'The best medicine': 10 Indigenous comedians on how they use humour for healing
A roundtable discussion on COVID memes, Zoom standup nights and using humour to cope with trauma
Growing up in my community, I always heard laughter no matter where I was. From powwows and community gatherings to being at the band office and overhearing a conversation my dad was having with friends, laughter and jokes were something I heard a lot and something that became very natural in my world.
Hearing the laughter of aunties and uncles and seeing the smiles on elders' faces was something I've always loved. It's also something that's been etched in my mind as being very crucial for my family and, I believe, the many Indigenous communities across the nation.
You see, laughter is something that I saw was able to bond people. To be able to make an elder laugh or to crack a joke with an older member of my family was something that always made me happy. To be able to share a laugh with someone is great — but to be able to share that laughter with someone who knows you and understands you is even better.
Growing up, and still to this day, people would always tell me laughter is the best medicine. I believe that to be quite true. Although there is trauma and pain within our communities, a lot of people use humour to deal with it. It's the same way we use humour in our everyday lives as a way to get out our frustrations or even just to get through some of the rougher moments in life.
That humour became more apparent during the past year, when we all had to isolate and stay away from each other — something that is very difficult for our communities to do. But even though we couldn't gather in person, we came together online and created many funny moments, like the iconic "corn teen time" video and the #RezSecurityChallenge. The pivot to online, and finding new ways to keep going, was something that filled me with pride and joy. So when I was asked to interview 10 Indigenous comedians about healing through humour, it was something I couldn't pass up.
Participating in the dialogue are Denise McLeod, a two-spirit Anishinaabe comedian in the Manifest Destiny's Child collective; Janelle Niles, a Mi'kmaw and Black comedian from Sipekne'katik, N.S., and producer of the Indigenous comedy show Got Land?; Vinnie Karetak, a writer, producer and actor in Iqaluit known for the TV series Qanurli; Vance Banzo, the Edmonton star from TallBoyz; Stephanie Pangowish, an Anishinaabe comedian in Toronto; Don Kelly, an Anishinaabe and Ojibway comedian and host of Fish Out of Water on APTN; Peter Autut, a Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, comedian and winner of the first-ever Crackup Iqaluit Comedy Competition; Drew Hayden Taylor, a contemporary storyteller from from Curve Lake First Nation, Ont., with 33 published books; Tim Fontaine, an Anishinaabe TV writer and satirist from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba who started Walking Eagle News; and Paul Rabliauskas, a comedian from Poplar River First Nation in Manitoba. (Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
What has the pandemic been like for you?
Denise McLeod: I'm living my best pandemic life. This is the first time I've been able to pay my bills, live my life, and not have to worry about paying rent or choosing between food and a place to live. Like, "Oh, what do you mean I have money left over at the end of the month?" I mean, I never really do because I have a beaded-earring collection.
Don Kelly: I was about to start my national tour right before the first lockdown happened. I was about to go on the road, and the government said, "No large gatherings, no large crowds." So the tour continued as planned. It was a lot of fun. (I'm joking about that, of course.)
Stephanie Pangowish: I actually tested positive for COVID. That alone was a little bit of a traumatic experience. It's been an interesting ride for sure. I'm really happy to be here today. I've been keeping a positive mindset and just kind of creating jokes here and there.
Peter Autut: I'm new to comedy. I did do a show in Ottawa. I opened for some big names like Derek Edwards. I kept on going for about another year, and then this thing started where it just shut everything down and kind of put a lock on all the doors in the community, and then there was no shows. I was just getting started — I was loving it. And it was not the best thing.
Janelle Niles: It's been rough, but I took initiative and started working for the hospitals [as a security guard]. So I actually had a full-time job during the pandemic, so I didn't have to struggle too much. However, it has taken a toll on me due to working as a front-line worker.
How have you been navigating through the pandemic professionally?
Don Kelly: Zoom comedy offers a great opportunity. I've always wanted to bomb in Singapore, and now I have the chance. So that's good.
Drew Hayden Taylor: On one hand, I used to travel a lot and give lectures in communities and colleges, universities, high school conferences and different things like that. I miss the pungent aroma of jet fuel for sure. But on the other hand, I've been remarkably productive in the last few months. I have written a novel. I have put together a non-fiction book of essays about Indigenous futurisms. I've been in post-production on a documentary series that was shot before the pandemic. Another documentary I was a part of for CBC aired in the spring. I have written two plays, in the meantime, and I've written a bunch of articles for the Globe and Mail.
Vance Banzo: Professionally, I kind of distract myself with work. I'm doing a lot of writing. And I just sit in front of my laptop and just go. Whether it's good or bad, it gets on the paper. That really helps me just burn the hours in the day.
Denise McLeod: I was given some airtime on [GD TV by Glad Day Bookshop], the oldest queer bookstore in the world. They moved a whole bunch of programming online. And they gave me space to do a show, and so I was calling it Crafting with the Aunties. I did a bunch of different things, like taught non-Indigenous people how to make fry bread; we would talk about articles that we would make, like dreamcatchers or beadwork or ribbon skirts or whatever. I would talk about it and the origins of it — in a funny way, obviously — but would largely talk about cultural appropriation, like, "Just because I'm teaching you how to do this by folks, does not mean that you can get to start to create your own ribbon skirts. Go buy this stuff from Indigenous people." It kind of became a bit of a funny hour of me talking to a screen, and a lot of people really enjoyed that.
Vinnie Karetak: Like many people, I joined TikTok because there's not a lot of stuff that was happening. The first little while I was enjoying it quite a bit and posting every few days and, you know, making fun of the whole TikTok culture. And I went home to Arviat, [Nunavut], to my home community, in August, and one guy came up to me and [said], "Hey, you haven't posted anything for a while. Are you OK? Did you quit TikTok?" So that told me that there's some people still enjoying what I do, even if it's not the television show that I was working on that ended its final season in 2019. People still have a kick out of what I am doing.
Indigenous people have been through many traumas and often use humour as a way to cope and heal. How have you seen it being used and how have you used it this year?
Denise McLeod: Making a joke out of my own lived trauma and experience has helped me heal, has found other people who have similar shared lived experiences as me. We all can get together. Laughter is medicine. Laughter is healing. One of my favourite things in the entire world is listening to a group of aunties laughing in the kitchen — like that belly, head-back, mouth-open laugh is one of the best healing medicines in the entire world. We have to make fun of and laugh as a part of that healing, as a part of just being able to survive.
Paul Rabliauskas: I think it's necessary and it's important to have our people given a space where we can laugh and share that energy. I remember just recently talking to my mom about the language, and she refers to the language as a spirit. That's how I feel about the energy of comedy: like it's a spirit. That's why doing shows on Zoom, it's not the same. When I'm in a room with my people, I feel what they're feeling, and they feel what I'm feeling. It's a beautiful exchange of energy — you can't explain it. It's just something that you feel when you go into a comedy show full of First Nations people.
There is this brand of really smart, really funny, really thoughtful comedy that's happening now, where we're able to look at that stuff and not shy away from it, but at the same time not make you feel worse because you're in that situation.- Tim Fontaine
Janelle Niles: I find with Got Land? [Ottawa-based standup show featuring all Indigenous comedians], we're laughing at ourselves. However, we're also bringing up topics that Canadians all over Canada have a hard time talking about and starting a dialogue about. And in that way, we can heal by validating our struggles and also having some acknowledgement and awareness and having other Canadians who might have not known of things such as the Highway of Tears or Wet'suwet'en or even my reserve, Sipekne'katik, [N.S.], and our fight with our inherent rights and moderate livelihood we had in September of last year.
Tim Fontaine: There is this brand of really smart, really funny, really thoughtful comedy that's happening now, where we're able to look at that stuff and not shy away from it, but at the same time not make you feel worse because you're in that situation. That whole thing of us all being in it together, at least a shared experience that we can laugh about or at least think about — it's specifically for us, and that's pretty amazing.
Vance Banzo (on being a part of a panel about decolonizing through improv): We can't go out and perform [our] art, so what else [have] we got to do but think about how we do it and the way European improv comedy is so Eurocentric? They don't tell stories the way we tell stories, and if we were to bring our storytelling into that arena, it wouldn't be deemed at the same value because it's not what they're used to. That was really eye-opening for me.
Vinnie Karetak: The trauma side of life is a fact of life up here, and some people know they are affected by it or they don't. And so I try to bring humour into things, and my [TikTok] videos actually had some people say, "Your videos have kept me happy and got me through some difficult times." And those are heartfelt, when you don't expect it at all. It's always nice to hear when that happens.
Why do you think many Indigenous people cope with trauma and heal through humour?
Drew Hayden Taylor: I've been very fortunate to have travelled to over 140 First Nations communities across Canada [and the] United States, and basically almost everywhere I've been, in every community, I've been greeted with a laugh, a smile and a joke. I decided to make that my journey as a writer to sort of focus on and highlight and celebrate the Indigenous sense of humour. Back in the days before television, before the internet, you had a group of Native people sitting around a table having tea or a bonfire or whatever, and I think there too, it would not be very long before the laughter would start spreading across the house or the landscape. I think it's just a natural part of our culture that we interpret the world through humour.
Comedy is something that can change the world. Let's see if I can change the world or even Canada's perspective on Indigenous culture through comedy.- Janelle Niles
Stephanie Pangowish: Our hearts are so big, and our spirits are so beautiful that that's how we've come to terms with things: by making it not as big — making it so that these situations that we're in aren't bigger than our hearts, you know? By making fun of it, it becomes smaller.
Denise McLeod: I think it's just, like, in our DNA. Like, you come out of the womb as an Indigenous person ready to burn down the system, but make a joke about it.
Paul Rabliauskas: I've lived with it. It's crazy because they say comedy equals tragedy [plus time], and if you talk about our people, I don't think there's been a more tragic story than what we've experienced as First Nations people. Just because we're put in so many dark places, even today, our humour kind of still lives in dark places. That's why when they refer to "Native humour," it's dark, right? There's a line in comedy that, sort of, you can't cross. There's things you have to be careful and tiptoe around in regular comedy — but when you come up North, there's nothing off limits. And I think that comes from the horrible past that a lot of our people have experienced.
Janelle Niles: Comedy is something that can change the world. Let's see if I can change the world or even Canada's perspective on Indigenous culture through comedy. It's one of my goals with Got Land?. We want to bring it all over Canada and show them that we're still here, we're funny and we have something to say.
Tim Fontaine: It's nice to laugh. There are other people who aren't even comedians — I shouldn't say they're not comedians, but they're not, like, professional comedians, right? — who are creating memes and doing all of this online content that just makes people laugh. It makes people feel good, right? It's been comforting because we are such community-based people, a lot of Indigenous people. It's important that we have some sense of community. And so that's been able to continue through the pandemic because a lot of people are producing just so much funny and really relatable content right now.
Peter Autut: Looking at my elder parents — I've gone through some stuff, but them, they've seen a lot of stuff. And my dad was still making jokes here and there, and my mom would be so angry — but not angry — but pretending to be angry because my dad's making jokes about these heavy [things], just [making] fun of himself. And I saw that and I respected that. It took a long time for me to recognize that — just how intelligent he was. He worked hard to balance it out, and if you can balance it out at the end, then you can laugh and be happy and, you know, be satisfied with where you are and what you have and what you went through and not live in the pain.
These answers have been edited for length and clarity.