WASHINGTON—Day 111 of the shit show circus. That’s how many days I’ve now lived and languished in the District of Christopher Columbus. And just like you’d find under any red-and-white striped big top, here there are clowns and disappearing acts and fanged beasts and frightened gasps and guffawing fat men counting money behind blood-soaked curtains. But once in a blue moon, the cosmos take pity and I get a break from all the orange man doom and grody gloom.
I was sitting to coffee on May 10, in the middle of reading a nasty story, when I got a call from W. Kamau Bell, comedian and host of the piercing and poignant United Shades of America on CNN. Kamau and I have run into each other several times, once at the Democratic National Convention in Philly, and he towers over me like a sweet, chuckling oak tree. This time, though, I wanted to chat with him about his Native-focused episode, slated to air May 14 (10 p.m. ET/PT), and also just to shoot the shit because Kamau shoots shit, and he shoots shit well.
In this episode, Kamau visits Standing Rock, the now-gone Oceti Sakowin camp, with water protectors like Ojibwe attorney Tara Houska, actor Adam Beach, families on nearby Pine Ridge reservation, including one whose son had recently been a victim of gang violence.
I told Kamau that I’d been given a preview of the episode:
“I think it’s fuckin’ fantastic,” I said.
“Thank you, man,” he responded gleefully. “You don’t know how much that means to me.”
“The first question I wanted to ask is – Natives are typically overlooked in the mainstream and mainstream programs, especially when it comes to race – so, how did this episode come to be? Was somebody sitting around the table saying, ‘we should really talk about Natives’?”
“To me,” Kamau said, “when we started with the first season of ‘United Shades of America,’ you start to go, ‘well, this is a show where we talk to groups who aren��t being talked to enough or covered enough. And so from the first moments of the show, we were like, ‘we should do something with Native people,’ but even the fact that we approached it that way shows how little we knew. We were like, ‘something!’ So it revealed our ignorance … It’s the thing where it’s like if you talk about Muslims, it’s like, oh, yeah, Islamophobia (or) the Muslim ban. All those things are so covered you sort of know where the tension points are, and that’s where the show comes out of – the tension points. You can’t really pitch to CNN ‘something with Native people.’ They want a specific thing. So the second season comes around, and again we said, ‘we should do something.’ Then suddenly Standing Rock happens, and you’re just like ‘holy shit.’ And it sucks that it takes that, but nobody (at CNN) could deny that there was something to talk about.”
By this point in our chat I was seriously high on caffeine, vibrating like a cheap bed in a seedy middle America motel. I wasted no time in blurting the next question:
“What do you hope people will take away from this episode?” I asked.
“I know that for probably most people watching, an overwhelming majority – probably more than any other episode we’ll ever do – this is all new information,” he said. The Native episode isn’t meant to galvanize the closed-minded, stuck-in-their-way folks into action, prompting them to finally come to terms with what REALLY happened to Natives in this country, on this continent, Kamau added. Instead, he said, “I’m sort of going to the people who are already having these conversations. We need to make sure when we have conversations about America, America’s racism and white supremacy, that we don’t forget to center Native Americans in that conversation.”
We went on to talk about faux feather headdresses, playing Indian, people playing Indian in faux feather headdresses, and about the time musician Pharrell wore that mawkish headdress for the cover of Elle Magazine. (Pharrell quickly – and publicly – apologized after Natives took to Twitter and Facebook and hounded him with facts regarding the reality of cultural theft and misappropriation; he claimed he didn’t know he was participating in something so rotten and wrong.) So I asked Kamau:
“Was there anything (during filming) where you went, ‘holy shit, I did not know that?’”
“I really give Tara (Houska) a lot of credit for this. The conversation we had was probably one that I think about the most.” Kamau said Tara told him about police brutality in Indian country. That Natives are the demographic most likely to be killed by police. “That’s when I was like, ‘wait, wait, wait, what!? I believe you, but can you show me the statistics’? The fact that Natives, per capita, are affected by (police brutality) more and are not even in the conversation …” Kamau paused for a brief second. When he spoke again he admitted that this episode is the one he’s most nervous about in the second season. “It’s not like people can go, ‘OK, I’ll just watch the next hour-long program on Native Americans on mainstream cable television.” He said he wanted to do right by Natives, give them the mic as it were, “because it’s not my story,” he said. Kamau, in his booming, baritone voice, told me he knows full well that after this show airs, there won’t be another like it anytime soon … at least until the third season of ‘United Shades of America’ he hinted, adding that he knows there’s more to cover, more to film, more to learn.
“I know that the 43 minutes plus commercials is not the whole story,” he said, “that there was a lot of stuff that we got that we had to cut out because there’s only 43 minutes. We got great interviews on the Standing Rock reservation we had to cut out, and I also know that these are not the only two tribes in the country. I was trying to make sure that this (isn’t perceived) as thee Native American story. I just want to let people know that if the series continues past this season we will certainly go to other places and find more stories.”
I got off the phone with Kamau buzzing and rattling all over from the joe, feeling a little better about the state of Natives and the mainstream media, but still pretty damned depressed that Trump is president and that the Dakota Access Pipeline has already leaked oil into the soil in South Dakota. Hold on, I thought. Don’t stray into bad news. Not just yet. Ask Tara what she thought of the episode:
“Natives in mainstream media are a rarity. It’s refreshing and empowering to see indigenous voices featured, tearing down stereotypes and speaking from the heart on where we are today,” she said. “Kamau does not exploit, he provides space to speak for ourselves. In a single episode, his show breaks apart myths, educates, and inspires.”
Hear hear. I agree. Because although there is, today, a dearth of Natives represented in mainstream media, which is a sad state of affairs, for now, we must laud those who pass the mic and utter to a room full of non-Native producers and editors and writers, “we should do something with Native people.” Indeed. We should. A seat at the table. It’s coming.
Now, back to the shit show circus. The clowns. Watch yourselves. They bite.
Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala and Chicano, is the Culture Editor at Indian Country Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @SimonMoyaSmith.