Monday, April 30, 2012

My Own Ladder

Being a features journalist has its perks. Sometimes you get free food, sometimes you find friends and the people are so easy to talk to, as opposed to politicians, committee members and meeting minutes. They thank you for your work and sometimes send you cards or gift certificates or say “next time you come have a dessert on me.”
I had one of those perks today while I was doing some interviews for a Mother’s Day story I’m doing. The main character in my story invited me over to her house. She’s a nice older woman who has a nice family. One of the first things she said to me was “you’re so pretty.” I said “thank you” and complemented her pretty house and the art on the walls.
While I was asking her questions, I could feel her studying me while I was writing notes. In a random, quiet moment, she asked me, “where are you from?”
“Crownpoint. It’s in north New Mexico around the four-corners area.”
“Are you Native?”
“Yes; Navajo.”
“Oh my God! I knew it. I could feel it. You just look so beautiful I could tell there was something Native about you.”
“Wow, thank you,” I said turning red.
“I have some Apache in my family. My husband is Apache and one of my granddaughters lived in Salt River. She’s Native and she’s so pretty, like you.”
We sort of drifted away and back to my story. Then she took me to meet some of her relatives, which were relative to the story.
“This is Andi, she’s Navajo,” she said when she introduced me to everyone.
They were really nice. When I had everything I needed, we went back to her house.
“Do you want something to eat? I have lots of food.”
“Sure,” I said because I couldn’t pass up the meal I knew was going to be really good – they were discussing how they love to cook and these recipes came from their mother and her mother.
Fajitas, hot tortillas, roasty beans and a Mexican twist on vermicelli. It was good. Then they gave me some apple pie and vanilla ice cream. They felt like my own grandparents. “My grandparents always have an apple pie somewhere too,” I told them .
She showed me her old, black and white photo album of her family and her Apache ancestors. She told me about Geronimo and the relocation of Apache and I shared with her what I knew about those times.
“I have to take a picture of you.”
She took two and I made sure to smile extra pretty for her.

She was a little familiar with Natives and our history, at least Apache history. A lot of people are surprised to find out that I’m Native. I think they’re surprised to find out Natives are still here, sometimes, and one is standing right in front of them. They have questions about the reservation, about my family, about my culture, about my language and history. I tell them. In so many words I tell them where I come from, how many reservations there are, how many tribes there are and why my last name is Murphy. I tell them about assimilation, Eloise Cobell, the Gathering of Nations Powwow and Bigfoot in Crownpoint. I tell them about AIM, books I’ve read in Native American Literature class and Native mascots. When they ask, I’m so happy to share because I’m only spreading understanding – because we rarely have that from the outside.
They don’t teach us this in public school. They won’t even teach us this in college history courses. One has to go out of their way and find and sign up for these classes. I did that and it changed my world. I have a minor in American Indian Studies from NMSU and I say it’s the most important degree I have – oh, and journalism.
It made me think differently about being Native. It empowered and strengthened me. I understand so many things I never bothered to think about before. It made me realize that we’re such a special group of people. In that, I learned that people are so ignorant. Some people think we were wiped out and we don’t exist anymore.
It also made me realize that being Native comes with extra responsibilities. We’re not just Native American. We’re Native and American. Sometimes it’s controversial and confusing, but that’s what every native has to be. There is an inner fight with the two, but education and understanding only brings peace – somewhat – and so much strength.
For me, being Native also means being a good representative of your tribe and the Native population as a whole. As said above, some people think we’re extinct and they may never meet another Native in their lifetime. I think about this all the time. I don’t want them to go away thinking that I’m ignorant.
It’s unfortunate that there are a lot of Natives out there that are ignorant; they don’t bother to learn about their own history or why things are the way they are on the reservations. I wish they could educate themselves and feel the sort of understanding and strength that I feel. It makes goals and dreams for our people clearer. I’d hate for non-Natives and foreigners to meet a Native who knows nothing about anything. That’s going to be their experience and, like I said, they may never meet another Native, ever. It’s like, you might as well be extinct.
Then again there are a lot of kids like me who have climbed their own ladders and educated themselves for themselves.  

I finally saw my bachelor’s degree. It’s been almost two years since I earned it and I just never got around to actually opening the package and looking at the diploma. When I finally saw it I was a little disappointed that they didn’t say I earned a minor degree in American Indian Studies. I should just type it in myself and have Mr. Pepion sign it.

Here's a video made at the University of South Dakota that eckos a lot of what I just wrote. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Native Comedy: Powwows, Flat Butts and Sheep Blood

I remember I saw my first comedy show in high school, about 10 years ago. It was James & Ernie, Navajo tribe's hottest comedy duo. It was so funny, the gym roared and echoed with so much laughter. I thought what these guys were doing was so cool because they made a whole gym full of apathetic and moody teenagers laugh harder than they ever have in public.

As I grew older I was exposed to other comedians from other tribes. Powwow Comedy Jam. 49 Laughs. Comedy All-Stars. I saw "Just James," JR Redwater, Vaughn Eaglebear, Tatanka Means, Marc Yaffee Adrianne Chalepah and Pax Harvey.

These are the comedians of the day. Native comedy is coming up.

I asked some elders -- mom and dad -- if they remember seeing any native comedy shows. They didn't. Well, except for Vincent Craig (Navajo). He's famous for "officer, officer, arrest that man. He's looking at me all somehow" and "I went down to the trading post to steal a candy bar..."

In my experience I know there are a couple of elder Native comedians that have made it big time like Charlie Hill. But, he's the only one that comes to mind when I try to think back to the '90s or '80s.

Native comedy is pretty new. I don't mean it like; Natives didn't know how to laugh before 49 Laughs, I mean our comedy performers are pretty new. Their comedy goes around to all the reservations byway of casinos, festivals and demand and it seems to have grown in recent years.

The large and diverse audience is getting a look into a different world, Pax Harvey said. It's different than black, Hispanic and Asian comedy in those ways. We laugh about fairs, powwows, flat butts and sheep blood. Every tribe can identify with these stories, even with sheep guts because there's a Navajo in-law on every reservation.

It seems like there's a greater relationship between all the tribes and we're sharing these performances a lot more.

Some of the comedians I mentioned are on a mission to spread wellness along with endless laughter, such as James, Ernie, Pax and Tatanka. Their messages are clean and they are promoters of living sober and healthy. I admire this, because it can be difficult to mix this message with so much comedy, Harvey said. Dirty and perverse comedy is easy to do, he added.

I would have to guess many Native comedians got their start like Harvey did: he played an entertaining emcee and people thought he was funny. The stars and planets aligned and James & Ernie picked him up and took him on tour with them. His fear of crowds and speaking for 10 or more minutes slowly melted out of him, although there are those shows that are so large and noisy, the fear comes back again, he said. Harvey entertained New Mexico State University for an hour and a half on April 10 and organizers had to take the mic away from him because he wouldn't stop. It was an awesome show.

Now the comedians I mentioned have been in movies, Comedy Central and HBO. I think it's only a matter of time before we get a Native comedian out there to do a one-hour special like George Lopez, Kat Williams or Margaret Cho.