Although the author has written this novel as a serious investigation into questions of identity and the position of Native Americans in our society, he has also used humor as a means of entertaining the reader and relieving us from the book's prevailing sense of despair. For example, Tom's first days at the reservation school demonstrate the differences between mainstream American culture and the old Ute ways. Although this contrast ultimately pains Tom and makes his transition to civilization difficult, it also provides moments of humor.
Among the traditions of the old Ute culture, songs and chants provide one of the most important rituals. Utes sing to express sadness or joy, to communicate with the animals and the natural world, and to connect with spiritual beings. The early part of the novel, in which Tom has not yet left the wilderness, contains many references to such songs. Tom learns these songs largely from his mother. Throughout the course of the novel, however, Tom forgets the melodies and the words to these songs, and this forgetfulness represents his abandonment and repression of his past. Despite Tom's best efforts to forget them forever, these songs return to him through his thoughts and his dreams. In this way Borland demonstrates the continually haunting presence of Tom's past to us.
The title of the novel, When the Legends Die, plays an important role in its themes and lessons and speaks to the dangers of forgetting one's heritage. When Tom distances himself from his Ute traditions, he loses his identity and becomes bitter and lonely. While the author addresses the universal need for people to embrace and remember their roots, he speaks more particularly to the situation of Native Americans in the United States. As government and private interests force them off their land, they become assimilated to the mainstream culture and often lose the positive aspects of their heritage.