A stand-up comedy special from ten or fifteen years ago featuring an all-indigenous lineup used to have reruns on Canadian television. The author opens with this, relating that at least three different Native comedians told him that it inspired them to take up stand-up comedy. As he notes, this is what a balanced media representation can do.
Kliph Nesteroff writes about the histories of comedy. In this, his second, eye-opening book, he explores comedy and laughter in Native American tradition dating back to the 1800s. He draws an enlightening line from early performers and their careers, set against a backdrop of racism, war, genocide, displacement, cultural subjugation and trauma, to present-day comedians performing for their own communities and for a wider audience, emerging from diverse background with diverse interests, influences and goals.
It’s a beautiful book that makes its subject matter accessible with touching stories of individuals pursuing their passion against all odds. Nesteroff states that he’s aware of being a white individual telling these stories and has done his best to let the individuals speak for themselves. Hence, there are passages quoted directly and in full, giving the artists space for expression.
Early Native performers were essentially bought and owned, part of sideshow attractions. “Go onstage or go to jail” was the choice they were given. P T Barnum and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody were two showmen in the 1800s who bought Native Americans in the 1840s and added them to their lineups among other ‘freaks’ like the alligator man and the bearded lady. This is during a time when laws were being passed to give Natives the freedom of movement, which was then overruled by local authorities. The government owed people their land, but then decided this was based on ‘blood quantum,’ like ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-blood’ without any scientific basis. People were cheated out of land and rights based on arbitrary decisions regarding their ancestry.
Nesteroff explores the roots and careers of Native individuals who played key roles in the intersection of entertainment and survival. This includes Will Rogers, one of the early and most well-known showmen. The son of a rancher, he was taught the ways of the rope. When he was eleven, a massacre by the US cavalry took him from well-off to ‘broken’, shaping his sense of injustice. With his roping talent, he joined a local rodeo and built a show that soon incorporated bits of comedy. From here, his career is a marvellous story of a rise to being one of the highest paid Hollywood actors as well as a writer with a syndicated newspaper column that ran for thirteen years where he made incisive commentary with comedy on politicians, corruption and so on, while maintaining a connection through language with his fellow Native Americans.
The book also outlines the mistreatment of Native children across generations and how this legacy of abuse continues to affect the community and its comedians today. Native children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding schools run by white people to indoctrinate them. They were stripped of their culture, traditions, language and were systematically abused. Child mortality rates soared.
In an evocative passage describing the horrendous abuse, Chipewa actress Kateri Walker talks about her grandfather being raped by a priest at school, and when he grew up, he hurt his wife and kids. Abuse gets passed on. The schools would cut off the children’s hair, make them skin dead animals left outside by white people, were told that emotions were not allowed, were beaten when they did. And then people expected them to grow up and ‘assimilate and lead normal lives.’ And then Charlie Hill then appeared on The Tonight Show and The Richard Pryor Show and represented Native people and comedy and culture. It meant everything.
Charlie Hill was a member of the Oneida nation of Wisconsin. As a child, he ‘was obsessed with the images on the screen.’ He would re-enact things he watched and, as his brother noted, “I didn’t realise until later what brainwashing was being done to us. The irony of Indian kids playing cowboys and Indians.” Hill went on to build a successful, career as a stand-up comic, actor and writer. A contemporary of Letterman, Larry David, Jay Leno; they came up on the same scene. As the first Native American comedian to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he knew what he represented and is described by everyone who knew him as always being inclusive, helpful, a great friend.
Nesteroff weaves personal narratives, comedy, inspiration and struggles, building a landscape of pain and hope and redemption, because isn’t that what comedy is made of?
There are a multitude of stories about Native individuals who loved watching comedy, often with their families, but saw the hurtful and racist stereotypes across the media landscape and imbibed both sides of things – wanting to be a part of the comedy and entertainment circuit but feeling it closed off to them. Sterlin Harjo, co-creator of the FX series, “Reservation Dogs” along with Taika Waititi, first started out with a sketch comedy group called the 1491s. It’s Native comedy for Native audiences and has a loyal fan following. He was “sick of all these sad Indian movies” and felt that while there should be representation of the brutal histories and current realities, nobody was focusing on the fact that Natives also loved to laugh.
Nestled amongst stories of older figures are short and longer essays exploring the lives of those who pursue their passion for stand-up today, like Jonny Roberts who sets off, leaving his wife, two children and eight foster kids to drive five hours each way to a gig. In one instance, comedians decide to go ahead with a show that takes place after two suicides had happened in the last two days. The audience there roared with laughter – they needed to laugh.
As the scene grows, specials are put together here and there with comedians performing in English as well their tribe’s language. Audience sizes range from a handful of people in the middle of nowhere to jam-packed powwows. There are those who perform native comedy for their native communities, never going in front of white or other audiences, yet they are successful, last for decades, are well-known and pack theatres.
Altogether, Nesteroff paints a mosaic that is inclusive and insightful. The chapters are short, sweet; oscillating between history and the present, between a variety of journeys and experiences. This is truly an incredible collection of stories that needed to be told.