The Backlash of the Ralphie May Joke

Adrianne Chalepah

Context is everything. As soon as Ralphie May informed me that the joke was missing most of its context, I immediately felt bad for the backlash I had helped create. Because context is critical, it goes two ways. We need the full joke to make a fair critique, just like those online running to Ralphie's defense need our social context to understand our sensitivity.

Respect also goes two ways. Ralphie was respectful enough to have a one-on-one conversation with me, so I found myself respecting what he had to say. He respected me enough to defend me when people were blaming me, calling me hurtful things like 'prairie nigger' and 'attention-seeking broad.'

Here's more context for you. When I was a teen I traveled to Washington D.C. as part of a student club, where I was told for the first time in my life, to my face, "I thought Indians were all dead."

The comment came from a black student from Chicago who had never met a Native American. She didn't mean any harm by it. But the comment hurt me.

It hurt me because I knew I was a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, which had about 12,000 members. On my grandfather's side, I am Apache of Oklahoma, one of about 2,000 members. Note: I could be wrong about the population size of my tribes. Those are my estimates after I count all my cousins.

I realized that I lived in a bubble in Anadarko, Oklahoma where there are three tribal agencies in town and about three more neighboring tribes within an hour's drive. I didn't know that people in Chicago, Washington D.C. and other parts of the U.S. thought we went extinct. It also hurt because the comment was said so candid, so matter-of-factly that it didn't seem to bother the person that a genocide occurred, and it could be considered 'small talk.'

That moment changed me. I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to challenging stereotypes about my indigenous people. I studied journalism, filmmaking, and creative writing all in hopes of helping give my people a voice. I studied media theory and how media plays a role in our society.

But I've always loved comedy. My passion for comedy is much like when you fall in love. Comedy makes me feel young and giddy. It started as a young girl watching Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. My whole family is funny and we tease hard. I was teased because I'm nerdy and I 'talk like a white girl', and I love chocolate cake so I'm always wearing a few extra pounds.

Comedy became my defense mechanism.

This is why when I heard the audio clip of Ralphie May's comedy. I took it more personal. It combined my two passions of fighting stereotypes and my love for comedy. I decided to publicly pose the question of whether his joke was funny or not. I failed to research the clip and see how edited it was. I was blind with rage. At the time, it didn't matter that the clip was taken out of context. I was hurt by someone whose comedy I adored.

Then, everyone joined me in this hurt. It sparked an intense reaction from my indigenous people. I realized, that for the first time in my life, I had a voice.

Then Ralphie and I talked. I realized that he wasn't this racist monster out to get us. He is a comedian who was now the victim of cyber-bullying, death threats, and tons of Native men rallying their war parties.

I cried and completely understood my Mom's sideways eyes when she told me as a child, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Now what? We hear each other with an open heart and mind. We help educate. We write more jokes. We try again. Ralphie and I both got kicked all over the internet, and we are going to get back up, and get back on our horses. Mine is going to be the same horse you let your kids ride because my riding skills are 'meh', especially considering I come from the Kiowa tribe, skilled horse people. You like how I just attempted to educate in a corny joke?

What this issue really made clear is that our people are angry. We have so much to be angry about. Be it missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW), oil pipelines destroying our land and water (Tar Sands), sacred land sold to foreign mining companies (Oak Flat), dehumanizing caricatures (mascots), and high suicide rates, and more, we are angry. We need to keep having these conversations and that will be our path to healing.

If America is one huge family, which we should be, and you have one member of the family abusing another member, does it ever help to say, 'Oh, I didn't hit you that hard. Quit crying'?

No. Instead of silencing us, we need to be allowed to grieve.

Likewise, does it ever help when the family member who has been abused continues the abuse on their abuser or someone else?

We are in a cycle, and not the holy kind you enter in ceremony.

This cycle is vicious and if we don't stop it and replace it with healing and love, we will pass that trauma down to our kids and they will have to face it.

My plea is that we have these conversations in a good way, that we be careful with our words, because as we all know, words can hurt.

Aho! Ohn'day ah own g'yah.

Comedian Adrianne Chalepah is an American Indian (Kiowa/Apache) entertainer from Anadarko, Oklahoma. A member of 49 Laughs Comedy and Ladies of Native Comedy, Chalepah is a mother of three, wife, and businesswoman.

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whitehorse's picture
Ms. Chalepah, you should never apologize for outing a Racist that insults American Indians. I have outed a few people in my lifetime and it is strange how they always try to turn the issue around and sometimes make it your fault because you stood up and said something was wrong and needed to stop! I saw the entire act and I don't believe Mr. May's claim that it was taken out of context. When a "comedian" has to explain his/her joke and/or its meaning, then that is probably a bad joke that should have never been said in the first place. Keep doing what you are doing and NEVER apologize for doing the right thing! If you ever do any shows in Florida, I would love to see your show and/or maybe have you over for some fry-bread.
Michael Madrid's picture
I'm glad you've come to peace in this issue, Ms. Chalepah, but the one thing too many White people don't understand is that their words hurt. Our people have been downtrodden for centuries and we face some seemingly insurmountable issues, but we continue on. We hold onto our traditions and our culture to help us survive intact, but substance abuse, suicide, poverty and overt discrimination all serve to make our journey a difficult one. When someone outside our culture uses stereotypes to strike us on our soft underbelly, it hurts. We're not being overly sensitive for reacting the way we did - we're also NOT exhibiting a knee-jerk attitude against discrimination; we're just tired of working day in and day out against every barrier we face only to have some baby-faced kid take advantage of his White privilege to hurl insults. There is no context, there is no joke. The one thing that gets most of us through everyday life is humor. We're willing to laugh, even at ourselves, but we're NOT willing to let a payaso piss on our head and tell us it's raining.
Michael Madrid
turbojesus's picture
In our history before native americans had better weapons like guns, sometimes we'd have to pick up a big rock and crush somebody with it. But now our people have become effeminate and they can't lift the bigger rocks. They have a machine throw itty bitty rocks at people for them. You can't live in this world and not give anything back. It's got to come from the heart. So pick up your rock and crush his black heart with it. Our history is a weapon.