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Laughter, the best medicine

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Chalepah

By Luke Groskopf Journal staff writer

Adrianne Chalepah, by her own account, is a rare breed: a Native American, female, stand-up comic. She embraces that uniqueness. She tries to inspire other Native funny-women to follow in her footsteps. With comedy, she also sees the chance to make an impression, to communicate positive messages to youth about self-image, self-esteem and physical health.

Chalepah, 27, lives in Cortez, but her Kiowa-Apache roots are in Oklahoma. Her husband, Waylon Plenty Holes, is half Ute Mountain Ute and grew up in Towaoc, although his tribal membership is with the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota.

She's been doing comedy as a professional career for three years.

As far back as she can recall, Chalepah loved to make people laugh. It came naturally; she almost couldn't help it. And sometimes it got her into trouble.

COMMENTS FROM THE PEANUT GALLERY

Chalepah's ninth-grade teachers, unimpressed by her wit and wisecracks, saw no choice but to throw her in detention. Eventually she was expelled for "harassing teachers and being a distraction in class," and finished out the year at a boarding school.

"I was the class clown, very sarcastic. I learned the hard way that not every teacher was in the mood for my jokes. So I toned it down a bit when I came back as a sophomore," said Chalepah, who remembers being "paddled" for her hijinks.

"In Oklahoma at that time, corporal punishment in schools was legal. Maybe it still is," she added.

Chapelah worked hard to control her goofy, mischievous side for the rest of high school and into college. She took advantage of Fort Lewis College's Native American tuition waiver, double majoring in communications and Native American and indigenous studies there.

IN HER ELEMENT

One fateful night, Fort Lewis held an "open mic" talent show for students. Songwriters, storytellers and poets boldly took the stage, risking yawns and heckling, to perform for their peers. The last portion was reserved for comedy. Chalepah, then 20, decided to give it a try, but the idea of delivering jokes before a seated crowd - even a small one filled with friendly, familiar faces - made her shudder.

"I was sure I was going to bomb, and kept questioning why I signed up for it. The week leading up to (the event), my heart started racing whenever I thought about it. I had to overcome some serious stage fright," she said.

Once in the spotlight, however, the anxiety melted away. In fact, Chalepah felt so at ease, she lost track of time and talked far beyond the five-minute limit.

"It was like an immediate wave of calm. I felt so relaxed. I was in my element. Nobody gave the red light - I just kept talking and nobody stopped me," she said. "You hear of people getting bit by the acting bug - I got bit by the comedy bug. I fell head over heels in love with it."

At Fort Lewis, for the sake of her academics, Chalepah was careful to keep the old class clown persona in check. Apparently she succeeded; several professors approached her after the set, surprised by her engaging, vivacious stage presence.

"They had no idea about this side of me," she said.

Three years later, some things haven't changed. Chalepah performed solo before a massive audience at the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque last weekend. She says she isn't intimidated by crowd size, necessarily. The same last-minute butterflies go aflutter whether dozens or thousands of people are watching.

"That nervous energy can be an advantage. You have to channel it as an adrenaline boost, otherwise it can be your downfall," she said. "If you let the nerves take over, the audience can tell. They know when you're scared, like dogs. They can smell fear."

Chalepah strives for authenticity. Her style of humor is observational and personalized. She enjoys making fun of herself and pointing out ironies of the day-to-day. Often her jokes are scattered inside a long-form monologue about a common experience, like struggling to lose weight or tripping in front of a crush.

"I'm more of a storyteller than a stand-up comedian. I'm not one for clever one-liners. I try to make it as relatable as I can," she said. "And from a feminine perspective, I touch on things the guys can't necessarily speak to."

For Chalepah, it isn't solely about the laughs. She uses her platform as a comedian to speak out candidly on social issues, especially ones that affect Native Americans and women. With her youth and infectious personality, schools invite her to give motivational talks, where she hones in on teen-relevant topics like body image and nutrition. Years ago she made a personal commitment to avoid drugs and alcohol.

"We're all in this together, trying to make our society better. You always have to start at home, with yourself," she said. "I'm not pretending to be perfect by any means. If I have my own obstacles, I'm open about them."

Likewise, Chalepah doesn't shy away from confronting sensitive taboos that tend to get swept under the rug. She mentioned suicide and domestic violence as two prominent scourges on many reservations.

Chalepah says encountering young Native girls with comic talent is a rewarding thrill. At a recent show in Durango, an 11-year-old girl warmed up the crowd before she came on stage.

"She was so small and had this tiny voice. Standing in front of people is hard for adults, let alone kids. I was worried," Chalepah said. "But she was so confident in her ability to make them laugh. Her timing was perfect and she had the crowd rolling within her first joke."

Chalepah is also working with a college-age girl she's taken under her wing and hopes to bring along on tour with her troupe, 49 Laughs. The name comes from the colloquial term, among some tribes, for a powwow after-party.

"Where I come from, 49s are a chance to hang out and have a good time," she said. "The (troupe) founders chose a name that was uniquely Native American but that wasn't cliché, like Eagle Feather Comedy or something."

Chalepah knows her industry isn't for everyone; life as a comedian is risky and capricious. With two small kids, she quit her stable day job at Citizens State Bank in 2010 to pursue comedy full-time.

"I remember being afraid about falling on my face financially, with a family to care for. But comedy (is) where my heart was. To be happy I needed to follow it and see where it took me. I have no regrets now," she said.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com

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