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Native American Comedian Joey Clift Calls Out Tired Stephen King Trope

"Dear Legendary Horror Author Stephen King, instead of using Indian Burial Grounds in your books, have you thought about using European Burial Grounds?"

Native American Comedian Joey Clift in a suit printed with cats

Popularized by Stephen King, the “Indian Burial Ground” has long been a mainstay of horror, much to the chagrin of actual Native Americans. Thankfully, more and more Native creatives are fighting against the trope, with some taking direct action and calling out King specifically.

Joey Clift is a Native American comedian, writer, and director, and his newest animated short succinctly pokes fun at King and the Indian Burial Ground trope: “Dear Legendary Horror Author Stephen King, instead of using Indian Burial Grounds in your books, have you thought about using European Burial Grounds?”

The short was written and directed by Clift, narrated by Román Zaragoza of Ghosts, and is available to view on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

This is not the first time Clift has called out Stephen King and the trope of Indian Burial Grounds. He also previously dissected the trope on the Dead Meat Podcast. There, he explored not only “Natives” in horror, but also the long history of physical and cultural violence committed against Native people, some of which was ongoing when King and other writers were using Indian Burial Grounds in their works.

This short is also the fifth episode in a series Clift is calling “Gone Native.” Each short goes into a different aspect of the cultural appropriation or misinterpretations Native Americans face, including calling yourself Native when you’re not actually Native, coming to terms with the loss of your Native caricature sports mascot, the near complete lack of education about contemporary Native people in your average K-12 classroom, and Non-Natives using important Native terms like “Spirit Animal.” Clift uses humor and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to thoughtfully dissecting these issues.

“My goal with these shorts is to use jokes to shine a light on all of the weird microaggressions that Native folks deal with on a regular basis,” Clift explained over email. “Oftentimes, when I and my friends are subjected to weird microaggressions about Native people (most often said to us by Non-Native people), we’re left to feel powerless and that somehow we’re the problem for being upset or annoyed about this stuff. I’m reframing these microaggressions so instead of being aimed at Native people, they’re aimed at a dangerous bear and the person causing those microaggressions is receiving some consequences for their actions (by being mauled). It’s cathartic and I hope educational about how much it sucks to have to deal with these microaggressions on a regular basis when you’re just trying to live your life.”

Unfortunately, not everyone has been open to his critiques. Some commenters claimed, “Stephen King books are so old,” as if the man isn’t still publishing and the most recent IT movie didn’t also use “Native American Magic” as a major plot point. Others said that Clift is playing into negative stereotypes about Native people being “angry, racist, and arrogant” and/or “entitled.” 

Personally, I think these commenters are telling on themselves by getting offended over a joke. These shorts, while informative and critical, are also clearly meant to be humorous and enjoyable. You’re really going to get upset over a short that says “Belgian waffles are scary delicious” with an animated skull melting like a pad of butter?

But it also raises a point about how Native people are constantly nitpicked for their behavior. Many POC are expected to not speak up about injustices for fear of being perceived negatively and thereby reinforcing the popular perception.

It’s only when people fight against those perceptions and banish the myths that real change happens and people are allowed to be seen as individuals, and not as reflections of their race or ethnicity.

It’s also important to Native kids to see themselves reflected positively.

“All of our combined efforts I think are causing this really cool upswell of Native folks who are realizing that they can not only be a part of the entertainment industry, but they can be successful in the entertainment industry,” Clift said in an interview with Crosscut. “It feels like the work that we’re doing is inspiring Native folks to give their dreams a shot, and giving them the permission to dream that the media didn’t necessarily give us growing up.”

“Beyond that, a lot of my shorts have been shared heavily on TikTok and I really appreciate that it’s equipped a lot of Native people with an easy joke they can make to defuse what could be otherwise annoying experiences,” Clift further explained over email. “For example, I’ve heard a few stories of Native kids being bullied or facing racial microaggressions at school, telling their bullies that if they don’t stop it they’ll be ‘mauled by a bear,’ or with some other joke from Gone Native in the same way that I used to defuse tense schoolyard situations with jokes from The Simpsons growing up. Hearing that my silly videos have equipped a few folks with a way to defuse stressful situations with jokes is the coolest thing ever!”

That sounds like a win in my book.

(featured image: Joey Clift)

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Kimberly Terasaki is a Creative Writing graduate, fanfiction author, and intersectional feminist. She liked Ahsoka Tano before it was cool, will fight you about Rey being a “Mary Sue,” and is a Kamala Khan stan. She appreciates all constructive criticism and genuine discussion.