In on the joke

For Diné scriptwriter, Hollywood is one big dinner table

By Cindy Yurth
Tseyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Oct. 24, 2011

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Sierra Onelas

Diné viewers of the ABC sitcom "Happy Endings" were surprised last Tuesday by a subplot in which Dave, a blond, goateed, slightly kooky sandwich seller, discovers he's one-sixteenth Navajo.

"That's like the lottery of ancestries!" exclaims another character.

Dave starts sporting a huge turquoise pendant, refers to Navajos as "my people" and at one point correctly pronounces, "Nizhoni yee."

Yep, it was an inside joke.

One of the scriptwriters for the show is a Navajo.

Sierra Teller Ornelas, Tabaaha (Edge Water) born for Naakaii Dine'e (Mexican People), was asked to stay on after completing a Disney writing fellowship with the show last year.

"Happy Endings" is about a group of 30-somethings making their way through careers and relationships in the city, something the 30-year-old Ornelas happens to know a little about.

In fact, her own life would make a good TV show.

A young traditional Diné weaver from Tucson finds herself in a writers' room in Hollywood. You might call it "The Mary Tyler Benally Show." (This is why I'm in newspapers and not television.)

Teller Ornelas is one of 16 to 18 writers on "Happy Endings" - a typical number for a sitcom.

"I'm what they call a staff writer, which would be a busser in the restaurant industry," Teller Ornelas said.

But when somebody came up with the Native story line, Teller Ornelas was the go-to gal.

"People were like, 'Does this really happen, where somebody suddenly discovers they're part Indian?'" Teller Ornelas recalled. "I was like, 'Oh my God, yes.'"

While she worried some Diné might find the subplot offensive, Teller Ornelas said she's gotten "nothing but positive comments."

"I think people's infatuation with Native culture is a funny, interesting thing," she said. "I wanted Natives to be in on the joke. It was a coup to get 'Nizhoni yee' in there."

If done right, Teller Ornelas believes, "using comedy is a way to get conversation going about very dense, complicated issues."

She's not generally offended by Hollywood's portrayal of Natives and is happy they're there.

"I love the Indians on 'South Park,'" she said. "There was an episode of 'Parks and Rec' with a lot of Natives on it, and I thought it was one of their funniest ones."

But it's important, she said, to make sure "Natives are in on the joke, rather than being the joke."

And when it comes to looking at the lighter side of being Native, nobody does it better than Natives, Teller Ornelas believes.

"James and Ernie are great," she said. "Vincent Craig was a huge hero of mine - still is."

Teller Ornelas comes by her funny bone naturally.

Her great-great-grandfather earned the name Teller at Hweeldi by keeping up the spirits of the imprisoned Dine, telling beautiful stories.

In her grandmother's kitchen in Two Grey Hills, N.M., there's a huge dining table - but not huge enough for the extended family during holidays. You had to earn your place by keeping the elders entertained.

"If you could make Grandma laugh, that was a great feeling," Teller Ornelas recalled. "If you couldn't, you had to relinquish your seat at the table. I did my best to make my 8-year-old life sound interesting."

Her fast-paced young life is plenty interesting to most people. But Grandma Teller is more concerned that Teller Ornelas is carrying out the family tradition of weaving beautiful Two Grey Hills tapestries.

"I have a loom in my office," Teller Ornelas confided. "I remember one time I was working on the show and my mom (Barbara Teller Ornelas) emailed that I had won an award at the Santa Fe Indian Market. It made my day."

As for Grandma, "I think I could win an Emmy," Teller Ornelas said, "and she would say, 'But are you weaving?'"

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