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Comedian Ralphie May tries to turn Indian joke controversy around

Comedian Ralphie May's tour bus is seen in Los Angeles, in August 2015. Photo from Facebook

Comedian Ralphie May on Wednesday offered to use his celebrity to help Indian Country even as he faced continued criticism for an old joke that many found offensive.

Appearing on the nationally-syndicated Native America Calling show on Wednesday, May once again apologized for the hurtful words in the routine that resurfaced on YouTube last week. Regardless of the context of the joke, he said shouldn't have told Indian people to "get over" the discrimination, racism and stereotypes they encounter in their everyday lives.

"I was woefully ignorant of the plight that's going on with our Natives," May told host Tara Gatewood during the one-hour program.

To make amends, May said he plans to take on issues like violence against Native women in his upcoming stage shows and comedy specials. He credited his new-found purpose to people like Adrianne Chalepah, a comedian and member of the Kiowa Tribe whose YouTube clip sparked the controversy, and Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a member of the Wilton Rancheria whom he said is educating him on the challenges facing Native youth.

Comedian Adrianne Chalepah posted a clip on YouTube that sparked the controversy. Photo from Twitter

"Why is this group full of despair? May said in reference to the high rates of suicide among young American Indians and Alaska Natives. "They're being spit on. They're being called hateful things. I apologize that I added to it."

Chalepah, who described herself as a "fan" of May, said she accepted the apology from her fellow comic. She was upset that her clip led to online bullying and even death threats but she was eager to move forward in order to advance the causes she holds dear, like the fight against racist mascots.

"He's a father. He's got kids. He's a human being," Chalepah said of May. "We can all make mistakes."

Not everyone was willing to express the same sentiment. Anthony Fernandes, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe whose Savage Family hip-hop group incorporated May's expletive-filed rant into one of its tracks, accused May of trying to turn the tables on his critics rather than fully accept responsibility for the language he used in the routine.

"A bully will bully a person over and over again," Fernandes said on the program.

And several callers, both Indian and non-Indian alike, said May's concessions rang hollow.

Ralphie May on YouTube: Racially Charged, Not Racist

"You are apologizing but it doesn't sound like it's coming from the heart," said one caller from the Yakama Nation in Washington. "It sounds like you are being forced to do these things."

May's original apology indeed came after he insisted that he would not be offering one. Screengrabs of his Twitter feed that were captured by Indian Country Today showed him making some inflammatory statements that have since been deleted.

His professional standing also has taken somewhat of a hit. The city council in Bemidji, Minnesota, directed a city-subsidized venue to cancel his show after learning about the routine. Native Americans represent about 11.3 percent of the population in the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and three reservations are nearby.

The comedian then postponed three more shows this week in Fargo, North Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Burnsville, Minnesota, due to the controversy. Indian activists and their supporters in those cities were planning protests and other actions had he gone on stage.

But May is returning to the road on Friday and his tour is taking him to places with less of an Indian presence where he's not likely to encounter significant opposition. He's heading to the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest and southern California in the summer and in the fall.

With his plans seemingly back on track, May was asked how he will promote better understanding of Indian issues. He said he would be bringing a simple message to his audience.

"Try -- it's really easy," May said on Native America Calling. "All you have to do is shut your mouth and open your ears."

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