Brave Heart

FORT APACHE, ARIZONA--If Drew Lacapa is ever asked to make an album of his humor, he already has a working title--Dissed in Scottsdale. Indian country's hottest new comic does a bit about walking down the sidewalk in that tony desert town and watching all the turquoise-laden women gripping their designer purses and fleeing to the other side of the street. Lacapa is a 300-pound mixed-blood Apache with a goatee, ponytail, black Ray Ban shades, black high-topped Keds and shorts. The look is rounded off by black patches on both knees from his favorite form of relaxation, tending his home-garden in the tiny settlement of Whiteriver on the Fort Apache Reservation.

"I'm one sinister-looking Indian," says Lacapa. "I'll bet there are white people out there right now having nightmares about me."

But there's nothing to fear. Lacapa is 37, the father of three and the product of what he calls a Leave it to Beaver Indian family. He's a Navy veteran for whom patriotism and the American way are as cherished as the Apache spirits he believes watch over him.

Feature Lacapa says he tries his hardest to keep sharp social comment out of his act. He's afraid that his intimidating presence will frighten audiences, something his idol, noted Oneida Indian comic Charlie Hill, doesn't do. Hill's act is pointed and openly confrontational, but he pulls it off because he's small, and has a comfortable, gray-haired look.

But try as he might, Lacapa's intelligence and extreme sensitivity make it impossible for him not to comment on the world as he sees it, and sometimes it hurts.

In a recent performance on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, Lacapa tells his audience that he wears sunglasses so he can look at the lily-white cops who are always pulling him over. He does a riff about John Wayne, complete with an imitation of his hip-shimmy walk, saying the only thing on the Rez that moves and looks like the Duke is a mangy dog.

With the young Apache crowd gripping their sides and howling, Lacapa says he's part Scotch-Irish. "I'd let you see the Scotch-Irish part," he says, "but I'd have to pull down my pants."

The crowd screams. But it's true. Lacapa's dad was Hopi-Tewa and his mother a mixture of Apache and Scotch-Irish. She was born and raised at Fort Apache, as much a part of the tribe as anyone. But because of her very light skin, she was called a half-breed and taunted. When she'd approach, dark-skinned Apaches would whisper, "Keep your voice down. That white woman speaks really good Apache."

"That was tough on her and it opened my eyes," says Lacapa. "We got it from both ends."

His father's story is more tragic. Bennie Lacapa worked as a carpenter for the tribe's Sunrise Park Ski Resort. One day he was having chest pains and asked his white boss if he could spare someone to drive him home. The boss refused. The elder Lacapa, then 54, went out to the highway to hitchhike and was later found dead at the side of the road. He'd suffered a heart attack.

Not long afterward, Lacapa himself began working as a maintenance man at the resort. He was embittered by his father's death, and began plotting revenge against the white boss. "Blood on the snow is a beautiful thing sometimes," he kept telling himself.

But his plan was interrupted when a white man collapsed at the resort, apparently from a heart attack. Lacapa, an ex-Navy corpsman, was summoned. He used his training to stabilize the victim and waited for an ambulance to arrive.

As he knelt there, Lacapa says he was torn between hoping the man would live and wanting him to die because he was white.

"I held his hand, thinking he was part of the people I hated the most, and I was full of anger," says Lacapa.

The man recovered, and in what can only be described as a bizarre aftermath, the white boss, the same one who refused a ride to Lacapa's dad, was awarded a citation of thanks, even though his role in the episode was minor.

When he thinks about the incident now, the irony and absurdity of it almost make Lacapa laugh. But it eventually came to be his redemption, a means of teaching forgiveness. He gave up his dream of revenge, although he probably couldn't have gone through with it anyway. This is, after all, a man who says things like, "I'm happy when my plants are happy," and in an unguarded moment can admit the real reason he wears dark glasses on stage: "Half the time when I'm performing I have my eyes closed because I'm afraid to see people not laughing."

As a boy, Lacapa went deer hunting with his father, and says he can still hear the scream of the doe his dad shot. It sounded exactly like an infant. The long, agonized wail has stayed with him to this day, and so has his alcoholism. Part of Lacapa's story, which he incorporates into his act, is the dependence on drugs and alcohol he developed in the Navy during the late '70s and early '80s. His unit's barracks supplies included a "party bowl" filled with pills and balloons inflated with laughing gas.

"I've been in and out of rehab 12 times," he tells his Apache audience. Pause. Deep breath. "I guess I'll always have gambling to fall back on."

His low point was a suicide attempt in 1988, in which he jammed a powerful rifle into his mouth and squeezed the trigger. It misfired. He says that nothing generates a greater feeling of inadequacy than being unable to die at your own hand. "It hurts to see yourself as such a failure," he says.

Lacapa's demons are quiet now. He believes humor healed him, and continues to do so. "I guess I still have resentments against white people that come out in my act," he says. "I think it's good for people to know what it feels like when it's your ancestors on the line." He shrugs. "But when people start laughing, there's no social order."

LACAPA BEGAN PERFORMING in 1987. He worked fairs, parades, pageants and rodeos on the reservation just for fun. His first payday was 1991, when he was a nursing student at Arizona State University. He was asked to entertain at a Thanksgiving gathering of Native American students. His style hasn't changed from those early shows. He jumps on stage, gauges what he should talk about by the feeling he gets from the crowd, and off he goes. He never uses prepared material.

"If Robin Williams can do it, why not me?" says Lacapa, who sometimes prances on stage in a camp dress, saying real Apache men don't fear their feminine side. "I've never had to work at being funny. It comes naturally."

Carol Sneezy, one of those in attendance at the San Carlos show, believes that part of Lacapa's popularity is because Apaches love to laugh. "It's not our image, but it's always been that way," she says. "We don't take things as seriously as people off the reservation do. If you have a serious life, it won't be a happy world."

Native Americans also find it easy to relate to Lacapa's jokes about growing up as "a total Rez Indian with rough elbows" in a matchbox trailer with seven brothers and sisters, and his dead-on imitation of Indians pointing by pursing their lips.

"We see comedians on TV all the time, but it's not the same," says Sneezy, who teaches the Apache language at the high school in Globe, Arizona. "When it's one of your own, you think, 'Dang, he's talking to me.' "

But Lacapa's star is rising beyond Indian country. Late last year he joined a 14-city tour headed by AIM (American Indian Movement) activist Dennis Banks and Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, the actor who played Ten Bears in Dances With Wolves. The men were drumming up publicity in the hope of getting a pardon or clemency for Leonard Peltier, sentenced to two life terms for killing two FBI agents in a confrontation at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1975.

Lacapa says he joined the tour mostly because he wanted to meet Banks, another of his Indian heroes. But it became a kind of political awakening. At first he wanted to hear nothing about Peltier's case. He was afraid that if he immersed himself in it, and concluded Peltier was innocent, his cherished sense of patriotism would die. But it was unavoidable.

After long hours on the bus talking with Banks and Westerman, and reviewing documents on the case, Lacapa became convinced that Peltier should be set free. "My patriotism kind of flew out the window," says Lacapa. "But it's not entirely gone. I guess I'm stubborn that way. That doesn't mean I can't stab Bill Clinton in the ass every chance I get. Four years ago he promised to remember Native people, and he hasn't done a thing for Native Americans."

The tour put Lacapa's name in newspapers around the country. So did his appearance at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He was the featured comedian at the Native American venue, doing three weeks of shows at $500 apiece. The money was more than half the annual salary he was making changing bedpans at the Indian Health Services Hospital in Whiteriver.

His asking price now is $500 a show. He does about three a month. In mid-June he played a youth jam on the Tohono O'Odham Reservation, another show in Sells, and drew a raucous crowd in one-hundred degree temperatures. He was back in Sells this past weekend, showing up there now about every three months. He plays at the Sunrise Ski Resort and at the Native American Arts Festival in Lakeside, Arizona. This past August he played in Omaha and Santa Fe.

His biggest break, at least potentially, came late last March when Lacapa performed in Tribe, an all-Native American stage show at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix. He played a wannabe warrior and stole the show.

"The audience, which was probably 70 percent white, just loved Drew," says Doron Krinetz, one of the show's writers, and vice president of Red Sky Productions, a Phoenix company. "He did two short segments that we wrote for him, and one five-minute bit that was free-form. He's so physical that he was just standing there and the audience was laughing. I think he was the only character in the whole show they really felt they knew."

True to form, Lacapa took the acclaim with equal doses of appreciation and sarcasm. Told that a local newspaper critic was going to rave about his work, he cracked, "I hope he isn't writing on treaty paper."

Following the closing show, Lacapa and his wife, Olivia, drove to the Ak-Chin Casino outside Phoenix to relax. While there he was approached by an elegant-looking woman who said her husband wanted to meet him. It was 2 a.m. when she led Lacapa into the poker room to meet Paul Silas, an assistant coach of the Phoenix Suns. Silas told Lacapa he was knocked out by his work, and said he had a friend at the famed Apollo Theater in New York who might be interested in him.

Lacapa figured nothing would come of it. But a few days later he was home in Whiteriver when a representative of the Apollo called asking to see a demo tape and some publicity photos. Lacapa has neither, but says he'll put them together before long.

"They'll get them when they get them," he says. "This is as much about the process as anything else. If real success comes down the road, then it comes."

As the experience shows, it might be hard to coax Lacapa too far from his Fort Apache home. He tells a story about the loneliness of his days in the Navy, stationed at Okinawa, where, he says, no Japanese dared speak to him. He liked to sit out at night and daydream about home. He swears that when he closed his eyes he could smell the piñon and the hominy stew, and hear the crown dancers.

"Then I'd look up at the sky and think that somewhere under that same moon was Whiteriver," says Lacapa. "I learned to be grateful for the 1.5 million acres of Fort Apache land. I told myself I'd never want for anything else in my life."

So, for the time being, he's happy being an Apache celebrity. "I get recognized all the time," Lacapa says. "Just the other day, a lady came up to me and goes, 'Aren't you Fernando Valenzuela?' " TW

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