Why Did I Choose this Topic?

This semester, my sophomore fall, I have been taking two classes that have overlapped quite interestingly. The first, which I am making this website for, Black Comic Cultures, has exposed my to the history of performance in the black community from slavery to the present day. I have learned a great deal about the power of comedy and the potential for comedians to bring people to a greater understanding of how our society works without taking an adversarial or professorial stance. The second, Native North America, has toured me through the legacy of anthropology in indigenous communities of this continent and attempted to rewrite the skewed history by elucidated the commonly erased parts of native existence in the face of brutal colonization.

In moving through these two syllabi concurrently, I frequently saw what seemed to be similarities between the struggles of Native Americans and African Americans in this country, and cautiously assumed like “many public and scholarly discussions… a natural affinity, if not solidarity, between marginalized peoples” (King, 348). But as I continued on in my research I found more and more examples of conflict between these two communities and began to see that both groups “have exacerbated the entrenchment of neocolonialism by continuing to internalize and blindly mimic the white man’s way of seeing things in so many aspects of their lives” (Phillips, 374). Still though, I hesitate to fall into the rhetoric of inevitability, seeing in “rare occasions of cross-racial alliance” the possibility for real and meaningful collaboration (Brooks, 15). I am left feeling that my answer—as it so often is in academia—is: “Yes both. It’s more complicated.”

In researching the intersection between indigenous and black comedy for this website, as well as coalition building between the Black Power Movement and the American Indian Movement for my Native North America final paper, I hope to gain a better grasp of what tensions have existed and do exist between Native American and African American groups, and where histories overlap.

Works Cited

Black Indians: An American Story.Dir. Jones, James Earl, and Kanopy (Firm). Kanopy Streaming, 2014.

Boskin, Joseph, and Joseph Dorinson. “Ethnic Humor: Subversion and Survival.” American Quarterly 37.1 (1985): 81-97. Web.

Brooks, James F. “Introduction.” Confounding the Color Line: The Indian Black Experience in North America. Ed. James F. Brooks. N.p.: U of Nebraska, 2002. 1-18. Print.

Dean, Greg. “The Secrets of Joke Structure.” Stand-up Comedy Workbook. San Francisco: San Francisco Comedy College, 1996. 1-14. Print.

Deloria, Philip Joseph. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence, Kan.: U of Kansas, 2004. Print.

Johnson, E. Patrick. “Black Performance Studies.” Performance and Politics. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 446-62. Print.

Johnson, E. Patrick. “Manifest Faggotry.” Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2003. 61-75. Print.

King, C. Richard “Estrangements: Native American Mascots and Indian-Black Relations.” Confounding the Color Line: The Indian Black Experience in North America. Ed. James F. Brooks. N.p.: U of Nebraska, 2002. 346-370. Print.

Mintz, Lawrence E. “Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation.”American Quarterly 37.1 (1985): 71-80. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Morris, Amanda Lynch. “Native American Stand-Up Comedy: Epideictic Strategies in the Contact Zone.” Rhetoric Review 30.1 (2010): 37-53.Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Phillips, Valerie J. “Epilogue: Seeing Each Other through the White Man’s Eyes.” Confounding the Color Line: The Indian Black Experience in North America. Ed. James F. Brooks. N.p.: U of Nebraska, 2002. 371-386. Print.

Watkins, Mel. “Folklore and Street Humor.” On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying: The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor. N.p.: Simon & Shuster, 1994. 444-78. Print.

Richard Oakes: Alcatraz Proclamation

This clip of Richard Oakes addressing the media as the representative of those participating in the Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 is one of the most entertaining press releases I have ever seen. Oakes is certainly defying stereotypes of pacification by presenting his pointedly ironic statement to the white press. The rhetorical framing of the Native American “outbreak [as being] more rebellion than war,” allows only a weak portrayal of resistance and a feeling of inevitable failure (Deloria, 28). Oakes does not fall into this trap. By turning white men’s common phrases and notions such as manifest destiny, beacon of freedom, and discovery to speak of a certain inevitability of Native American victory, Oakes turns the white colonizers’ words directly against them. This not only changes the narrative from one of outbreak to one of strong and deliberate resistance, but does so in a clever way that calls attention to the hypocrisy of the US government and European American culture. Thus, he works against both “the most powerful expectations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—violence and Indian disappearance—and those of the twentieth, which [clustered] around various forms of primitivism” (Deloria, 50).

This speech, though presented as a serious press release, seems more like a stand up comedy routine, complete with many of the elements common to Native American comedians to this day. Oakes definitely makes a persuasive claim to “Native peoples’ inherent right to survival and sovereignty” while also relying on self-deprecation and teasing the audience through flipping assumptions and making use of historically white notions to show that they actually make more sense when connected with the Native American struggle (Morris, 38). Again, Oakes’s use of comedy reminds us of the important role that comedy can play in social mediation (Mintz, 75).

The 1491s: The Indian Store

In “Indian Store,” Dallas Goldtooth and Bobby Wilson play with Native American tropes and poke fun at stereotypes that are all too common in mainstream media. By entering the scene with Starbucks and iPhones and quickly changing clothes, speech patterns and background music once their store opens, they call into question many common assumptions of modern Indians. This is a classic example of Native American comedy, incorporating the elements of teasing the audience, relying on self-deprecation, and incorporating oral tradition (Morris, 38).

As with the 1491s’s Origin Stories skit they are clearly catering to a Native audience with in-group references that I definitely missed. For example, I have no idea what they are talking about in their first conversation. Interestingly, this reference is made when they are not fulfilling other Indian tropes, calling attention to the fact that Native people can and do have culture and references outside of stereotypes. This may seem like an obvious observation but so often comedy centers stereotypes to the point where people become defined by the opposite of the stereotype as opposed to carving out an identity free from any assumptions.

Reel Injun: A Distant Trumpet

This clip from Reel Injun, a Canadian documentary about indigenous people portrayed in film, rewrites a misunderstood history that elucidates the unexpected truth behind a few Native Americans actors. This film highlights many examples of “Indians in unexpected places” (Deloria). Without knowledge of Navajo, this clip would show the typical story of a white colonizer overpowering a native chief. A story that has been repeated over and over again throughout American media, since the rhetoric of pacification set in around 1900 (Deloria). This scene, redubbed with what the actors were actually saying reveals a subaltern message targeted at the actors’ fellow Navajo-speakers. Counteracting the messaging of pacification, these actors turn the white men’s intentions upside down, pretending to comply when really playing a joke, which has now been broadcast to audiences far and wide.

Adding subtitles to this scene not only rewrites the history books on white-native power dynamics, but it also is a clear example of classic Native American comedy. This show of deviance indirectly argues for “Native peoples’ inherent right to survival and sovereignty” calling attention to the utter disregard that white people have shown Native Americans throughout our common history. Not only does the white character appear stupid and arrogant, but the directors are also exposed for not even bothering to check what the Navajo actors were saying. Additionally, this form of in-group humor, subverts the power of language. In most situations in the US, English would be commonly considered a more useful language than Navajo due to it’s widespread use. In this instance however, because of the actor’s knowledge of Navajo and precisely because few non-native people speak the language, he is able to use this skill to his advantage and to the advantage of his community. This form of “in-group humor fosters social cohesion” because it tells a story of power and resistance to those who understand their struggle (13).

Key & Peele: Power Falcons

This Key and Peele sketch reflects a disconnect between African Americans and other people of color in this country. While the white male character is the worst of the four, the Native American and Asian Power Falcons are quite complacent in the blatant racism directed at the Green Falcon, played by Jason Peele. This clip calls out the double standards and ridiculous differences in expectation that can be seen in the level of consciousness around racism in America.

While the clip problematizes racial discrimination on one level, it also perpetuates stereotypes on other levels. For example, Keegan-Michael Key’s Indian character, Yellow Falcon, is about as stereotypical as one could make him. Not only is his hair in braids, completed with feathers and a headband, but he also speaks just in that trope that the 1491s make fun of in the The Indian Store. This fulfillment of stereotypes is only a part of Yellow Falcon’s character, suggesting to me that it was not an intentionally satirical choice. If it had been I would have suspected Brenda Song’s character, Purple Falcon, to be dressed in stereotypical Asian garb, perhaps a kimono of heavy makeup, maybe some chopsticks in her hair, and she doesn’t even have an ambiguously east Asian accent, a phenomenon all too common in mainstream media. The two white characters, Blue Falcon and Red Falcon are stereotypically white I suppose, blind to their racism and cultural appropriation, but I don’t see that as the same as this Native American trope. Lastly, Yellow Falcon is the only character in this skit where the actor is a different race that the character they are playing.

I think Key’s character is problematic because it is one of the few representations of Native Americans in Key and Peele, and does nothing to combat stereotypes. This is an interesting turn of tables since the video is accusing Native Americans and Asians for not showing up for black people when they encounter racism, while the video itself is not showing up for Native Americans. This common tension seems to resonate through the examples I have found so far.

The 1491s: Origin Stories – Gathering of Nations

In this skit by the 1491s there seem to be remarkably few stereotypes left unchallenged. This piece satirizes the commodification of Native American culture. They comment on the current state of Indian culture by making fun of the Gathering of Nations, a annual powwow event is an over thirty years old in Albuquerque New Mexico, started just two years after the skit it placed. This is an example of in-group humor as Watkins describes it, since I at least needed a footnote to get the joke.

The lines about running from the police as a common point of understanding are slipped in among the placement of Crazy Horse on his pedestal. Not only do they play with similar ideas of what it means to be Indian and what it means to be black in this country, but they do so in an offhand style that feels very comfortable and downplayed. In this way, neither group seems to be accusing the other of being greater than or less than. Interestingly, this skit seems to go against my claim that both groups frequently devalue the other in their comedy. I think it is fair to say this example shows the potential mutual understanding between Native Americans and African Americans, but it cannot be seen as the whole picture.

In all of my research this is the only video I found in which Native American comics referenced, mentioned, or breached the topic of black people. It was pretty hard to find examples of black comics talking about Native Americans but I did succeed, perhaps because of the relative quantities of material published online. I think it is important to note the dominance of accessible narratives, which center relationships between the comic and white society as opposed to relationships between groups of people of color in this country. We should question whether this blank spot is due to the importance of countering white supremacy for the individual comics writing material or if it has more to do with the lack of audience for this types of multiracial comedy.

Dave Chappelle: Native Americans

Dave Chappelle plays with stereotypes about Native Americans and African Americans in this monologue. He challenges stereotypes such as the “extinct Indian” while perpetuating those of ceremony and stoic Indians and finally places himself in the position of being discriminated against by the Native Americans. While he challenges many Americans’ assumptions with his Teepee joke turning into a story of injustice, he seems to be calling out Native American bias against black people, a phenomenon not unheard of. For example, according to a Cherokee Freedman, “‘many of the so-called Indians running the Oklahoma tribes are exclusive if the hyphenated Indian in black and inclusive if the hyphenated Indian is white’” (Brooks, 12). This sort of discrimination is not prevalent exclusively in Cherokee tribes, but has been a constant issue for multiracial people through US history.

Additionally, Chappelle brings up a potential answer to why there is so few instances of jokes with cross cultural references. “Everybody thinks they’re dead. These mother fuckers are not all dead!” Chappelle exclaims, exposing the myth of the extinct Indian while acknowledging his own surprise when encountering Native Americans for the first time (0:08). Perhaps the lack of accessible material is more due to the lack of contact between these two groups than anything else. Seeing as it was in the interest of European Americans to separate African Americans and Native Americans to remain in power, this lack of contact could perhaps be seen as a success of white hegemony (Black Indians).

Blazing Saddles: Indian Chief Scene

Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks in 1974 with writing assistance from Richard Pryor, was critically acclaimed for its satirical take on Hollywood’s Wild West. While I cannot speak to the whole movie, since I haven’t seen it, let us analyze this particular scene. In an Indian version of black face minstrelsy, Mel Brooks plays Indian by putting on a headdress, painting his face and speaking Yiddish. The only English that he speaks is, “They darker than us! Woof!” after he allows the black family to continue on their route unscathed. This complicated scene turns the white-on-black oppression of colonists excluding Sheriff Bart and his family into a flash of luck, a classic joke creating method (Dean) while also essentializing Native Americans in just the same ways as serious Wild West movies did. One may make the argument that in speaking Yiddish, Brooks is clearly calling out the problems in Hollywood’s representations of Native Americans, but as far as I can tell, he did not go to the trouble of hiring Native American actors and he did not include Native Americans in the plot beyond this scene. To me, Brooks centers white-on-black racism as the butt of the jokes in many scenes of this movie, but when it comes to white-on-Indian racism his critique is quite lacking.

In Living Color: Men on Sports

A lot goes on in this video. There are stereotypes being fulfilled and challenged on many levels. Not only is this skit important to look at on the planes of race, gender and sexuality, but also in terms of connections and cross over points between Native Americans and Blacks in the US. Native American groups have been fighting for a long time to eliminate racist mascots across the country. In the early 1990s, when this sketch was filmed, “individuals and organizations, from high school students and teachers to the American Indian Movement and the American Anthropological Association” were winning key fights in the end to such mascot culture. In 2002 though, King wrote, “it is likely that controversy over mascots will persist given that the public still embraces them as unproblematic” (350). This skit, similar to Key and Peele’s Power Falcons, plays into mainstream stereotypes about Native Americans. This clip does not do much to challenge stereotypes about anything so I suppose it is not too surprising that it perpetuates Native American stereotypes as well, but it is still worth noting. In Johnson’s “Manifest Faggotry,” he analyzes this piece looking specifically at the dynamics of race, gender and sexuality but makes no mention of the comments about Native Americans. This is especially surprising given Johnson’s other work focusing on the need in academia to breach subjects commonly overlooking in order to “[emancipate] pedagogy” (Black Performance Studies, 448). This sort of silencing of Native American injustices by black voices is present in many questions of culturally appropriating mascots and sports culture in America (King).