Healing through humor with Tatanka Means

Indian Country Today

Actor and comedian Tatanka Means reflects on healing with laughter in a Native way amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Tatanka Means is arguably one of the best-known Native actors and comedians in Indian Country, who in early 2020, had a jam-packed schedule filled with comedy gigs, acting jobs and speaking engagements. 

When COVID-19 hit, Means had all of his plane flights, and gigs canceled. But he pressed on. 

In a conversation with the actor who has recently appeared in the HBO series “I Know This Much Is True”, the feature film “Once Upon A River” as well as the Netflix series “The Liberator”. Aside from acting he’s also a stand-up comedian and a motivational speaker and he’s still going strong through this pandemic. Means described how he has coped.

The answer is healing through humor.

In addition to words from Means, Indian Country Today intern Kalle Benallie talks about her latest articles. 

Here are comments from Means and Benallie:

Tatanka Means:

“It was really by surprise. I heard the news around the world what was happening but I'm on the road every other week and I was just kind of concentrating on booking my shows, things I had coming up with the film industry and graduation speeches of course, cause you know, May's always really busy April and May with graduations and all of a sudden it just stopped. All my flights were canceled and we kind of went into quarantine.”

“After I heard of the seriousness, I knew eventually, it would be here in the States and it would spread but I was looking out for myself and my own family. A lot of gigs, a lot of shows still continued to happen like into late April, even early May even though they were social distancing and things like that, I think it just wasn't as heavy yet in some places. I decided, for the best interests of my family and people around me, to go ahead and cancel things.”

“I think that's when people started protesting, Disneyland open it back up, right? No, it was busy. Like, I heard that they opened up for like a weekend here and there or something and it was just packed everyone was trying to just social distance but as soon as people get in there and just kind of forget about social distancing, masks, everything like that.”

“People are just going through hard times right now in different places. People are losing people. Communities are being hit hard but you know through comedy, through history, with Indian people, we always laugh when we're having hard times. That's why I say the humor brings us back up when we're at funerals. You know, we're laughing hard, sometimes telling stories those good old times, you know what I mean? And it's just finding the humor right now in what's happening in everyday life and how it's changed. My daughter's going back to school right now, but she's not going back to school. Everything's online. I mean, there's no eating in restaurants. There's pickup only there's this humor all over the place.”

“If I ever do get back on the road, I've been working on my set and it's just, you know, totally changed from where it was before to where we are right now.”

“That's right. And it's healing. I don't know what they think of some of us that are laughing at funerals hard, but, you know, it's healing because we let those feelings out. We laugh, we cry, people think sometimes we just cry because we're feeling bad, we're crying because we're healing and we're laughing so hard, releasing those emotions and it's beautiful. It's a beautiful thing. And that's what I love about our people. That's what I love about traveling Indian country and going to all different communities. I was just reflecting back on my year, last year and the places I was this time last year, the places I visited and really cherishing those moments with community members and people that I saw then that are no longer around.”

“A lot of big powwows have been canceled, big contests, the traveling has been cut off, those relationships where we go to visit somebody, we stay with them, we Powwow everybody's together, that's all been changed right now. And so yeah, that human connection is definitely something that is new and is developing, we still get it right now through the virtual and different areas like that but it's something new to me that I'm learning.”

“I tried to stay away from it, as soon as online things started happening. I tried to social distance myself over the internet, just because to me comedy, live standup comedy, you need an audience and you need that interaction, that flow, that laughter, it's a rhythm. It’s definitely interactive. When I started participating and being asked to speak or do some comedy online here and there for colleges, it was different for me because the first time I did it everybody was on there and then they muted themselves. So I just started going and I couldn't hear them because they were muted and besides, it would have been weird anyway because there's a delayed reaction. And so I could just see them there. Yeah. It was new, it was different but it's something that you just gotta get on and ride and hope for the best.”

“When things started closing down, Gallup was shut down on lockdown, shout out and big thanks to everybody out there that's been doing a lot of work. That's been hauling wood, taking water, taking bags, a tray of food.”

“It's really cool to see the community come together like that, the community band together and people helping one another and just getting that connection, even though we're not directly sitting down at a table together but we're still helping each other out. It was really beautiful to see all across the board from our elders to the young people out there getting involved.”

“It's not really set up as a joke yet but it's something that amuses me that I find very entertaining because you know, right when masks came out, masks are mandatory. N-95s, what did we do? We started beading our masks. We started quilling our masks. You have seen people with the fanciest masks. That's what Indians do. That's what we do. We can't have a regular key chain. We bead the key chain. You know what I mean? We had beaded masks, full-on beaded masks, all the best bead makers out there were getting orders. I don't even know if these things were protective or not but they sure did look good. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ So it was things like that. That just really stood out to me like how we put our twist on it.”

“Yeah. That's right. And Indians, we always got to make everything a competition. You know, all the powwows were canceled. So we had online social distance, powwows and it was just a social thing. Nope. Turn it into a contest, who can get the most likes, who can get the most shares. That's the winner.”

“And then we did it with the hand drums singing. Then they went to full-on drum group competitions online. We always make everything a competition. I mean, it's fun that way.”

“This is the time for people at home to hone your skills, to get better, to write and do things like that. That's certainly what I've been working on and just kind of watching the world.”

Kalle Benallie:

“I talked to a third level law student and she goes to ASU and she talked about how the more difficult classes for her this upcoming semester will be online. Stuff like doing the clinics and then doing her arguments in person, it's all very difficult in the upcoming semester.”

“She's attending Arizona State University law program. She's really expressing and hoping that her future internships and clerkships will understand that this is all very new for many people and many books going online and she hopes that they will be lenient, if they choose pass or fail grading system, or if even maybe do a little worse than a class because not many students are prepared for an online learning environment, when you think about somebody who's trying to become a lawyer and then you think about young kids going to school online, it is very challenging.”

“Before all of this happened, she wanted to go to Washington D.C. and get an internship there but she was still waiting to get an acceptance letter but she was still concerned about the safety and about what was going on at home. So she just decided not to take that internship and do one with her local tribe. And yeah, just all of her plans really shifted.”

“Some other law students are finding that law offers they had were rescinded because people just aren't working...she was still wondering in the back of her mind if she maybe did get it but they weren’t clear with her.”

“Judge Diane Humetewa who is Hopi and she was the first Native American woman judge on the federal bench. I check those sources with the Federal Judicial Center...her name is judge Ada Brown, she's from the Northern District of Texas and she was confirmed in September 2019 but she is not on the list of Native American judges, so I still have to get confirmation about that with them but she was nominated by President Trump last year.”

“Yes. She said, listening styles had to change because of the litigator. She was really paying attention to the argument and to her own case and how to arrange that. But as a judge, she said that she really had to listen to both parties and a more neutral way.”

“She said that she was at a bookstore and how the owner or manager sort of yelled at her and said, ‘I don't like you people and you need to get out.’ And so she had that situation and when the cops came, she showed them her attorney's badge and then the cop decided not to do anything further. And so that was a really a turning point cause she has a black father and that's made her really she said in the last piece that she wanted to settle for peanuts because she wants to set a precedent for this kind of discrimination.”

Also in the newscast, Deputy Managing Editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest positive COVID-19 test numbers in Indian Country. The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva.

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