Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 16, 2013

Native American comedians highlight Pow Wow Jam

BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS mdrahos@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — PESHABESTOWN — “April showers bring May flowers. And Mayflowers bring pilgrims.”

“… ‘Survivor,’ I can’t stand that show. No Indians … It’s probably a good idea, because they’re not gonna vote me off the island. They’re just gonna vote me to the crappy part of the island and leave me there for 200 years.”

They’re zingers that get big laughs for the Native American comedians of the Pow Wow Comedy Jam — and not just from Native audiences. The comedians are equally funny to mainstream viewers, as evidenced by their appearances on the 2009 Showtime special, “Goin’ Native: The American Indian Comedy Slam” and at venues like the Las Vegas Hilton, the Hollywood Improv and The University of Wisconsin.

“We’re really mainstream comedians,” said co-founder Marc Yaffee, who is Aztec and Navajo but was raised by adoptive parents with Irish in the mix. “We started in comedy clubs as opposed to some, who started on the reservation. Although we have a Native slant, people all have certain common challenges: we all deal with relationships, life struggles. If you can make it funny, people can relate.”

Still, the three comedians — Yaffee, Howie Miller (Cree) and Vaughn Eaglebear (Colville/Lakota) — are understandably popular at casino shows, tribal events and VIP Player parties. Named the National Indian Gaming Association’s 2010 Entertainers of the Year and the North American Indigenous Image Awards’ 2011 Comedy Performers of the Year, they’ve been performing together since 2005 on what they call “The Trail of Laughs.”

“We’re all different styles,” said Yaffee, whose funniest material may revolve around his mixed heritage — an “ethnic stew” — and his discovery of his Native roots. “Vaughn does a little Native rap that always gets a big reaction. We say, ‘Vaughn comes from left field: he’s in the parking lot.’ He’s very quirky and fun. Howie’s real loud and brash; it’s like a big party on stage. Me, I’m more boom-boom-boom, rapid-fire one joke after the other.”

Yaffee has entertained audiences on three continents, including U.S. Troops in the Persian Gulf, Germany, Korea and Japan. His TV credits include “Byron Allen’s Comics Unleashed” and SiTV’s “Funny is Funny.”

An accomplished Pow Wow drummer and emcee, the multi-talented Eaglebear also practices social work, perhaps the inspiration for his more thought-provoking material, and wrote the song “John Wayne’s Teeth” for the movie “Smoke Signals.”

Miller is a top comedian in Canada, where he has performed at major comedy festivals including the prestigious Montreal Just For Laughs Festival and serves as a writer and performer on the hit sketch comedy show, “Caution: May Contain Nuts.” His TV credits also include “Comedy Now Presents: Howie Miller.”

The Pow Wow Comedy Jam Tour comes to the Leelanau Sands Casino & Lodge at 9 p.m. Saturday. The show coincides with the Peshabestown Traditional Jiingtamok (Pow Wow) Saturday and Sunday on the Peshabestown Pow Wow Grounds.

That pow wow will be emceed by Derek Bailey, former tribal chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, who is returning for his 15th year as emcee after a few years off. Grand entry times are Saturday at noon and 7 p.m. and Sunday at noon.

“Jiingtamok is a celebration of life, of Anishinaabek, a social gathering, a time to come together for song and dance and just enjoying the beautiful display of dancers and singing and drumming,” Bailey said. “As emcee, my job is to keep the audience informed about what’s happening and also the meaning behind it.

“It’s an opportunity for those who live here to learn more about the Anishinaabek — here, the Odawa and Ojibwe — and to watch as an observer. But more important, we encourage everyone to dance. One of the best ways of learning is experiential, from the food to the arts and crafts.”

Bailey said he plans to attend Saturday night’s comedy show, which will complement that day’s Jiingtamok.

“Indian humor is funny,” he said. “We’ve always had laughter whenever we get together. Being too serious all the time is not balanced.”

Admission to both events is free, however donations will be accepted at the Jiingtamok’s main booth.