When Joey Clift, a citizen of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, was growing up, the only representation of Indigenous people on television he remembers seeing were racist Native mascots or Native people being shot in the back in John Wayne films. This lack of representation almost kept him from pursuing his dreams. Fortunately, multiple professors in college encouraged his interest in comedy, and Clift is now leveraging his talent to create authentic representations of Native people in comedy and on television.
Clift’s most recent project is a three-part short film series for Comedy Central called “Gone Native.” The final short is called, “Dear legendary horror author Stephen King, instead of using Indian Burial Grounds in your books, have you thought about using European burial grounds?”
The video uses comedy to point out that the remains of more than 6 million people in the catacombs of Paris are far scarier than the fabricated “burial grounds” of some illusory Native people. Clift calls the “Indian burial ground” trope a lazy tool to explain why a haunting is happening in a story, and says it has also perpetuated the Native magic or mysticism myth, the misconception that Native people exist only in the past and that Native cultures and people are inherently scary and should be feared.
Clift, also a writer for the children’s TV show “Spirit Rangers,” sees his work as a step forward in bringing authentic Native representation to TV and movies. He and other Native storytellers leading a new movement of representation not only have Native actors playing Native roles but also employ Native writers, producers and film crews to tell their own stories. Clift celebrated “Reservation Dogs,” a comedy produced by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi in which every writer, director and series regular is Indigenous; “Dark Winds,” a 2022 series created by a Chickasaw producer with a predominantly Native team in front of and behind the camera; and the film “Prey,” the origin story of the “Predator” series with an entirely Native cast besides the actor who plays the predator.
“I am a part of a really cool movement in Native comedy and Native storytelling,” Clift said. More Native podcasts, TikTokers and YouTube channels are popping up, and Clift believes that real Native representation has begun to inspire more people.
“All of our combined efforts I think are causing this really cool upswell of Native folks who are realizing that they can not only be a part of the entertainment industry, but they can be successful in the entertainment industry,” he said. “It feels like the work that we’re doing is inspiring Native folks to give their dreams a shot, and giving them the permission to dream that the media didn’t necessarily give us growing up.”
Clift hopes his latest video is seen as a polite call for King and other writers and film directors to retire the Native-burial-ground trope for good. But he believes the problem is bigger than this one trope. These shorts are a conduit to a larger conversation about education and representation.
Fact, fiction blurred
A recent study found that 87 percent of U.S. schools don’t teach Native American history past 1900. Clift believes the only exposure to Indigenous people most non-Natives have are tropes like these. Fact and fiction are blurred, and he believes the result is Native people being dehumanized and often erased in mainstream conversations or even for consideration for jobs.
This idea inspired his Comedy Central video short, “6 Things You Didn’t Learn About Native American People in High School,” which gives some very basic information about Native people that Clift believes should be taught in schools to counter some of the most common and odd misconceptions about them.
The lack of education and general misconceptions about Native people have led to some uncomfortable microaggressions — the focus of another of his videos — in Clift’s personal life, too. “I was dating a woman a few years ago who shook me awake with a look of absolute panic in her eyes, at like 2 a.m. on a Saturday, because she needed to tell me when she was 5 years old, her mom dressed her up like Pocahontas from the Disney movie, and she just had to apologize about it,” Clift said.
This experience inspired Clift’s first live-action short film, “My First Native American Boyfriend,” starring Benny Wayne Sully, a Sicangu Lakota citizen, and Kylie Brakeman.
“Non-Natives try to over-relate to Native people in relationships in a way that’s well-meaning but also very weird,” Clift said. “That was a lightbulb moment for me of it being a very fun way to use my position to tackle these Native stereotypes with jokes,” Clift said. The short won several awards, including best micro-narrative at Micromania Film Fest 2022, and was nominated for others.
“I feel like after every screening, Native folks and non-Natives would come up to me to tell me about similar experiences that they’ve been through or similar things they’ve been guilty of,” Clift said.
Clift’s use of comedy as an educational tool has also opened people’s eyes to the creative possibilities when Native perspectives are centered. Over the years, several interviewers and podcast hosts have shared with Clift that he is the first Native person they’ve ever interacted with or had on their shows.
As a writer and consulting producer for “Spirit Rangers,” a kids’ show about Native siblings who are park rangers that’s voiced by a Native cast and writing team, Clift has had the freedom to write some really interesting episodes — including one about the importance of the U.S. government honoring its treaties with tribes, used to teach kids that it’s important to keep your promises. For another episode, Clift wrote about why Native mascots are harmful.
“It was also just amazing to be surrounded by other dope Native creatives all day,” Clift said. When Deb Haaland was announced as secretary of the Interior, everyone’s phones started going off in the voiceover recording session. “We all celebrated like we won the Super Bowl,” Clift said. “There were tears shed. We had to stop recording for a few minutes just so everybody could celebrate. I could only have that experience by working with a roomful of other Native people who understood the significance of that.”
Just as that writing room celebrated Haaland as a Native leader, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe has celebrated Clift. “It’s been such an honor, and not just a career highlight but a life highlight, to receive love back from my people,” Clift said. “Something that I often joke about with other writers in the ‘Spirit Rangers’ writers’ room is you never get tired of elders from your tribe telling you that they’re proud of you.”
Clift received the blessing of the Cowlitz nation to include Cowlitz characters, and language stories inspired by Cowlitz traditional legends, in the show, and worked hand-in-hand with the Cowlitz nation on “Spirit Rangers” to make sure that the representation was authentic.
“I’m really proud of my people, and passionate about doing my best to represent my people well in mainstream spaces,” Clift said. “It’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.”
It has been validating for Clift to begin to see the change in the industry. Being a part of that change in an all-Native writers’ room for “Spirit Rangers” has been incredibly rewarding and beneficial logistically to the writing process, according to Clift.
“If I’m pitching a joke or a story about frybread, or smudging, or something like that, I don’t have to stop and explain to the room what any of it is,” Clift said. “It allowed us to have nuanced conversations about Native identity in a way that I don’t think we would have been equipped to have if there were no other Native writers working on the show.”