Indigenous Comedians Speak About The Importance Of Listening To Native Voices

Without the representation of marginalized voices in media, there are only two options left on the table: exclusion and tokenization. Those aspects have dominated the Indigenous experience in the United States since… well, really since the colonizers arrived. Year after year, we fail to see our people thoughtfully portrayed in mainstream TV, movies, and literature. If we aren’t the “warriors” or the “wise elders,” we often don’t exist.

As 2020 draws to a close, we’ve begun to see a shift in that centuries-long pattern. Not a complete sea change, mind you, but forward progress nonetheless. Networks and studios have started greenlighting mainstream projects with all-Indigenous writers’ rooms, casts, directors, and producers. Meanwhile, statues of European colonizers and slavers are finally coming down and racist epithets are being removed from (some) of our sports teams. There are more Indigenous folks on every rung of the U.S. political system than ever before. Most prominently with Representative Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) of New Mexico short-listed to run the Department of Interior under the incoming Biden administration. (This would be the first time an Indigenous American actually got to run the agency that not only controls all public land, national parks, and natural resources but also administers all the Indian reservations across the country. It would be a massive win for Indian Country, the preservation of our cultures, and the environment.)

Still, there’s a long way to go. Most people have still been taught poisoned rhetoric about our shared history. The prevailing narrative continues to glorify colonization and ignore actual genocide while infantilizing Indigenous identity and erasing our cultures. And other crucial conversations aren’t being had at all: Indigenous women and girls are still being raped and murdered at the highest rates in the country, of the 535 members of Congress, only six are Indigenous, and red face is still seen on TV shows in 2020.

To help us add context to the representation conversation across media, pop culture, and everyday life, we’ve gathered a group of our favorite Indigenous comedians. These are folks from all over the country who write, joke, and think about these realities while also creating art (and comedy) about their own lives, loves, and cultural touchstones.

Our panel:

  • Jackie Keliiaa, Yerington Paiute and Washoe — Bay Area-based stand-up and writer who hosts renowned comedy shows. You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram.
  • Brian Bahe, Tohono O’odham Nation, Hopi, and Navajo — New York-based stand-up, sketch comedy actor, and writer. You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram.
  • Siena East, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma — Los Angeles-based stand-up, writer, and actor of many a short film. You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram.
  • Tai Leclaire, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk Nation) and Mi’kmaq — New York and Los Angeles-based stand up, sketch comedy actor, and writer most recently working on NBC’s Rutherford Falls. You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram.
  • Kelly Lynne D’Angelo, Tuscarora, Haudenosaunee — Los Angeles-based comedian, writer, lyricist, and performer. Co-writer of Starry and founder of All-Native D&D Campaign. You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram.
  • Joey Clift, Cowlitz — Los Angeles-based stand-up, writer, and sketch actor who’s on the house team at Upright Citizen’s Brigade and also a Garfield (the cat not the president) enthusiast. You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram.

Before we dive in, please remember this: Everyone on this panel (including myself) comes from vastly different nations, cultural backgrounds, and experiences. For instance, Joey Clift — whose appearance on a podcast about videogames inspired this roundtable discussion — calls the Cowlitz Nation home. My family hails from the Skokomish Nation. Our nations are only about a 90-minute car ride apart, but we don’t share the same Indigenous language, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of variation between our two cultures. This is simply to say, the opinions below are solely meant to represent the speaker’s experience and not an umbrella experience for every single Indigenous person across America.

Brian Bahe
Panelist and comedian Brian Bahe

My generation often holds up Graham Greene in Die Hard With A Vengeance, Wes Studi in Heat, and now Zahn McClarnon in Doctor Sleep as Indigenous folks who got to play just people in movies and not the “Indian” in a western or in some other capacity on a sitcom, etc. Who else do you see out there in pop culture playing people where being “Indian” isn’t their only character trait?

Jackie Keliiaa:

I’m really excited about ‘Rutherford Falls,’ the upcoming sitcom on NBC’s Peacock service! If you don’t know about it, get ready. Native showrunner. Native writers’ room. Native actors. Period! The show is still in production, but with that much Native talent steering the ship, you know it’s going to be amazing! There’s also a huge wave of Native media in and on the brink of production and I’m excited for all of it!

Did I mention I’m excited?!

Brian Bahe:

Honestly, no one is coming to mind… which means that they’re pretty successful at not making being Native their only character trait.

Siena East:

Zahn McClarnon is amazing. I was shocked when he didn’t get nominated for Westworld. He’s such an incredible and nuanced actor and, this is a “me” thing, but we don’t talk enough about how he played the first-ever Native robot. He brought so much to that episode that really did widen the lens and emotional context of ‘Westworld.’

The stories Natives are getting to tell and help tell are growing and changing fast. I’m so excited to see not only what Zahn McClarnon does in the future, but also other Native storytellers and actors who are working right now. I’m excited for Rutherford Falls, Reservation Dogs, and Spirit Rangers. So I’m really excited to answer this question in 2021!

Not to say there aren’t artists to be pumped about now. Thinking about right now, there’s Q’orianka Kilcher in Color Out of Space as Mayor Tooma (cold and matter of fact mayor!), Tiio Horn in Letterkenny as Tanis (hilarious and unrepentant), and Michael Greyeyes in True Detective season 3 as Brett Woodard (a complex and exhausted veteran).

Tai Leclaire:

Me! In something soon! I hope? *COUGH* Agents, call me *COUGH.*

Kelly Lynne D’Angelo:

Personally, I come up short. But there’s a lot of amazing new content coming out soon that’s shattering those old tropes with creative Natives in new spaces and roles. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen coming out from Trickster. I have to admit, I’m not as much as an aficionado on it. I’m really good at forgetting specifics!

Joey Clift:

I’d like to think that my friends in Native Hollywood, people like Jana Schmieding and Jason Grasl who are killing it in comedy right now, are doing that. Besides them, I’d particularly like to shine a light on WWE Wrestler Mickie James and AEW Wrestler Nyla Rose.

In the world of WWE, where every character is usually a stereotype in some way, Micke James — who is a member of the Powhatan tribe and a recent inductee into The Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame — has managed to create a pro wrestling character where her Nativeness has little to nothing to do with her onscreen persona. Plus, she’s a great wrestler who’s held WWE’s top title on multiple occasions. With the nickname “The Native Beast”, AEW’s Nyla Rose — who is a member of the Oneida Nation — leans into her Nativeness a little more. But she’s also a fully fleshed-out character and one of the best trash talkers in professional wrestling today. Both of these performers are clearly proud of their heritage, but they aren’t defined by it. They are both unique, and anything but stereotypical.

Plus, Nyla Rose recently became the first Two-Spirit pro wrestler to win a major wrestling title. How cool is that!?

Siena East
Panelist and comedian Siena East

This time of year, folks are reaching out to Indigenous people to talk about Thanksgiving and “Indian” issues. Can you talk about how that may have actually isolated Native voices from more mainstream discussions?

Jackie Keliiaa:

Identity is complex, especially so for Native people because the government, Hollywood, and everyone and their mom have tried to tell us who we are. Side note: It’s 2020. We don’t have time for that.

When I’m asked to talk about “Indian” issues, my perspective represents my lived experience. I’m Yerington Paiute and Washoe and I was raised in the Bay Area, so I’m an Urban Indian and my take on Native issues is informed by that experience. I also really love Hello Kitty, 90s movies, carne asada tacos, and can talk at length about any of these things.

No really, please, can we talk about this stuff?!

Brian Bahe:

Tokenization is pervasive because it makes you think like you’re helping. But at its best, it’s a lateral move. Like, “cool, you gave a Native person a platform or an opportunity.” But in doing so, you made the focus the fact that they’re Native. You put them in this box that they didn’t ask to be put in. You’re giving them this role to play and it’s like, if they don’t fulfill that role, then they’re useless.

So not to be a meta-ass bitch but I’m feeling kinda tokenized in this article, LOL.

Siena East:

For me, it’s less about being isolated from mainstream discussions. I’m pretty vocal about my opinions and people don’t stop me from saying them on a plethora of topics I’m both well versed in and not well versed in. So, no complaints.

My beef is that people only really want to talk about Native issues around this time of year, when those issues exist year-round. It makes me think of the Bojack Horseman quote in the episode “Bojack the Feminist” where Diane tells Bojack, “Being a woman is not a hobby or a pet interest of mine. You get to drop in and play Joss Whedon while everybody cheers, but when you move onto the next thing, I’m still here.”

When November ends, we’re still here. Saying “this is your month” isn’t helpful. We should be talking about Native history and Native issues all year because they exist all year! Only acknowledging Natives for one month a year is something people like to congratulate themselves for when really it turns us into decorations for their guilt. And that guilt gets twisted into something that serves tokenizers and can actually be damaging.

The weird Thanksgiving propaganda plays that get put on are unhelpful. On a personal note — in the case of my little sister and I’m sure other kids — they’re damaging. I guess my sister’s teacher thought it would be “subversive” to cast her as a pilgrim. It really ended up upsetting her and making her question if there was something wrong with her being Native. Like it was a secret. And my sister didn’t need her teacher to mess with her head because that was early 2000s MTV2’s job, not hers!

My point is when you’re just like “here is your month,” it doesn’t end up being about Natives. If it was, people would be interested in and discussing Native issues and history all year. All in all — Natives don’t need a month, we need to be a part of all conversations.

Tai Leclaire:

I feel like around this time of year everyone is interested in us, but then in March, or April, or literally any other month the interest to learn is gone. I’m still native the other eleven months of the year. There’s been this weird development of watching people in power rotate from minority group to minority group with each coming month in the last couple of years. I’m hoping it evolves into something more real and substantial.

Kelly Lynne D’Angelo:

Oh, November. Always an interesting month for Native peoples for a multitude of reasons. For those of us in visible spaces, this month really takes up our time, on top of our jobs, family duties, and a slew of other personal and professional things. This month, we have to do it all because of that tokenization. We feel this strange obligation to say “yes” to all the podcasts, the interviews, the chance at any discourse because it’s not often we’re given an opportunity to do so outside of this month.

When the “mainstream” months kick back in, the “I” in BIPOC always seems to take a backseat. Though I have hope these things will change in time, thanks to the work being done.

Joey Clift:

It isolates our voices by robbing us of our individuality. When people only ask me broad questions about Native issues like Elizabeth Warren or how I feel about Thanksgiving or if I was born in a teepee — a real question grown adults have asked me multiple times — I feel like I’m being viewed less as a comedian and more as a museum piece.

It’s already an uphill climb to make an audience laugh, but it’s an infinitely harder task when the audience also expects you to teach them the thousands of years of Native history that they didn’t learn in high school. I get that a lot of people wish they knew more about Natives, but by only asking me questions about Native trauma, it’s like they don’t want “Comedy Writer Joey Clift’s” opinion about those things. They just want a broad “Native” opinion and I happen to be the only Native they know, which sucks for about a million reasons.

Joey Clift
Panelist and comedian Joey Clift

Can you tell us your experience with only being asked about “Native” things in your career/life besides literally anything else and when you’ve been asked to be the lone “Indian” in the room?

Jackie Keliiaa:

I have a lifetime of experience being the only “Indian” in the room. It was distinctly challenging in college with a persistent onslaught of questioning about whether or not Natives pay taxes, if I got into school just because I was Native, or if I got in for free; the annoying list goes on. I felt othered and alienated by non-Native peers.

You might consider your question well-intentioned and harmless. But bear in mind, you’re likely the millionth person to have asked it.

If you want to be informed on Native issues, start by doing some research yourself. At a minimum, try to meet us halfway. Also, heads up, a big landmine to avoid – don’t ask a Native person “how much” they are. First off, it’s hella rude. And second, blood-quantum is such a hotly contended issue that there are books upon books about it. Go read them!

That said, it’s important to note that America’s blind spot for Native history is intentional and the result of a strategic effort of Native erasure. You simply don’t learn about Native history in school, a tactic I like to call “sweep-the-genocide-and-stolen-land-under-the-rug, hey, who wants turkey?!” In grade school, my dad would present to my class about our tribe’s history, our culture, and share pine nuts with the kids — I know, nuts in school, the 1990s was wild! The dearth of Native history in schools meant these annual presentations gave a much-needed and nuanced understanding of our Native culture both past and present.

And that’s the longstanding issue. We’re constantly talked about as ancient relics — a thing of the past.

Again, that’s Native erasure. If you participate in that narrative of thinking about Native people only as spiritualists, wisdom-keepers, and all those other Hollywood tropes, then you are part of the problem. We’re modern people. When our iPhone runs out of juice, we cry just like you do! Dude, the Native vote had a huge impact on getting He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named out of office. Maybe now America will finally accept that we’re still here?

Brian Bahe:

In my experience when non-Natives ask me about Native issues, all they really want is their turn to speak so they can show me how much they know about Native issues. They just want to impress me or feel good about how much they know. In these situations, I can’t distill my entire experience of being Native and speak about Native issues into a fun convo at a wine and cheese event, so I won’t even try.

Often times I will just sit and listen and make a guess at how many dreamcatchers this person has in their home.

Siena East:

It’s stressful being put in that position. I’ve always approached those moments with a sense of responsibility. They don’t realize the weight they’re putting on your shoulders. No one asks one guy in Spain to explain what’s going on in all of Europe right now, how all Europeans feel about it, what pasta is, and then to be a good example for all Europeans on top of that. There are hundreds of tribes.

For me — Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma represent! — when I first started being asked to talk about “Native issues,” I felt a lot of pressure to know everything, to be an example, to answer every question they asked regardless of if it made me uncomfortable. Anyone who knows me knows that I am very far from perfect (can’t reach top shelves), know very little (just found out there’s soap for your toilet?), and that it’s hard to make me uncomfortable (you don’t even wanna know). I eventually realized it was pretty unfair to put all this on one Native person because we are all so different. We come from different tribes, have different histories, different family histories, different personal paths! We are varied.

You know, I want to talk about Native issues. Native issues are important. Native issues need to be talked about. Native issues are now. Navajo Nation needs access to clean water yesterday. I want to help. But I get pissed off when someone puts limitations on what I’m about to say. They go, “okay we’re gonna start, but before we start don’t talk about x, y, and z.” And that doesn’t work with me. I’m not here to perform how someone wants the Native identity to be seen. So now, I don’t think about performing in a way that is comfortable. I say what I need to say and the person goes “Wow. She really speaks her mind!” and I feel much less icky than when I felt the need to perform what was wanted from me.

Tai Leclaire:

It’s hard not to be tokenized when every time I meet a new person, be it in a professional or personal setting, there’s an expectation to explain my name. It’s Taietsarón:sere and I don’t need to explain it.

Within comedy, especially when I was first getting started, there was more than one moment when I would write jokes or characters that weren’t Native and there was always this pressure to bring it back to being something “Native.” I’ve been told that’s the “interesting” part about me. Sure it’s interesting but it isn’t the only part that defines me. Like I have a weird obsession with typography. Ask me about that!

Kelly Lynne D’Angelo:

This is a hard question for me to answer simply because I’m usually always the token “Indian” in the room unless someone else was gracious enough to create more space for us (though that’s usually at the hand of another Native person). Working in Hollywood, we’re often nothing but tokenized. People are just so ill-informed on who we are that, in some cases, they don’t even know that we’re still here.

Their educational systems succeeded in its plan: it erased us. And because of that, they don’t have the slightest clue on where to start. Their “mainstream” representation of us has been inaccurate, so they spit out the “token” tropes they know. And the pattern repeats and repeats. But thankfully, there aew a lot of good Native people changing that discussion now.

Joey Clift:

Oh man, where to start?

Last year, the week of Thanksgiving, I was asked to do five live comedy shows I’d never been asked to do before. In normal circumstances, it’s nice to get opportunities. But in pretty much every one of these asks, the way it was phrased was “We want to have a Native American comedian perform on our Thanksgiving show and you’re the only one we know. Will you do it?”

I’m sure all of those producers felt very woke in trying to book a Native person on their show the week of Thanksgiving. But to me, that sort of thing always leaves me feeling gross. You should hire and book Native comedians because you think they’re funny, and not just so you can score woke points by trotting out a minority in the designated time of year where you’re reminded to think of them. Especially if that’s the only time of year that you ever work with Natives.

There’s also when you’re booked into a token role as the only Native comedian on a “Thanksgiving show” or when you’re hired to write for a Native character on a TV show and there are no other Natives in the room, there’s often an expectation that you’re “speaking for everybody.” Everything you say about your culture can become a broad fact about all Natives in everybody’s minds which is a tough needle to thread while also trying to be funny. We aren’t a monolith.

There are 570+ different federally recognized tribes who all have their own languages and cultures (and hundreds of more tribes recognized at the state level). We all have our own opinions. But when you’re the only Native in the room, there can be an expectation that you’re not just a comedian, you’re also an encyclopedia for all things Native, which is impossible.

To book us on a show because “it’s Thanksgiving” and treating that as benevolence on your part is hugely disrespectful to the years we’ve spent developing our crafts. There are a lot of very funny comedians in Indian Country who have been killing it for years. We’re good at what we do, and you’d be lucky to have us on your show in a non-token slot. So don’t act like you’re doing us a favor by only booking us in November.

Tai Leclaire
Panelist and comedian Tai Leclaire

How do you have some of these conversations and navigate these issues as an Indigenous person in your day-to-day?

Jackie Keliiaa:

I create space and show up personally and professionally. I’ve had uncomfortable conversations with co-workers about why we don’t use “pow-wow” for meetings. I’ve advocated for my places of work to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in place of, you know. I’m constantly repping for our people.

In comedy, I started producing shows to cultivate space for myself and like-minded comics and allies. It’s no surprise that stand-up can be very white, hetero, and misogynistic. So my shows fill a highly demanded space that’s woman-identified with women of color to the front.

I’m also lucky to live in a very active Urban Indian community where I frequently perform for Native audiences. In the pandemic, I’ve produced countless Native comedy shows and it’s truly been a blessing to connect with so many amazing Native comedians across the country.

Brian Bahe:

By being deeply flawed. I am a messy bitch who lives for drama. And to be that and Native, I hope I give off the energy to never ask me how I feel about the Washington R*dsk*ns because you already know how I will answer.

Siena East:

What’s wild is people try to get in your head and get you to tokenize yourself, even people who don’t know you. Some random guy at a party will strike up a conversation with you and ask “A short film? Is it about Native stuff?” and I go “No! It’s a commentary on Julie and Julia and I play Jerry Seinfeld!” And then they sort of try to make you feel guilty about it by saying, “Why that?” But, I never let them make me feel guilty about doing the things I want to do. Sometimes they’ll be like, “So… you don’t do stories about Native stuff?” because they want to box you in.

But I can talk about Jerry Seinfeld and also my experience as a Native person. I do what I want. I tell the stories I want to tell. I make the jokes I want to make. I play the characters I want to play. I don’t let them get in my head.

Tai Leclaire:

Simply existing. Taking up as much space as I can. It’s insane the number of people I’ve met who have never met or befriended someone who is Native.

Kelly Lynne D’Angelo:

Bluntly? I exist. Not only do I exist, but I also exist in a modern space and take up space within it. I’m a nerd and proud. I love musicals, Dungeons & Dragons, board games … our power of storytelling and imagination is unparalleled.

People forgot we come from oral tradition. We listen to our ancestors. We carry a healing spirit within us. That trickles into everything I do. Also, I think I have a nice little knack for comedy, even though you probably can’t tell from how stern I’m being in these responses! Am I coming across stern? I feel stern. Anyway, for some reason, a lot of people don’t realize Natives are some of the funniest people you’ll ever meet. You can’t put people through the wringer and not expect us to come out hilarious on the other side.

Joey Clift:

I’m an anxious person who doesn’t like confrontation, so in my professional life, for a long time, I’d just try to be polite and let racial microaggressions slide so as not to burn a bridge. Over the past few years, as I’ve gone farther in my career, I’ve realized that I’m one of only a few Native comedians who gets a lot of opportunities in Hollywood and am in sort of a privileged position to help fix some of the terrible ways Native are portrayed and tokenized in the media.

I recently started to let myself have those tough conversations with people. It started small. Asking friends to stop using the phrase “Spirit Animal,” to explain why they like Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty, or whatever. Eventually, it expanded into bigger conversations with my peers. Since Indigenous tokenization has been a “thing” for so long in society, I figure the only way things will get better is if we confront people about it and explain to them why what they’re doing isn’t okay, and the people who aren’t responsive to those conversations probably aren’t worth working with anyway.

That said, pretty much every time I bring this sort of thing up, it’s well-received and internalized by the person I’m speaking to. So I’d like to think that making people aware of their missteps is helping to fix the problem somewhat. I believe, ultimately, most people are just trying to do their best, and any weird racist behavior toward Natives is usually due to ignorance as opposed to hatred. So it’s just educating people, really. I’m still afraid and anxious every time I start these conversations. But for me, the best way to combat this shit is head-on.

Jackie Keliiaa
Panelsit and comedian Jackie Keliiaa

Where do you see issues of lack-of-representation and the tokenization of Indigenous folks still happening the most right now?

Jackie Keliiaa:

As much as 2020 has had a lot of wins — cue montage of Chris Columbus statues being beheaded, and Washington fans crying — there is still so much work to do. Media is evolving, but vestiges of the old spaghetti western days are built into Hollywood’s DNA and that shit ain’t going to change overnight. Native characters must be multi-dimensional, have agency, and not just be wise (eye roll), troubled (bigger eye roll), or a wolf (seriously, why?).

Let me be a Native woman who talks shit, eats tacos, and loves Hello Kitty, okay?!

Brian Bahe:

I work at a nonprofit and I’ve worked so many jobs at different types of organizations before this one. I feel like I always see tokenization in professional settings. Even the most front-facingly diverse organizations are still very white. And they think that hiring one Native employee is diversity. I think employers need to recognize that there are racial, gender, economic class, sexual orientation biases in every aspect of the workplace and hiring process and address those issues, which would help with not just Native tokenization, but with tokenization of all types.

Siena East:

I’ve been crazy lucky. As a writer and an artist, the mentors, execs, and bosses I have worked with have all been very supportive of me. I know my experience is not the case for other people. I’ve heard horror stories from other Native artists. Either things are changing or I am the luckiest bitch because people have never brought me in just because I’m Native and they’ve never invalidated when I’ve brought in a Native perspective. They’re the best and listen to me when I talk about other shit too like my period, or my mom, or Weezer.

However, in corporate events where they’re looking to fill a quota or they need an “insert speaker,” I see people getting asked to play a role, getting tokenized. You come in and the questions they ask to prep you are all very leading, and I come back at them with how I feel. It’s these people who don’t want to bother to get to know us as individuals who do this more than anybody. Those people who only call us up in November and who have already decided our story.

I guess that’s why as a writer, my experience hasn’t been that because the people I’ve gotten to work with have never decided my narrative for me and we talk in like January, February, March, April, May June, July, August, September, December and… not just the week before November.

Tai Leclaire:

I feel like it happens a lot within the political sphere, which is hard to say because everything around politics feels so propped up and everything seems to be political in some way.

Kelly Lynne D’Angelo:

As someone who works in Hollywood and knows that world, I can say I see it in Hollywood on the regular. I can’t speak for where I see it the “most” outside of that space. This is what I know best, so I’ll speak to it, though I have no doubt you can find its equivalent in any industry or field. Sadly, the tokenization of Natives happens everywhere.

Joey Clift:

If CNN’s recent gaffe referring to Native people as “Something Else” in their 2020 election coverage is any indication, the answer is “literally everywhere.”

Kelly Lynne DAngelo
Panelist and comedian Kelly Lynne D’Angelo