top of page

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).