It all started with a dare that would turn into an 18-year career that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Even with his most recent obstacle.
James Junes said life was rolling along when he was hit with the unexpected, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer among American Indian and Alaska Native people and is the second leading cause of cancer death, according to American Indian Cancer Foundation.
It is also the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
He had surgery in February 2018 to remove a polyp but had to be readmitted after it was discovered a hole had formed in his colon where the surgery took place.
He was placed on a liquid diet and doctors told him if the stitches didn’t hold and another surgery was required, there would be a 50/50 chance of survival. Discussing that possibility with his kids was the most difficult thing he said he’s ever had to do.
“I think sometimes in our lives when that our faith gets stretched so thin, it’s sometimes all you hang on to,” Junes said.
Today, he continues to heal but is back on the road, giving motivational speeches, acting and performing stand-up; adding that his battle with cancer makes for some good material.
He said his friends had always told him he was funny but he didn’t necessarily believe them.
“As I grew older, I started being more funny, more animated and non-Natives were telling me ‘You’re funny, what are you doing here? You’re wasting your time here, you oughta to do something with that,’” said Junes, Navajo and Hopi.
In 2001, his wife Rose told him about an ad she saw in the Navajo Times about a stand-up comedy competition in Farmington, New Mexico, where the couple lived and that he should try out. So he signed up.
Stand-up comedy was for the pros, Junes said he thought at the time.
When it came time for the competition in Farmington, Junes admitted it wasn’t the best time in his life. He and his wife had just moved to Farmington from Phoenix, Arizona, with their newborn child and money was tight.
The competition was originally set to take place in February but as Junes describes, “in true Native fashion,” the event was postponed until April. Twenty-two people had initially signed up to take part in February but when April rolled around, only four showed.
Of the three people he was competing with, Junes said there was only one among them who he knew who had something special, a man by the name of Ernest David Tsosie III. Little did either of them know, a little more than a year later they would become the comedic duo known as “James & Ernie.”
“People think I grew up Ernie or I knew him before and said, ‘Hey, let’s go do this one day,’” Junes said. “It was one of those [things] where he was my competitor.”
Junes said he wished Tsosie III good luck before he went on stage, thinking he’d never see him again and recalls him having a good set. Although, Junes would go onto win the competition.
After the win, Junes was still unsure on where comedy could take him or if it was a viable career. He didn’t get his first gig until Sept. 13 of that same year at a conference for the Department of Behavioral Services in Albuquerque, New Mexico, two days after the 9/11 attacks.
Nervous and uncertain about whether or not to go through with his appearance given the events two days prior, Junes ultimately went on to give his performance that would be the starting point of his comedy career.
“I hit a home run that night and I felt like I was on top of the world,” Junes said.
In 2002, a little more than a year after the Farmington competition, “James & Ernie” was born after the two performed together at a comedy event. Being stand-up comedians has allowed them to travel throughout the United States and Canada and as far as Kenya.
Yet, six or seven years ago, Junes thought to himself one day that he felt the need to do more. So he became a motivational speaker. In those speaking engagements, he shares the trials and tribulations he has encountered on the road touring and his battle with alcoholism.
“Whether you have 23 years or you have 23 days [of being sober] the battle is still right there,” said Junes, who’s been 23 years sober himself. “That’s the battle I talk about, that’s the battle I try to convey to people to say, ‘Hey, as long as you take it one day at a time and you continue to focus in on what you need to focus on, your goals can be attained.’”
With all that he’s been through, Junes never thought that dare from his wife would take him this far. Just last week he was on set filming an episode for AMC television show, “Better Call Saul.” He said he had a lump in his throat the entire time and described the experience as surreal.
“This little rez kid from Shiprock, New Mexico, is standing on this big stage and it was like, you know what? There’s dreams that have been put into our minds and in our heads for a purpose,” Junes said. “We can’t stop fighting.”
Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org