Native American comedy writer Joey Clift (Cowlitz) thinks there’s something way scarier — and a lot less harmful — than the ubiquitous “Native American burial grounds” trope you see in pop culture.
European burial grounds, for one.
After all, the Paris catacombs “are made of human bones,” Clift writes in Gone Native, his digital series distributed by Comedy Central that tackles a variety of misconceptions about the Native community.
In his latest episode of Gone Native, voiced by Indigenous actor Román Zaragoza (Akimel O’otham), Clift has written an open letter to “legendary horror author” Stephen King in an effort to raise awareness about the trope, which plays a pivotal role in the author’s bestselling novel Pet Sematary (1983).
“I think by illuminating the existence of these stereotypes, which are harmful to Native people in the media, I can hopefully convince non-Natives to stop using these tropes,” Clift tells In The Know by Yahoo.
The harm of these story lines stems from the stereotype that Indigenous people possess some sort of “Native magic.” Not only that, but they almost always represent “evil” Native spirits that tend to haunt (mostly non-Native) people in the present day.
While King isn’t the only writer to have included the trope in his work — Jay Anson included an unproven burial ground detail in his book The Amityville Horror a few years prior, in 1977 — many film adaptations of King’s books have included that trope as well, including The Shining and It.
“It: Chapter Two, which came out in 2019 — which is based on a Stephen King book — uses weird made-up Native magic to explain a major plot point,” Clift adds about the relatively recent film adapted from King’s book It (1986).
With his series, Clift wants to set the record straight, albeit as a kind of medicine that’s sugar-coated with laughs.
How ‘Gone Native’ got its start
The inspiration behind the animated series, Clift says, came from a moment when he joined an online protest to speak out against the former name of the Washington Commanders football team, a name considered a slur among Native people.
In the process, Clift noticed someone who had “just taken a DNA test and claimed to be Native” saying that he didn’t see anything wrong with the name. (For the record, DNA tests are not used to determine a person’s degree of Indian blood or tribal citizenship.)
Instead of passing on a link to a longer think piece as a way to educate, which Clift assumed the person wouldn’t read, he instead opted for the arguably more accessible comedic route.
“My goal with these shorts is to use jokes to shine a light on all of the weird microaggressions that Native folks deal with on a regular basis in the media,” Clift said about his two-minute episodes.
The first episode in Clift’s Gone Native series at Comedy Central takes on the lack of information about contemporary Native American people in U.S. public schools. According to a study by Native-led social justice organization IllumiNative, 87% of U.S. schools don’t teach Native history after 1900.
The executives at Comedy Central, however, were eager to help educate with humor.
“Turns out the American education system failed us on more than just science and math — but also on Native Americans and their essential role in our country’s history and future,” Erika Soto Lamb, vice president, social impact strategy for MTV Entertainment Studios (which includes Comedy Central), told In The Know by Yahoo. “Thankfully, Joey’s super funny Gone Native series is here to get us up to speed while simultaneously making us laugh out loud. This is yet another example of comedy as a force for social change and we’re so proud to partner with him on it.”
The second episode takes on the use of terms such as “spirit animal” and “powwow.” Clift’s open letter to King serves as the third in the series.
In addition to these shorts acting as a kind of “catharsis” for Native people, Clift says they also serve as easy links for Native people to share if they don’t want to have a long conversation with, for example, “non-Natives who call meetings powwows.”
Part of a Native American movement
Clift is no stranger to writing about Native culture. The Cowlitz tribal citizen has also written for kids’ animated series Spirit Rangers on Netflix and Molly of Denali on PBS Kids. The fact that he’s creating his own series during a pivotal time for Native representation in entertainment isn’t lost on him.
“Being a part of this movement in Native storytelling that we’ve seen over the past few years, it’s just so fulfilling and so cool,” Clift says.
“It’s showing non-Native people that we’re still here, we exist, we have amazing stories to tell, and we’re capable of the full spectrum of human emotions,” he adds. “We can also be funny. We can also be romantic leads. We can also star in really cool drama series. We can also be super badass action stars like Amber Midthunder in Prey. And we can also be kids filled with with Native joy.”
While Stephen King, via his publisher Simon & Schuster, has not responded to multiple requests for comment from In The Know by Yahoo, Clift hopes that the horror author will nevertheless rethink his approach to the familiar trope.
“I think that having somebody of the caliber of Stephen King,” Clift says, “who really popularized Indian burial grounds in his book Pet Sematary, making some kind of statement that he doesn’t intend to do that anymore would be hugely helpful. And I think would really speak to fans of the horror genre who still use the Indian burial ground trope to this day, that that’s maybe a trope that we should retire and not use anymore because it’s out of date and also genuinely harmful to Native people.”
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