Flagstaff, Ariz. • When reports surfaced that the National Security Agency had been monitoring the cellphones of world leaders, Arizona blogger Andrew Curley wrote that the Navajo Nation’s president was furious his phone wasn’t among those tapped.
The truth is, Navajo President Ben Shelly does not want anyone listening to his phone calls.
But he and other American Indian leaders constantly do battle with the federal government for recognition that tribes govern themselves. Curley used his blog, a riff off the popular satirical newspaper The Onion, to highlight their cause in a tongue-in-cheek way.
“If the NSA is not monitoring the actions of the Navajo Nation president, as it does with other world leaders, clearly it sees us less than sovereign,” Curley wrote in a fictional quote attributed to a Shelly spokesman.
Curley’s blog plays to a culture in which humor is deeply rooted, with jokes, tricksters and moral lessons going back generations in Native American traditions, from trouble-making coyotes in Navajo legends to clowns in Hopi ceremonial dances.
Over the years, Native American writers, filmmakers, cartoonists and comedians have used the often-dry humor of Indian Country to both inform and entertain. They often pull from stereotypes, tribal government missteps, a history of oppression and life on the reservation.
“Humor is just very important to an Indian community anyway, and it’s just really universal,” said Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Idaho, who has written on the subject. News satire like Curley’s blog “is an extension of that,” he said.
Curley, who lives in the small town of Kayenta on the Navajo reservation, uses pen names and submissions from others to poke fun at politicians, school officials and sports figures in what he calls “Tlo’chi’iin News,” or “Onion.”
He started the blog last month with the goal of getting people to think critically about news and to question the motives of people in power.
“It’s just kind of a way to comment on sometimes what I find are absurd posturing from elected officials or government representatives on the Navajo Nation and on the national stage,” Curley said.
In other entries, Shelly has written satirical posts about the assassination of John F. Kennedy; Navajo officials regretting not burying Jacoby Ellsbury’s umbilical cord in Boston to keep him from going to the Yankees; and a power company using UFOs to dominate the planet.
Also playing off tribal politics, culture and other themes common in Indian Country is the Native American sketch comedy group the 1491s.
The group performs onstage and posts YouTube videos, including a spoof advertisement for a company that uses “Indian medicine” to fix malfunctioning computers and other office equipment.
“Do you ever have office equipment that breaks down for no reason?” one comedian says. “It’s not your hardware or your software. It’s spirits.”
The five members of the 1491s hail from the “wooded ghettos of Minnesota and buffalo grass of Oklahoma,” their website says.
They dubbed a game between two Oklahoma universities earlier this year the “Land Stealers vs. the Land Stealers.” And a post on their Facebook page tells American Indians to approach anyone dressed as “Pocahottie” for Halloween and talk to them in their Native language — “if you can.”
“The only thing for certain is that certain nerves are being struck,” said group member Migizi Pensoneau, 31. “For the most part, people are happy to see there’s a bunch of Indian guys using their voices to be a bunch of Indian guys. There’s something powerful in that.”
Curley is the son of a tribal lawmaker and manages the campaign of a contender for tribal president. He says political aspirations might have something to do with the people he writes about, but his intent is not to “demonize potential opponents.”
Navajo President Ben Shelly, Tribal Council Speaker Johnny Naize, Bates, former President Joe Shirley Jr. — likely tribal presidential candidates — all have been targets. But Shelly, for one, is taking the attention in stride.
Deswood Tome, who will be managing Shelly’s re-election campaign, burst out laughing over the president’s supposed antics.
“Anybody who is in elected office is fair game,” Tome said. “Andrew is targeting them, and he’s bringing awareness through satire and humor.”