victor winked at them and began the raven chant. “Follow me,” he instructed, as he crouched down, imitating a raven hopping across the grass and cawing like a raven. “If you do it right, elders are gonna throw money at you,” Victor assured me. Wanting to impress everyone, I followed Victor’s every move, cawing with all I had and holding out my hand and doing my best raven hop.
There was a group of old ladies listening to Kevin Barr on stage, and Victor pointed to them. “Go dance for them,” he told me, following behind and chanting in Han. I hopped up beside the unsuspecting elders, with my hands out, doing my best raven caw. I looked at Victor for assurance and he shooed me forward.
The elders looked at me, then at Victor, then back at me, then back at Victor. “Louder!” Victor demanded. My tonsils were flapping like a cartoon as I cawed like I was auditioning for a part in North of 60. My throat began to crack and my eyeballs watered as I tried my best to impress Victor. Kevin actually stopped singing to watch me. His crowd slowly cranked their heads around to see what Kevin was watching.
My suspicion began to grow, as a smirk slowly came across Victor’s face. “What you’re stopping for?” He demanded. “Keep going. Raven doesn’t stop for anything.” My hopping and cawing slowed considerably as I saw a group of elders slapping their knees and pointing at me. By this time, Victor couldn’t hold it any longer and doubled over in laughter. He pointed at me and managed to say, “Look at him. Doing raven dance,” then he busted out into uncontrollable laughter.
When everyone finally settled down, Victor leaned into me and said, “Don’t ever show up Elder, cause they’ll get the last laugh on you.” Then he turned and looked toward the river. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll show you salmon dance.”
I looked him up and down and said, “No way, man. No flippin’ way.”