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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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JR Redwater: 'Full-Blooded Hilarious'
by Paulette Tobin - Grand Forks (ND) Herald
Comedian will tape his live stand-up Friday night in Dakota Magic Casino.

Comedian JR Redwater is so confident in what an upcoming comedy special on cable television will do for his career, he’s taping his stand-up show Friday night in Dakota Magic Casino so he’ll be ready to take his career to the next level.

Redwater and six other American Indian comedians will be featured in “Goin’ Native: The American Indian Comedy Slam,” set to premiere Dec. 31 on Showtime, a show that Redwater believes will raise his profile nationwide.

So, at 8 p.m. Friday, when Redwater performs live in Dakota Magic Casino near Hankinson, N.D., his solo act will be filmed as “Full-Blooded Hilarious,” ready to market to television after the Showtime special airs.

“It’s all about being proactive and striking while the iron is hot,” Redwater said.

Standing Rock Member
Redwater is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, whose reservation straddles the border of southwestern North Dakota and South Dakota. He spent part of his youth in Grand Forks, attending Winship and Lake Agassiz elementary schools while his parents attended UND. Even then, he remembers, some of his friends told him he should be a comedian.

“My humor has always been in place, ever since I can remember,” Redwater said. “I was known as the family clown. When I would show up in school, I would know my life and my household wasn’t perfect, so even in school, I would make people laugh to deflect the reality that I grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family.”

After Grand Forks, his family lived on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in central South Dakota, where he attended an all-Indian boarding school and joined the Navy after graduation. He was deployed to Japan aboard the USS Independence and later served aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Three WestPac cruises to the Persian Gulf later, he returned to South Dakota with a serious drinking problem.

Redwater’s “fearless style of raw funny,” as his press kit describes it, reflects the harshness of reservation life and of Redwater’s life. Check out videos of Redwater on YouTube, taped during part a Powwow Comedy Jam appearance at Wisconsin’s St. Croix Casino & Hotel. You’ll hear him riff about Mom’s good Indian cooking (“powdered eggs, powdered milk, commodity cheese”) and talk about what he hears from every casting director at every audition he goes to in Hollywood: “Where are your braids?”

He makes fun of his Indian name, “Wanbli-Ohitika,” or Brave Eagle. “It sounds like my dad just looked into a bowl of alphabet soup,” he says. He jokes about taking offense at an airline attendant who asked him if he wanted a blanket: “Last time we took blankets, we died!” Clean and sober for more than seven years, he explains why he quit drinking: “I was allergic to alcohol. Every time I drank, I broke out in handcuffs.”

This is humor with a hard edge, reminiscent of Richard Pryor’s storytelling, without the F-word.

“Native people are naturally funny people, man,” Redwater said in an interview. “We use humor to deal with all of our tragedies that we’ve ever been through. That’s how our people have been able to survive and deal with the way life has changed so drastically in a couple of hundred years.”

Sacred Clowns
Among the Lakota people, there was a tradition of sacred clowns called heyokha who did things backward. For instance, if food were scarce, a heyokha would sit around and complain about how full he was. During a heat wave, he would put on gloves and cover himself with a blanket. The satire was important in the native culture. It was believed the sacred clowns had the power to heal emotional pain, Redwater said.

Redwater said his travels and life experiences have taught him there is common ground in his stories because tragedy happens to everyone, no matter what race, ethnicity or gender. Because he performs for non-native audiences all the time, he knows they relate to his comedy, too.

After he moved to California, Redwater got sober and became a long-haul truck driver before falling off the wagon, getting two DUIs and losing his license. His struggle with alcohol continued for a time. He worked as a mechanic before quitting to pursue his comedy career full time. Today, in addition to stand-up, he is a motivational speaker and a Christian who believes God is directing his path, he said.

Hard edge
Redwater acknowledges his stand-up may have a hard edge, he said.

“If people don’t want to laugh, I think it’s because they feel some kind of guilt, and that’s not what’s it’s about,” he said. “One thing people need to remember — it is comedy. This ain’t a ‘take s—t seriously’ show, this is a comedy show. We came here to laugh. We didn’t come here to be judgmental. That’s what I’m going to give them Friday night.”

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