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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

In Behind the Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape, archaeologist and conservationist R. E. Burrillo takes readers on a journey of discovery through the stories and controversies that make this place so unique, from traces of its earliest inhabitants through its role in shaping the study of Southwest archaeology itself—and into the modern battle over its protection. The following is an excerpt from Behind the Bears Ears.


As Standing Rock Sioux author and scholar Vine Deloria Jr. often pointed out in his books and essays, one of the best ways to understand people is to understand what makes them laugh. “Laughter,” he wrote in Custer Died for Your Sins, “encompasses the limits of the soul. In humor, life is redefined and accepted. Irony and satire provide much keener insights into a group’s collective psyche and value than do years of research." I couldn't agree more.

Although I didn’t give it enough consideration at the time, this was first brought to my attention by one of my earliest professors of cultural anthropology, when he carped over and over about how ethnographies on Native Americans never included anything about their humor. He found this to be of particular grievousness in classic ethnographies of the Diné, but a broader survey of classic scholarly and mainstream literature on Native American cultures reveals a yawning void where the topic of humor is concerned. Odd, right?

This comes up in a great way in the classic film Smoke Signals, which I always recommend as a primer for white people that want to understand Native American cultures better but aren’t yet ready for the heavy stuff. In one scene, main character Thomas Builds-the-Fire is relating to his friend Victor Joseph a humorous story about a fry-bread-eating contest, and Victor rebukes him for it. “Don’t you even know how to be a real Indian?” Thomas admits that he supposes not, so Victor decides to instruct him. “First of all, quit grinning like an idiot,” he admonishes. “Indians ain’t supposed to smile like that. Get stoic.”

The joke is on the audience, of course. That’s how Native Americans are largely perceived in mainstream culture, thanks to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage” myth and its modern iterations like Dances with Wolves (Victor doesn’t fail to mention that, either).

Humor is, and has always been, extremely important to the Indigenous peoples of North America and elsewhere.

Given things like their ability to respond to attempted genocide by increasing their numbers, for example, coyotes seem almost designed by nature to be regarded as tricksters—and among all the Bears Ears-affiliated tribes you’ll find no end of ribald Coyote stories. But it isn’t just Coyote who fills the trickster role. To the Desána of southern Columbia, it’s a female turtle. Among the Yąnomamö of Venezuela and Brazil, it’s a bird. In eastern Ecuador it’s an anteater. Moving farther afield: to the Irish it was Lugh; to the Greeks it was Hermes; among the Norse (and, increasingly, Hollywood) it was Loki; Kitsune in Japan; and so on.

For the Akan and Bantu-speaking peoples of western, southern, and central Africa, the trickster is a spider named Anansi, who must resort to cleverness and trickery because of his small size. When a bunch of Africans were enslaved and imported to the Americas, their trickster came with them, evolving and adapting to the local environment by taking the form of another small-statured creature that must resort to cleverness and trickery: Br’er Rabbit.

Outside of cultural narratives, the social role of tricking or “clowning” also developed in many Native American cultures as a way of both focusing on a given problem and addressing it socially as a means to resolve tension. In the words of Lakota holy man John Fire Lame Deer, “Coyote, Iktome [a Lakota-specific trickster], and all clowns are sacred. They are a necessary part of us. A people who have so much to cry about as Indians do also need their laughter to survive.”

The gravity of that pronouncement cannot be overstated. Humor is a powerful weapon. The more you can inject humor into otherwise serious topics, the easier they are to digest and, thus, understand. Moreover, if you can find a way to laugh at your enemies, it erodes some of their own power. I learned this lesson myself, over and over again, when I was battling and then recovering from the god-awful depredations of Lyme.

I didn’t get through that awful time by being a Tough Guy. I got through the way Br’er Rabbit would—weakened, vulnerable, and totally reliant upon cleverness and mirth. That’s how you best an enemy that’s much stronger than you are. Fellow conservationists and other activist types would do well to remember that.

Hence the importance and power of figures like Coyote, alternating cleverness with lechery, greed, cheating, gluttony—pretty much all the Big Seven—representing the purely spontaneous and reminding us that there is laughter to be found amid tears. Joseph Campbell, researcher and specialist in myth who famously described the hero’s journey (the narrative arc that comprises something like ninety-nine percent of all stories in American pop culture), described the role and function of the trickster in particular as the character that “breaks in, just as the unconscious does, to trip up the rational.”

Tricksters break down walls. They either help or force you to deal with things you’d rather not deal with.

Hence also my old professor’s taking umbrage with classic ethnographies on the Diné that include no mention of their sense of humor or its importance in their cultural narratives. Hopi people, unless I’ve been hallucinating all this time, seem to spend as many of their waking hours as possible being jovial, to the point where a popular T-shirt in northern Arizona bears the slogan “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi.” Among the Zuñi, the clown society or Ne’wekwe (literally “mud-eaters”) is among the most important groups, their behavior often described as lewd, comical, and alarming all at once—rather like the tales of wacky Greek philosopher Diogenes or eccentric Zen monk Ryōkan, but with more social and ritual importance.

My favorite practical example comes, of course, from the Bears Ears area. During his archaeological investigations there in the 1920s, Neil Judd and his crew were approached by a Ute man on a horse who indicated that he was curious what they were up to. In those days, archaeologists targeted burials as often as possible because they were sure to contain whatever material goods the respective culture considered most important, which is how early archaeologists earned the justifiable stereotype of being socially sanctioned grave robbers. Through elaborate gestures and a halting command of the local Ute dialect, Judd explained that they were digging up dead people. The Ute fellow nodded his acknowledgment.

Judd, remembering that Indigenous locals often knew more about such things than white newcomers like himself, implied that he would happily pay the Ute gentleman in exchange for knowledge about where they might find some other burials to exhume. Agreement followed, money changed hands, and Judd was led on a tortuous and fantastic journey of his own through scrambly washes, dense piñon and juniper stands, denser sagebrush, and all the rest that southeast Utah has to offer until he was totally lost.

Finally, after what seemed like hours of this, they emerged at a clearing.

It was the Bluff cemetery.


R. E. Burrillo is an archaeologist and conservation advocate. His writing has appeared in Archaeology Southwest, Colorado Plateau Advocate, the Salt Lake Tribune, and elsewhere. He splits his time between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

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