How Many White Comedians Does It Take to Make Some Indians Happy?

Gyasi Ross

The (hilarious) comedian Jim Gaffigan mentioned Indians on Conan O’Brien. He also mentioned the Black Hills. He did so in his typical funny way—he is a comedian, after all. I’ve always liked him—his voices are hilarious. On Conan, he didn’t make a political monologue or soliloquy or anything major—he made one very smart and politically aware joke.

That’s what comedians do. His joke happened to mention Indians.

Shortly thereafter, I see 10 posts on Facebook that Jim Gaffigan is talking about Indians.

Shortly thereafter that, I see 10 Twitter posts that Jim Gaffigan is talking about Indians. People tweeting to him, getting his name tattooed on their chests, right beside John Belushi’s name. “Holy crap, Jim Gaffigan is talking about Indians on Conan! He mentioned us, and it wasn’t bad!!!”


So what? Indians talk about Indians all the time. Here at Indian Country Today Media Network, we talk “Indians.” A lot. Too much, sometimes; I occasionally want to hear about Mongolians (I hear they have goot beef) or the French (I hear they have good toast and fries). talks about Natives. I hear that Beyond Buckskin (, Native Appropriations (, Ruth Hopkins, Chuck Trimble, Randi Rourke, Native America Calling, etc., all talk about Natives. A lot. We are fortunate enough to have all these networks that discuss our Native people in detail, and still some Natives get excited when a white comedian makes one joke about Indians?

Do we really value white people’s opinions about Natives that much more than our own people’s opinions? Are we really that attention-starved—we get happy whenever we get a moment’s attention from famous white folks? I don’t see those types of celebratory tweets and facebook messages when Ruth Hopkins writes something about Indians, and her articles are freakin brilliant!

The quest for approval and validation is profound indeed.

In my estimation, cool, when non-Natives eventually see the richness of our cultures and want to meaningfully engage, that’s obviously a good thing. Still, we have to appreciate and develop the networks that we have; cultivate the wisdom that we have internally—the Native people who give very smart and detailed analysis about Native life from 50 different viewpoints. If Jim Gaffigan (or Johnny Depp or Barack Obama or Marlon Brando or Jane Fonda) doesn’t say anything about Indians, these amazing Native people and networks will still be here informing the masses about how to get stronger, better, smarter.

Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called “Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways)” which you can get at He is also co-authoring a new book with Robert Chanate coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called “The Thing About Skins,” and the website and publishing company for that handy, dandy book is (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at

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vageli's picture
Submitted by vageli on
I think part of the problem is the lack of Native American representation in the media of today. To my knowledge, there was an article about that very topic written earlier this week. Maybe the reason Native Americans take it as exciting when given a mention on national television (by a person of any race) is because there is a significant lack of Native American coverage in traditional media. That is not to say that this websites and others like it are not widely trafficked, but they cannot be compared to media giants like MSNBC and FOX, for example. The problem with websites like this (I have no problem with it, myself) is that it is viewed as "niche" whereas mainstream media is, well, mainstream. Something needs to be done to elevate Native media outlets to the same status as other media providers.

callmeshebear's picture
Submitted by callmeshebear on
"the uploader has made this video unavailable in your country", what did he say?

Submitted by theartistt on
What I found most interesting about this write up, is the social networking mentions. I find that very heartening. Because of social media I have been seeing a change, albet small, in the perception of Ndns by whites. I guess the biggest change is that the larger our presence on social media sites, the harder it is to ignore us. And ignoring us has been going on way too long. And that is the main reason why this one joke, one mention, made so many Ndns happy. I mean how often are Ndns mentioned on television at all? It is just nice to not be ignored once in a while. Don't be so down on your fellow Ndns because of that.

gyasiross's picture
Submitted by gyasiross on
Thank you all for the replies. No, I'm not down on my fellow Native social networking users...I understand the reason for the reaction. Truly. My point is that we cannot base Native people's feeling of relevance or importance based upon non-Natives' championing our causes. We have Natives who do it everyday...I look at the various other ethnic groups, the way they approached "creating a movement"--they developed and supported all of their stuff internally, created and nurtured local fan bases (in the black arts, it was called the "chitlin circuit," in the Indian circuit they call it "Bollywood"), and brought their internal talent to a place where it had leverage in the larger market (hence Tyler Perry's ability to get distribution). IF we want our causes and voices to get to a larger market, we have to create the environment for that to happen (FNX television is something that we have to develop, for example).

zelbe1's picture
Submitted by zelbe1 on
Any and all attempts, even humor, that is aimed at creating a dialogue on natives is good. Most Americans, Johnny Depp included, have this mythical, watered down, outright false perception of America's Indian history and American history itself. There is a populist movement across America, thanks to the Tea Party folks, where teachers in public schools are telling students that non-natives were in America before indigenous peoples. Think I'm joking? Go to your local schools and see if I'm wrong. Jim Gaffigan is in the minority of anglo Americans that knows something about Mount Rushmore few Americans wish to know or accept.