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Natasha Brennan
McClatchy Northwest
nbrennan@mcclatchy.com

Native talent and audience members traveled nationwide for an event aimed at gathering laughs and proving to tribal casinos an all-Native lineup can sell out a big venue.

More than 700 people gathered Feb. 5 at the Performing Arts and Event Center in Federal Way, Washington for NSO Entertainment’s third sold-out Native Comedy Jam.

“I want people to see — the casinos to see — that there’s talented people in their own communities, they just need to be given that chance. And that’s what this event does. It gives these talented artists a chance to be seen. Lots of Tribes here could really benefit from what we’re doing,” said Mike Ruffin, founder and CEO of NSO Entertainment.

The show opened up with emcee Kasey “Rezzalicious” Nicholson, a citizen of the A’aa’niii’nin (WhiteClay Nation) of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

“We’re showing how talented we are that we can pull off selling over 700 seats and making an enjoyable, entertaining show for almost three hours,” said Nicholson. “It’s so important for the casinos to look into the Native pool of artists and entertainers.”

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Following Nicholson was Diné and Hopi comedian James Junes. He began his set expressing his hopefulness for the future of Native comedy.

“We’re finally being recognized for our talents. I want to see it more in the next 50 years,” Junes said.

Performing at half-time were Pawnee and Choctaw rappers Lil Mike and Funny Bone, known together as Mike Bone. The duo — who rose to nationwide fame on “American’s Got Talent” in 2013 and are now rolling off the recent success of “Reservation Dogs” on Hulu — was one of the most anticipated acts of the night.

Finishing each other’s sentences, the pair said Native humor is not only something the crowd can connect with, but it also sheds light on serious issues, making it even more important to bring Native humor into the mainstream.

“It’s relatable to a lot of people of color’s comedy. We take our real-life circumstances and embrace it and learn to laugh at it,” Funny Bone said.

Comedian Tatanka Means, who is of Diné, Oglala Lakota and Omaha descent, said bringing in Native talent seems like an obvious choice for Tribal casinos.

“I don’t know why it’s not happening already. If we were able to get into Indian casinos once a month at 12 different casinos all over the U.S., we could be touring, but it’s so hard to convince anybody. They should have a responsibility as a Native casino to bring in Native entertainment sometimes,” he said.

Means was named The National Indian Gaming Association’s Entertainer of the Year for 2018 and will be playing John Wren in the Martin Scorsese film “Killers of the Flower Moon” set to release this year.

“They’re bringing in people that are retired or been off the circuit a long time, but you have current talent — rising talent — who needs support,” he said.

The line-up concluded with Tonia Jo Hall, a comedian from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and Standing Rock Sioux. Known as “Auntie Beachress,” Hall’s set gave the audience comedic Native auntie life lessons.

The last few comedy jams have been held at local event centers, with Native comedy nights held at comedy clubs in Tacoma and Spokane.

Ruffin said his dream is that the show, which features a rotating line-up of Native talent, finds a home at a Native casino so the funds put into renting the space can go back into the community.

The crowd raised $2,350 for the Indigenous survivor-led organization Innovations Human Trafficking Collaborative based in Olympia.

The next Native Comedy Jam, to be held at the Performing Arts and Event Center in Federal Way June 18, will be sponsored by the Nisqually Indian Tribe.

“There’s a stigma that casinos don’t hire Native talent, but this Native casino believes in us. They support us. That’s huge. It’s what this is all about,” Nicholson said.

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Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps.

This story was published through AP Storyshare.