Comedian Adrianne Chalepah didn’t figure out a way to make her smart mouth pay off until after it got her kicked out of school.
Chalepah grew up in Anadarko, Oklahoma, as an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribes of Oklahoma and the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma. Half white, she struggled with her identity and her attitude.
“So I’ve always been a big mouth and a smart ass,” she says from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “And I got into a lot of trouble as a kid – especially in high school when the hormones were racing. I had a lot of teenage angst. I was a straight A student, but I couldn’t figure out how to control my mouth.”
Part of the problem, she said, was being Kiowa and Apache and going to a public school.
“At school they were teaching us basically that my ancestors were Asian,” she said. “And at home, I was getting a completely different education that consisted of creation stories and culture and justice. It created a very confused ninth grader…. I had detention every single day because I was the class clown. But sometimes it was that I was just a bully to my teachers. I do feel bad about it in retrospect… but at the same time… I felt like there wasn’t any space for me in public school.”
Although her attitude got her kicked out of school for a while, it also spurred her creative talent.
“I was basically heckling my teachers and letting them know in every single class what B.S. I thought their education was,” she said. “And they were not happy about the distraction. But the thing is, my classmates were laughing.”
After transferring to an Indian-run boarding school, Chalepah graduated from high school and attended College of Fort Lewis in Durango, Colorado, where she got her degree in mass communication and American Indian studies.
“It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned how to control my mouth,” she said. “I just figured out a way to turn it into entertainment.”
After graduation, she spent two years working in a bank before quitting to do stand up comedy.
“It’s just the most natural high I could ever have,” she said. “I quit my day job and went into stand up and I’ve been there ever since. I’m at a point where I can’t be anywhere else. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have comedy as an outlet.”
While she mostly performs in the Southwest for tribal organizations, she has worked in Rhode Island, New York, and Los Angeles. Non-tribal audiences love her too, she said.
“Most of my experiences in New York City and Los Angeles, in what I call mainstream rooms, have been really well received and so supportive, and I don’t know why,” she said. “Because I mean, you know, it’s definitely different. I know I’m a strong performer, but I do think some of it might be like seeing a unicorn. You’re just like, ‘Well, let me just watch this unicorn, and we’ll be nice to it cause we don’t want to scare it off.’ ”
Pushing herself to do more in other places helps show her she’s got what it takes to succeed on a larger scale.
“I test myself with being like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go to New York City. I’m going to do it, and if I bomb, then it’s my time (to step away), and then I’ll do really well and I’ll be like, ‘OK, and obviously this is gonna keep happening,’” she said. “I keep saying if you guys stop laughing with me and start laughing at me, I will stop, but people keep laughing and that keeps encouraging me. So really, this is all society’s fault.”
Mostly self-deprecating, her humor focuses on herself and her observations of the world around her. A mother of four kids, she talks about family life and living with a house full of men.
“So, I have these kids now,” she says in her act. “And I don’t really like them… I mean, I love them, but… kids are brutally honest. They will tell you to your face, things about your face… Two of my kids are roasting me on a daily basis. They make sure that I don’t have self-esteem and that my head doesn’t get too big.”
In 2014, four years into her comedy career, she founded Ladies of Native, a comedy group of Native American women.
“I just felt like there were very few Native women doing standup,” she said. “I felt like if there were younger women who saw us doing comedy and saw themselves somewhat represented, then maybe it would help open doors for other people.”
The group is still together but finds itself going through a rebranding of sorts, she said.
“I wanted it to be kinda clear what we were. So I needed that Ladies of Native name, but looking back on it,… I just wish I was a little more clever because, like, it feels like I put us in a box when I did that. And then we had trouble getting out of the box.”
Pre-Covid, Chalepah was on the road for a few days once a month. In fact, she’s opened for former First Lady Michelle Obama and has published a book called Funny Girl, an anthology of women comics and writers.
Now, like the rest of us, she is waiting to see what happens post-Covid. In the meantime, she’s going to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to get her master of fine arts in screenwriting. The goal, she said, is to go into acting and screenwriting.
“Yeah, you can screen write during Covid,” she said. “It’s kinda the perfect time to do it.”