“I wasn’t prepared for the backlash,” says Adrienne Chalepah. “Or the death threats.”
Chalepah, a Kiowa-Apache comic, was a fan of Ralphie May, the comedian who came to prominence during the first season of the NBC reality series Last Comic Standing. “I had been familiar with his work for years,” she says. “My husband bought a CD by a Native hip-hop group called Savage Family, and it had a track called ‘Raise Up.’ It opens with a sample from Ralphie’s act. When I heard it, I was really disappointed. But as a Ralphie May fan, I just sat on those feelings for a couple of years. I didn’t feel any need to talk about it. I just let it go.”
The sample in question featured May complaining that Dances with Wolves had beaten out Goodfellas for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. May shouts indignantly, “Fuck a bunch of Indians! I am sick of hearing about it. Are we supposed to boohoo over goddamn Indians? That shit was a hundred twenty years ago. Fucking get over it! Nobody fucking a hundred fifty years ago is making you drink now. Fucking dry up, you fucking bunch of alcoholics—and go get a real fucking job. Cut that fucking hair! Bon Jovi cut his, you should cut yours. This shit is done, son. It’s done! Fuck you, bunch of Indians! Fuck the Indians! I’m sorry! I’m sorry they as a group never made it to the Bronze Age. I’m sorry they never invented the wheel. I’m sorry, boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Boo-fucking-hoo. Fuck the Indians.”
In the weeks before the audio surfaced, May’s smiling face could be seen flanking highway billboards for the River Spirit Casino in Tulsa, the FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek, and the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee. When Ojibwe stand-up Jonny Roberts of the Red Lake Nation found out May was going to be doing a show at the Sanford Center in nearby Bemidji, Minnesota, he offered his services as an opening act, and was dejected that he didn’t receive a response. Chalepah messaged Roberts with a link to the rant, reassuring him, “Don’t worry about it, Jon. He doesn’t like Indians anyway.”
Chalepah recalls, “I grabbed the audio from the Savage Family CD and sent it to Jon Roberts, and then I posted it to my YouTube page. I said, ‘As a comedian I don’t think this is funny, but what do you guys think?’ I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.”
Eight years into her career, Chalepah has done stand-up in hundreds of tribal communities. Reservation to reservation, her performance conditions vary wildly. The casinos often have the ideal setup—professional lighting, good promotion, proper amplification—but beyond them, the gigs are unpredictable. “Worst-case scenario is you’re booked for a show in a place that has never had comedy,” she says. “No lights, no stage, no microphone—you just gotta roll with it. I was scheduled for an outdoor show at a rez in Utah at 7 p.m. They didn’t take into account that the sun would be down. It was dark. They had no lights. One of the other comedians drove her car up and shined her headlights on me. . . .
“I’ve done Albuquerque, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Seattle, but most of my shows are outside the cities on the reservations. Native comedy is always disconnected from the other comedy scenes. I’ve done stuff in New York City where I’m the only Native in the entire room. But it’s not on purpose that most of my work has been Native-related. It’s an isolation thing. The comedy hubs are obviously New York and Los Angeles. Any comedian not in those places—you must plug into that industry. I’m just too far away, and I’m a mother of four. So I’m kind of in a weird spot. I get to do four shows a month, and each requires two or three days of travel. That’s the biggest issue for Native people in comedy—isolation.”
Cortez, Colorado is 190 miles northwest of Albuquerque. Chalepah is at home, preparing for a brief stand-up tour that will take her from the Four Corners area to the northeastern United States. She’s trying to pack clothes into a pink, metallic roller bag as one of her four children is coughing and sneezing, struggling with a cold.
“I’m enrolled Kiowa and Plains Apache, and I grew up in several different towns,” she explains. “To be a member of a tribal nation you have to be ‘enrolled,’ and each tribe has the right to set their own criteria for enrollment. You have some legitimate Natives who are not enrolled because their tribe’s enrollment process is too strict. So they’re not considered Native, but they really are Native. Some tribes enroll based on descendancy only. If you have an ancestor, then you’re part of a tribal nation. Then there are other tribes with blood quantum where you have to have at least one ‘full-blood’ grandparent. And then there are tribes between those two scenarios, not based solely on enrollment or blood quantum but, whether or not you live on the reservation or have a parent who does. If a non-Native tells you their ethnicity, you wouldn’t question it, but with Natives it’s, like, x and y and z: ‘Are you full-blood?’ Do other human beings have the same type of criteria? No, there’s no one else. Just horses, dogs, and us.”
Growing up, she moved from town to town, school to school. “We were always moving because of the dysfunction in our family. By the age of six I had lived in Flagstaff, Gallup, Winslow—all of what we call border towns—the white towns next to the Southwest tribal reservations, although my tribes are from Oklahoma. I grew up mostly in Anadarko, Lawton, Cache, and Carnegie. Most of my childhood was spent on or near the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation in Oklahoma. By the tenth grade I had attended twelve different schools. My story is the cliché of the Native American family with the really tough upbringing, but at a young age my dad showed me Monty Python. And every Saturday night we watched Saturday Night Live. It was the one thing that was consistent. Sometimes things were really heavy. There were times when family members were homeless, family members were struggling with depression, family members were struggling with substance abuse, family members were in jail. Yet we could turn on the TV and watch comedy and laugh. It was such a fun time for SNL. It was the ‘Wayne’s World’ era. We would start mimicking the sketches and mimicking the characters, and pretty soon you’ve got inside jokes within your own family. And then my dad kind of caught me up and made sure that I knew about the original cast. My love for comedy just grew from there. My brothers and I, we became collectors of comedy. It shaped my worldview.”
Her early obsessions included Mel Brooks and Cheech and Chong. “My dad had the Cheech and Chong cassette tapes, and I put them in my Walkman. When my dad realized that I had a love for comedy, he started showing me more stuff and gave me a little Comedy 101. He showed me Charlie Chaplin to give me a sense of the silent comedy era. And then when I was in middle school, he introduced me to Monty Python and Mel Brooks. I loved it. At one point I was watching Blazing Saddles every single day. To this day I can repeat it line for line. My dad was in and out of my life, but comedy kept me grounded. It was the one escape.”
She hated school—a common trait of future stand-ups—even though her grades were pristine. During history class, she confronted a teacher for giving a whitewashed version of colonization. “My stepdad was Comanche and a real activist type, and he had schooled me on the relationship between the government and Natives. I got kicked out of public school for heckling my teacher. I was sent to Riverside Indian Boarding School [in Oklahoma], and I got in trouble right away. I always got straight As, so that wasn’t the problem. It was my behavior. They put me in ‘transition dorm,’ which is like a boot camp. My boarding school had a bad reputation. It was established in 1871, but obviously it’s different today than it was then—or even thirty years ago. Today it is run by the community and has a 95 percent Native staff. A lot of the staff had gone to school there, as had their parents and grandparents, and they knew the history of abuse. It used to be a place where you’d get a bad education and a violent education. But when I was there, the school was all about embracing our culture and uplifting the students. I can tell you, I didn’t feel much pride in my culture until I went to that school. I was surrounded by the diversity of different tribes and realized we’re still going strong. It was a really good thing for me. There were also some bad things about the school. It was very institutionalized and they searched us all the time, random searches of our belongings and bodies—looking for contraband. I knew my constitutional rights, and the searches were one of the things that I had a big problem with. Mostly because I was hiding contraband.”
Today, her young boys—ages one, five, seven, and eleven—take up much of her time. Family obligations have limited her ability to be near a stand-up scene—so she carved one out where she lived. “I started doing comedy on the reservations out here in the Southwest,” she says. “It was really different than if I had started at comedy clubs or at an open-mic night. Native American comedians started getting together on the reservation and hosting comedy shows by their own accord. They grew their own thing. Sometimes there’s a language barrier. I don’t speak the languages of the southwestern tribes, and sometimes you’ll have half a crowd that doesn’t speak English. And it’s very rural where I live, so I have to travel to get to any show.”
Chalepah is doing the 90-minute drive from Cortez to the airport in Durango, Colorado. She’s flying to San Bernardino, California, to participate in a taping of Native American stand-up comics. It’s being produced for FNX, a digital subchannel devoted to Native content, distributed by PBS. Most people don’t have it in their cable package, but for Chalepah, it’s worth the struggle to get there. It will be costly and time-consuming, but Chalepah is hungry for television exposure. “I have to pay for my own transportation to get there,” she says. “Money-wise it’s tough, but it’s an opportunity to get our comedy out there. Nobody ever asks us to put together a show and film it. Natives aren’t even part of the conversation. Essentially, we’re Hollywood’s neglected children. Y’know, we’re basically saying, ‘Please pay attention to us. Put us on TV—but not in feathers.’”
Boarding her flight in Durango, her thoughts revert to the last time she flew to Los Angeles, the result of the Ralphie May controversy.
The clip quickly spread through social media, with some calling on reservation casinos to cancel May’s future gigs. Meanwhile, some of his fan base went after Chalepah. Viral vitriol gave way to absolute hysteria, with the press picking up on the story. While promoting an upcoming casino gig in Michigan, May spoke to the Superior Telegram and gave his side of the story. “Apparently my comedy was taken out of context when I was talking about Native Americans. It was edited, over-edited, illegally used and recorded, and they left out the punch. They left out the punch line, which is—the whole reason that I’m upset with Indians is that Dances with Wolves beat out Goodfellas for the Oscar… No one, if you heard it in full context, would think that it’s anything… I’m not a hateful person, and this was not right for someone to do.”
Native comedians found themselves in a delicate position. Anishinaabe stand-up Tito Ybarra explained, “I was really on the fence and apprehensive about going at the issue at first because I realize [comedians] make mistakes. I myself have made mistakes early in my career… He’s saying the punch line was edited out. I don’t believe the punchline would have smoothed that over.”
The topic was debated on the public radio program Native America Calling. An irate listener from the Pine Ridge Reservation phoned in: “I just want to say to Ralphie that his nonapology isn’t acceptable, and making excuses for doing a racist, hateful diatribe against our people is not acceptable in any form. There have been comedians—Flip Wilson [and] George Carlin, to name a few—that have done comic routines about Indians that have been really funny and acceptable. Ralphie’s is just based on misinformation, ignorance, and stupidity… If he came out and said, ‘Hey, you know, I really messed up here. I said things that were hateful, ignorant, hurtful, and I’m very sorry and I’m going to make amends in some way—I’m going to try my best to compensate for my ignorance’—then I might be able to accept his apology.”
“He got all this hate mail,” says Chalepah. “Well, of course he did, but what I didn’t anticipate was that he would get death threats. Ralphie had a young family, and they were threatened. Sometimes when you start these conversations, you can’t control where they go. It got out of hand. People were attacking him for his weight and saying awful things to him. And I wasn’t prepared for the backlash I received either. But I wanted him to understand… We don’t need anyone with a national platform somehow implying we need to 'get over it.’ We don’t have a huge voice in mainstream media or pop culture… It’s like an abusive relationship, and we keep getting verbally abused and we keep taking it and taking it. And we’re not taking it anymore. But it created this huge thing. Everyone was mad. I sent him a direct message, and he responded, and we went back and forth. At first he was very defensive, and I understood that, but I was trying to educate, not attack. I was simply stating, ‘You might not be racist, but you’re furthering a racist narrative. You have power and a voice and I do not. You should at least hear how this affects us.’”
Casino after casino canceled his scheduled shows, and May panicked. He messaged Chalepah and asked if they could talk over the phone. “We spoke right before I had to do a gig,” she recalls. “He sounded tired. He told me, ‘I’m not a bad guy—I’m a real person. If you get to know me, you’ll know that.’ And I said, ‘Me too, I’m not some troll and I’m not out to get you. I’m a fan, but I think this particular bit is harmful to a population that doesn’t have a voice. You’re furthering a dangerous narrative that it’s ok to not care about Indians because they’re inferior. It’s ok to hate them because they’re less than human. That’s dangerous, Ralphie. If you knew the suicide rates of our children and how we’re just trying to give them a reason to live—you would feel ashamed of yourself. They’re fed this narrative that they’re invisible, that they’re not important, that their ancestors went extinct—and society doesn’t provide them with any future narrative.’ So we talked all about this until we got on the same page. And then we considered the next step: ‘How do we fix this situation now that everybody is pissed off?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you come and do a show with me?’ I said, ‘I’m down. Anytime.’ We needed people to see that you could have a dispute and then come together. It was up to us to calm everybody down.”
For the next month, May addressed the issue whenever he had to promote a gig. “I thought I was a well-read, educated man,” he said. “I know nothing… I have learned so much… I want to learn more… I hope to be a conduit for things that we are not taught… and I apologize that I added to it… when I said, ‘Get over it.’ That’s so absurd to think you could get over something that is still happening.”
May flew Chalepah to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Improv alongside comedians Iliza Schlesinger, Jerrod Carmichael, and Margaret Cho. All proceeds went to the Bicona Foundation, a charity that provides assistance to the Natives of Pine Ridge. “Sometimes these life lessons are hard, but in the end we learned,” says Chalepah. “At the show in Los Angeles he said, ‘Thank you for releasing that audio clip, because I would have never otherwise known what I know now.’”
Booked at the Santa Ana Star Casino outside Albuquerque, May hired Chalepah to open for him. He sat backstage between performances, reading a book on Indigenous history while taking large draws from an oxygen tank. “We made plans,” recalls Chalepah. “He said, ‘Let’s do this again.’ But I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t look well. I could tell it was serious.”
“Look at my tour schedule,” May told her. “If you see something on there that you want to be a part of—let me know. I think it’s bullshit that a lot of Native casinos don’t even hire Native comedians. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to see that it changes.”
Two weeks later Ralphie May’s heart gave out. He was dead at the age of forty-five.
From WE HAD A LITTLE REAL ESTATE PROBLEM: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff. Copyright © 2021 by Kliph Nesteroff. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.