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FARMINGTON — The joke goes like this:

A tourist wanders onto the Navajo Nation and asks a resident if American Indians still live in teepees, hunt buffalo and cook the meat over an open fire.

The Navajo looks at the tourist and says, "Yeah, we still eat buffalo, but only the wings."

This is a snapshot of life on the country's largest American Indian reservation, where residents battle long-held stereotypes and humor runs just as rampant as the oft-reported social ills.

The scenario also is a favorite joke for famed Navajo comedy duo James Junes and Ernie Tsosie, who this month celebrate 10 years of making people laugh.

James and Ernie pull humor from real-life situations on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, where challenges and laughter go hand in hand. Comedy blossoms with an understanding of American Indians' rich history and often-misunderstood culture.

Humor stretches back to early American Indian traditions, and time has only added depth to the jokes, which are told in every community and shared among generations.

Jokes are born from stereotypes and miscommunication, Tsosie said. Like any other culture, humor also comes from pain, misfortune, frustration and cultural barriers which, given time, serve as a great recipe for laughter.

Some of the funniest jokes come from simple cultural misconceptions, Tsosie said.

"Tourists sometimes ask us to do a rain dance," he said. "I tell them last time I rain-danced, it snowed."

What's so funny?

James and Ernie tell a joke about a Navajo elected as president of the United States.


It's one of their "What if?" jokes, Tsosie said.

"What if there was a Native American in the White House?" he asks. He waits for the audience to start snickering, then he and longtime partner James Junes start making a list of what would happen.

"Rez dogs would always be circling outside," one says.

"All of his relatives would be living with him," the other says.

The joke continues with half a dozen more quick exchanges as the audience roars with laughter.

"It works because it's far-fetched," Tsosie said. "Everyone is picturing in their own minds an uncle or other relative in the White House. It's the image that makes it funny."

That kind of joke can appeal to all American Indians, which make up less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population. More specific jokes are told to audiences on the regional or tribal level, said Travis Hamilton, owner of the Phoenix-based Holt Hamilton Productions, which has produced four native films in the last five years.

Hamilton's most recent film was "More than Frybread," a mockumentary about a fictitious frybread championship that pits the 22 Arizona tribes against each other.

"There's reservation-specific humor that doesn't translate to outside cultures, mainly because of language," Hamilton said. "Then there's more universal humor that crosses reservation lines. Then there are things that are funny across the country, kind of that universal sense of humor that all cultures find funny."

Hamilton, who is Anglo, spent two years living on the Navajo Nation while serving a mission for the Mormon church. He said he began developing his "native sense of humor" while living among the Navajo.

"Being there, interacting, you pick it up," he said. "It's kind of intuitive, and it's about understanding the culture more. It's about getting to the place where you're thinking in the native frame of mind."

It also takes a certain emotional investment in the culture to understand the humor, Hamilton said. A deeper understanding of a culture means a broader realm of humor.

Hamilton uses film to help people find common ground. He also tries to show humor in cultures that have endured centuries of hardships.

Humor, he said, may be an unlikely avenue when talking about trauma, but humor also can have healing power.

"It breaks down tension, borders, walls that are there," he said. "There is so much comedy in Indian Country because natives have had quite a history. It's a way to deal with it. Any group that's been put down can use humor to deal with it."

Historical humor

Native culture is ripe with one-liners that poke fun at the historic clashes between American Indians and the dominant society while only thinly veiling the pain such tensions caused.

The story goes that one native asked another why American Indians were the first people on this continent.

The second native, without hesitation, answered, "Because they had reservations."

The first native followed with another question: What did American Indians call America before the Anglos came?

"Ours," the second native said.

Jokes, though humorous or sarcastic, often serve as a way to understand a culture or learn about history.

"One of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh," Vine Deloria, an acclaimed American Indian author, political scientist and activist, wrote in his 1969 book, "Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto."

Deloria, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, served for three years as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. He also authored several books about American Indians. He died in 2005.

"Laughter encompasses the limits of the soul," he wrote. "In humor, life is redefined and accepted. Irony and satire provide much keener insights into a group's collective psyche and values than do years of research."

Humor among American Indians began as a method of control in social situations," Deloria wrote. Tribes used teasing to settle disputes. Time and struggles went on, but even as they struggled for survival, jokes were being born.

Nearly every historic challenge American Indians have faced now yields a plethora of jokes. From the Indian Wars to missionary efforts and from reservations to relocation policies, American Indians find humor in everything, Deloria wrote.

Jokes thrive among members of the same tribe, who chuckle at puns in their native languages. Humor also runs rampant in intertribal relationships.

Navajo, for example, when commenting on language barriers, sometimes claim, "It's all Hopi to me."

The same punch line goes with a joke about what the Bureau of Indian Affairs does all day. The bureau, which federal lawmakers have called the most corrupt government entity, has sparked entire stand-up comedy routines with its bureaucracy, idiosyncrasies and ironies.

"When asked what was the biggest joke in Indian Country, a man once said, "the BIA,'" Deloria wrote. "Humor has come to occupy such a prominent place in national Indian affairs that any kind of movement is impossible without it. Tribes are brought together by sharing humor of the past."

Humor in Indian culture is used as a way to understand challenges and ease stress, Deloria wrote. One thing all tribes share is the historic trauma of being relocated, converted, labeled and exterminated. There's no end to jokes about moving the Anglos off the land and reclaiming the country.

"Indians have found a humorous side of nearly every problem, and the experiences of life have generally been so well defined through jokes and stories that they have become a thing in themselves," Deloria wrote. "The more desperate the problem, the more humor is directed to describe it."

Take, for example, jokes about Christopher Columbus, the man credited with discovering America. Or General George Armstrong Custer, the U.S. Army officer and cavalry commander who served in the Civil War, then went West to lead the nation in the wars against American Indians.

These two men bear the brunt of most American Indian jokes, Deloria said, because tribes find common ground by joking about shared experiences.

"It is said that when Columbus landed, one Indian turned to another and said, "Well, there goes the neighborhood,'" Deloria wrote. "Another version has two Indians watching Columbus land and one saying to the other, "Maybe if we leave them alone, they will go away.' A favorite cartoon ... showed a flying saucer landing while an Indian watched. The caption was "Oh no, not again.'"

Lost in translation

The verb-based Navajo language lends itself to inside jokes, said Lorraine Manavi, assistant professor of Navajo language at San Juan College.

"Navajo is very descriptive," she said. "Our words deal with things in nature, our surroundings. We have to describe what things do, what their purpose is, instead of giving them a name."

New technology, for example, poses problems in the Navajo language because a direct translation from English does not exist.

When cellphones began gaining popularity on the reservation, the Navajo needed a way to describe them. Instead of assigning a single word, the people described the phone's purpose or how to use it, Manavi said.

The Navajo phrase for cellphone is "bil n'joobal'," or "something you use while spinning around in circles." The phrase is based on the description of someone spinning around with a phone, trying to get good reception.

Likewise, Navajo also use the phrase "hooghan bik bil dahjilwo''" to describe a cellphone, or "something you use when you run up the hill."

Navajo, who are known storytellers, also incorporate humor into their tales. Traditional stories often are used as lessons to teach the youth, Manavi said. Storytellers use different voices and gestures to mimic characters, and many stories have humorous endings.

Children and adults alike laugh at the fate of these characters, who are used to warn people about bad choices.

"Basic Navajo humor is misdirection," Junes said. "We are laughing at ourselves, laughing at another person's misfortune, but the stories all have life lessons behind them."

Medicine men use stories in ceremonies, teachers tell tales during class and tribal elders swap yarns over coffee. Most of those stories incorporate situational humor or witticisms, Manavi said.

"Much of storytelling and lessons are about creating a mental image," she said. "Because Navajo is full of verbs, you can do that in a humorous way."

Those stories seldom translate into English with the same comedic tone.

"The Navajo language allows so much description and you can describe people so humorously," said Larry King, a Farmington visual artist and Navajo translator. "But it doesn't translate. You lose the humor when you try to translate it to English."

Other jokes are based on the mixture of Navajo and English or include plays on words, King said. For example, Navajo tell jokes about youths going to school and returning home to tell their elders what they learned.

The story goes that a young Navajo came home from school and told his grandmother that he learned the alphabet.

"A, B, C, D, E," the boy said, then challenged his grandmother to repeat it.

"I know the alphabet," the grandmother said, " ', b sh, '''ah , ', ''' l," a phrase that sounds like the first five letters of the alphabet but means, "Where the windmill stands, it flooded away."

Humor like this is used to help break down barriers between generations, King said. All generations, however, can appreciate the humor inherent in the rich language, and in the differences subtle or severe the language has gone through during the last 80 years since it first was written.

"We're coming from an oral tradition," King said. "Before about 80 years ago, everything was told by memory. But because of how the language is structured, every verb includes prefixes and suffixes that give words aspects of mode and time. The Navajo language can paint a really absurd picture because of how you describe things."

Busting stereotypes

Ernie Tsosie has one hair on his chest.

"It's sacred to me," he said. "Tourists always assume we have long hair, that we don't grow beards or chest hair, that under our shirts, Indians are all muscles, six-packs.

"I don't have long hair," he said. "I have no hair, and I have one chest hair, as opposed to the white guy who has AstroTurf."

Since blockbuster movies like the "Twilight" saga have taken movie theaters and teenage angst by storm, James and Ernie have incorporated more stereotype-busting humor in their regular routines.

"We're not all wolfpack material," Tsosie said, referring to the werewolves in the "Twilight" movies, who are played by American Indian actors.

"Some of us have backpacks in front," he said, patting his round belly.

The two men like their jokes to have a message, and they constantly challenge their audiences on an intellectual level, Junes said.

"We try to do comedy with a message," he said. "We try to promote positive lifestyles or educate people about issues."

Issues include developing a cultural identity and battling negative or erroneous stereotypes, Junes said.

"The "tourists coming to the rez' jokes," he said, "those are timeless."

American Indians also battle stereotypes about serious problems that are all too common on the reservation. Issues like alcoholism, drug use and domestic violence are no joking matter, Junes said.

But because Junes and Tsosie both come from backgrounds of alcohol and drug abuse, they incorporate some of their own experiences into their routines.

"A lot of that humor is based on our own stories," Tsosie said. "All my laughing is about me getting hurt as a child: falling off a horse and breaking my arm or going to jail for drinking. It wasn't funny then, but it is now."

Tsosie uses stories like these, which have humorous details, as a way to teach youth about the dangers of drinking. Talking about it in a humorous way also helps him come to terms with his own flaws, he said.

"That stage is my therapy," he said.

Laughing at pain

Pain and trauma can be a way of life on the Navajo Nation, where crime rates, poverty and unemployment are high. But if a person can find humor in pain, there is hope, Junes said.

"When we have catastrophes, we forget how to laugh," he said. "Put a smile on your face, and you'll live better."

The Navajo are quick to take desperate situations and poke fun, and jokes told by James and Ernie often go way below the surface. They joke about poverty and unemployment, and about having nothing and constantly trailing behind the rest of the country when it comes to infrastructure and modern conveniences.

Employment on the reservation hovers around 60 percent, and as many as 40 percent of residents live without running water, electricity or phone service. Most of the reservation's roads are dirt, and many become impassable during winter or spring months.

But that doesn't stop people from laughing about it.

"Don't ask me what president is on the $20 bill," Tsosie said. "We never have those, so we don't know."

Taking that joke a step further, Junes said, "The economy doesn't affect us. We never had any money to begin with."

They also laugh at cultural nuances.

"They say the world is going to end in 2012," Tsosie said. "But we're on Indian time, so we'll still be here."

James and Ernie also touch on more controversial topics, with an occasional joke about politics or religion. And sometimes they have to dig deep in their back pockets for jokes to combat negative attitudes toward the tribe from its own members.

"There are two kinds of Indians," Tsosie said. "Those who are mad and want their land back, and those who laugh about it."

When Tsosie encounters someone in the former category, he tries to dispel the anger with a joke.

"I can't keep my own yard clean," he said. "What am I going to do with the whole country?"

That concept is universal, Manavi said. Most cultures will use humor to ease tension or pain.

"Humor can be used as a really positive way to overcome pain," she said. "It can ease anxiety in serious situations."

To many American Indians, nothing is as serious as the historical trauma of relocation and reservations because the old pain still dictates much about everyday life.

That's why James and Ernie refuse to do comedy shows on cruise ships.

"We don't like ships," Junes said. "Remember what happened with the Mayflower