That time Joe Rogan was afraid to smudge, and the Native lady who caused his fear factor
An interview with Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, chief director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, who once dared to enter Rogan’s lion’s den – and came out to gab about it.
We rhetorically asked the other day whether Joe Rogan’s programs in which he’d used the word “redskins” should be pulled, left to the trash heap of history.
After all, Spotify did remove his shows in which he used the N-word, so if one truly believes the R-word is a racial epithet, as the dictionary says it is, it seems like it would be logically consistent to remove programs where he ever said “redskins” as well.
We digress. Plus, Spotify hasn’t gotten back to us yet on that apparently tough question.
As we wait on pins and needles, we offer up for your reading pleasure this interview with Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, chief director of the 100-year-old Association on American Indian Affairs and former chief of staff of the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Our hook for talking to her was her experience of going on Rogan’s program in 2020, just as the pandemic started, so we stayed largely focused on him and his misguided Native beliefs during the following conversation.
We’d love to be invited to go on her own podcast, Red Hoop Talk, because, as she noted during our talk, we could probably chat for hours about stuff other than Rogan’s Napoleon-like appearance (her comparison, not ours).
Let’s see if we can make it happen, but first read on to find out how she ended up on his show in the first place, how she felt when he rebutted her Choctaw Nation origin story (based on – get this – science), and whether she’d go back again.
When you mentioned to me previously that you were nervous to do Joe Rogan’s show, it made me laugh because you probably have so much more wisdom than him in your little pinky than he has in his whole big body.
Well, he doesn't have that big of a body. He's a little guy. He just looks big. He's a little pit bull. I kind of was shrinking myself in pictures that we were taking together because I’m a bit taller than him. I'm 5’7”, so he must be maybe 5’5”, 5’6”, or something like that. For what it's worth, he's not as big as he seems to be.
Thank you for telling me, because you can't tell, you know, in his podcast videos, or on Fear Factor. He seemed big compared to all those worms that the people were eating on there.
I know, on TV he looked so much bigger. But, yeah, I’m happy to pull all this stuff back out. You know, he doesn't care, and it’s part of his appeal that controversy just gets him more views. He has the biggest podcast. So I don't think he cares. And I don't think it's necessarily because he doesn't care about anything. I just think that controversy feeds his brand, and I think as a human being he's okay. He's just a macho, short, Napoleon-like character.
I was thinking Mussolini, a different Italian.
(laughs) Yeah, he doesn't really get Indigenous stuff at all. I'd love to go back there now, knowing what I know. I think I could better handle myself.
I want to talk to you specifically about the vaccine conspiracy theory issues he’s in the news for now, but first, how did you get on his radar?
I have no clue. Some guy in Tucson who's his booker or one of his researchers reached out to me. I knew nothing about the Joe Rogan podcast and didn't care. I was like, ‘Eh, well, you know, what is this?’ I started looking it up, and I said, ‘Well, this sounds great in terms of raising visibility for Native issues,’ but what it sounded like they were really looking to do was more than I could offer. I'm like, ‘I'm not a historian, I'm the head of a nonprofit.’ It sounded like what they needed was a panel of people that he could really talk to. I said I’d be happy to pull together those people. And they're like, ‘Nope, we want one, just you.’
So you agreed and ended up at his studio.
Yes, I never met Rogan until I was there in person in his studio, which is this huge warehouse with a gym and art. I took a picture with him and this piece of art and some stuff from movies and things like that. He didn't talk to me before the show. He wouldn't accept – we'd brought him some sage, and we were going to smudge before the show. We had asked him if he would join us, and he wouldn't. Okay. So I tried to give him some sage that was wrapped in red cloth, and he just wouldn't take it. So I ended up leaving it there in his studio. He then burned it [during] one of his other shows, saying this comes from a ‘real Indian.’ I don't know, they were talking about smoking pot and then burning sage.
It was just kind of like, ‘Thanks a lot. I'm so grateful that I left that for you.’ After the show was over, I felt really horrible. It went forever. Like I thought it was never going to be over. And there were a lot of hateful comments, a lot of hateful comments online afterward. The booker kept talking to me. He's like, ‘You did great. Don't worry about any of that. You did great. Don't read the comments. You did great.’ I said, ‘Well, if he really wants to get into these issues, here are some more people that I suggest that he reach out to, which are, you know, people that are more Indigenous historians, people that could really speak to his, his weird perception of, you know, this author who wrote this book.’ It was totally from a historical perspective and didn't include Indigenous voices – good book, but it's still just from documented history.
So you went into this lion’s den to foster better understanding about Native issues, and it didn't end up feeling like you had accomplished that?
No, not at all. I knew nothing about anything that Joe Rogan wanted to ask me. I was not one of his celebrity friends or fellow podcasters, I was going into a place that I was completely unfamiliar with. I was told to just go in and be myself. I mean, I tried to watch a lot of his shows, so I could understand where his mindset was, and I was really worried about how to speak to that without being confrontational. It ended up being confrontational anyway, on some of the issues. He questioned me in depth about the origin story of the Choctaw, you know, that we were birthed out of the Earth, and there's a place, a sacred place that commemorates that, that actually looks like a woman. And he questioned that, saying, ‘Well, you don't really believe that.’ And it's like, ‘Well, yeah, I do. I really do.’ And so he's saying all this, like anti-science stuff now, like, he doesn't believe in vaccines or the COVID vaccines or whatever it is. But he questioned my belief in an origin story.
Yes, quite a paradox there.
Because he's somehow some scientist on some issues? It was just, it was really uncomfortable. Our personalities, or whatever, didn't hit it off. It wasn't that comfortable. His other staff was very friendly, but he seemed kind of just standoffish, like, ‘Let’s get this over with.’
Was he feeling you out, like, to see whether you could be his ‘token Indian’ to go to for all things Indigenous?
I feel like he probably would've liked that, and I wonder why his booker picked a female. Like why did he pick a female at a non-profit organization versus, you know, someone who, I mean, there's so many Native men out there from horse culture that would've fit in with his narrative. Maybe the booker was trying to do something more enlightening, I don't know. But it seemed like Rogan would have been more comfortable with some guy in a headdress.
Did you feel like when you were on the show that you were treated by him in any sexist or racist ways?
I think just the absolute refusal to participate in an opening prayer or smudge and not accepting the gift until it was just like left there for him. I think that was offensive, sure. I didn't know how to take that. I've never had someone refuse that kind of gift before. I can't say if he treated me in a sexist way, simply because I was most concerned with talking to, like, a million people. The nerves of that. I was more concerned with what was coming out of my mouth than maybe what was coming out of his. The real hate came from his viewers – there’s a lot of toxic masculinity stuff happening with his viewership.
I interview all sorts of wacky people, and I tend to feel like it's important to reach out to people from all places to help educate them on Native stuff, so kudos for doing it. One good thing you can take from it is that you started Red Hoop Talk, your own podcast, right, after being on his show?
Yes, it's been nice to have an opportunity to talk to people and [get] their stories on the record. So anybody can see the diversity of who we are as Native people, what we like to talk about and the things that are important to us and the issues that we're working on.
You're using tools that I feel like younger people are more engaged in. You're reaching different audiences than, say, the National Congress of American Indians is with its State of the Indian Nations address.
Right, exactly. We're just trying to keep it young. We have a TikTok channel, too, and I’ve been really impressed with how supportive TikTok has been of us. It always includes us with things going on in November and helps to promote us.
I always ask my kids, ‘So why is TikTok a thing, because why couldn't you just do that on YouTube?’ And they've explained to me, ‘Dad, it's cooler.’
Oh my gosh, it's so much cooler. Oh, and it's so fun. It's almost like an instant mood changer. Whatever you want to hear about, man, it’s there. And there's a really strong Native family of Native creators on there. It's a nice platform. I agree with your kids.
So Red Hoop Talk is one good thing to come out of your experience with Rogan, but what about this conflict with Neil Young and all these artists who are pulling their music off of Spotify because they don’t like being on a platform where Rogan’s spreading vaccine misinformation?
I do side with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell on trying to force corporate responsibility on Spotify or with whoever, whether it's Rogan or any other person spreading misinformation that affects public health. Corporations have a lot more power than I think we want to admit that they do. And we all have power by using their products. Native people did that very much with the Washington football team and FedEx's support of them. So I see a parallel there, and Native people are increasingly pushing the corporate backers of the companies that create the controversial pipelines through Indian Country…. So I know we're talking about Joe Rogan and not a pipeline or a racist football team, but he has a lot of influence. He should be held to a higher responsibility because of his public position. He’s a statesman, whether we like it or not. And with that comes a responsibility. Like the Spiderman quote.
Some Natives do believe in conspiracy theories when it comes to the COVID vaccines, it’s important to note.
We do have a historical reason in the U.S. backing that kind of thinking up, but we also have science. And if we don't look at just the United States, but what's going on in the world and what scientists are saying all over the world, what other countries are doing to address this pandemic, that gives us more evidence. If our Native and brothers and sisters don't wanna do the vaccine, then they have to take accountability to keep themselves out of harm's way and keep themselves from harming others.
So you said you would go back on Rogan’s show?
There was a time I would absolutely answer, ‘No, no way in hell.’ But I think time has passed where I'd be more comfortable and hopefully have a good conversation about the issues and try to get at some real questions and make sure he knows what those questions are. Instead of just kind of joining in their colonized process of how they do questions, I think I would feed the questions and the issues to him so that he also had a level of comfort. That could have been the problem, too. He may have been uncomfortable with the topic himself and not have known the right questions to ask. I would want to make sure to do my best to give him tools that he could use. I think we could have fun, potentially, a second time around.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Indigenous Wire is a Native-owned, reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.