PORTLAND, Oregon — A Washington State University alum is now a writer for a Netflix animated series he wished he could've watched when he was a kid growing up in the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in Vancouver, Washington.
“Spirit Rangers’ is a show I’m so excited to be a part of," said writer and comedian Joey Clift.
The animated series just got picked up for a second season. The show, geared toward kids, centers around the Skyceder family. They work as park rangers and the three siblings have a secret: they can transform into “spirit rangers” to protect the park they call home.
“It’s the first kids show in the history of U.S. animation created by a Native person, the genius Karissa Valencia, with an all-Native writers’ room,” Clift said.
Clift is part of that team.
“I think there was around 100 Native folks as part of the cast and crew. So, it’s one of the largest Indigenous teams in the history of U.S. animation, probably all animation,” he said.
Early in the process, the creator and writers were trying to decide the tribal makeup of the Skyceder family. Should it be one tribe? A mixed-tribe family? Should it be based on real tribes or imaginary ones?
“We settled on the mom being part of the Chumash Tribe, which is Karissa Valencia’s tribe, and the dad being part of the Cowlitz Tribe, which is my tribe,” Clift said. “And we received a blessing from my tribe to make that happen.”
Clift and the “Spirit Rangers” team worked with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe on cultural aspects of the show. The tribe’s insignia appears in the end credit of each episode.
“There’s the really great reaction that the show has gotten from Natives and non-Natives, just appreciating a really cool kids show, but then there’s such an emotional outpouring of support from Native Communities and my own community, which is just amazing to see,” Clift said. “It’s not just a career highlight that I got to do this. It’s a life highlight that I got to do that.”
A career he didn’t think was a possibility.
“Growing up I really loved comedy. Shows like the Simpsons, Family Guy, 90s era Conan Obrien, but because I didn’t see any Native American on TV at the time, I didn’t think I was like, allowed to work in comedy,” he said. “So, I actually went to school to be a small market tv weather guy to hopefully work at a tv station such as this reporting the weather.”
During his time at WSU he got some good advice from professors.
“They kind of pulled me aside and said, ‘hey, you know you can just work in comedy, right?’ and I was like, what?”
His professors encouraged him to move to Los Angeles to chase his dream 13 years ago.
“I moved to LA, really just dove into the comedy scene with both feet with the goal to create funny projects and funny work that would help marginalized people feel seen and have the permission to dream,” Clift said.
He started acting and doing improve, but it’s a digital short that started to open new doors — "Telling People You're Native American When You’re Not Native American Is A Lot Like Telling a Bear You’re a Bear When You’re Not a Bear."
“Basically, a Fiona Apple album of a short title,” he said.
It’s a funny short film that takes on the serious issue of micro aggression. It won awards and made its way through the film festival circuit
“It screened everywhere from 'Just for Laughs' to the 'Smithsonian Museum,' which is wild,” he said.
Clift is now working with Comedy Central on a new digital short series called "Gone Native."
“All about these kinds of stereotypical portrayals of Natives in the media, microaggressions, and basically taking all of those things, bundling them up and cracking jokes about them, because they’re all weird and people shouldn’t do them,” Clift said.
He’ll also be back in the writers’ room for season two of "Spirit Rangers,” proud to share and represent his Cowlitz Tribe culture.
“Just like a comedian who writes jokes for living, who thought I was going to be a weather guy for small market TV – that I got to play a small part in people becoming passionate about part of their culture and it’s just so cool that I get to do that,” Clift said.