'We had a little real estate problem': Tracing the history of Indigenous comedy in North America

Stories of Indigenous stand-ups are uncovered in a new book by historian of comedy, Kliph Nesteroff.

Stories of Indigenous stand-ups are uncovered in a new book by historian of comedy, Kliph Nesteroff.

"Charlie Hill sort of did from a Native American perspective, what Richard Pryor did from an African American perspective," says Kliph Nesteroff. (Nasbah Hill Collection)

In 1977, Oneida comic Charlie Hill skewered Hollywood stereotypes in his primetime television debut on the legendary yet controversial Richard Pryor Show

"Charlie Hill came of age at the same time that minority activism was really percolating and starting to snowball in the United States," says Canadian comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff in an interview on Q with Tom Power.

"The idea of sovereignty was for the first time being embraced in the mainstream to a certain extent, and that started to inform his work," says Nesteroff. 

One punchline stood out in Hill's influential debut:

My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York. We had a little real estate problem.- Charlie Hill on the Richard Pryor Show in 1977

That punchline is now the title of Nesteroff's new book We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy, that gives readers an in-depth look into the history of Indigenous comedians, from vaudeville acts to The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. 

"Before I started writing this book, racism was really on the rise, fascism was on the rise, and the child separation policy at the southern border in the United States was also occurring," says Nesteroff. "Being from Canada, it sort of reminded me of the sordid residential school history." (Jim Herrington)

Nesteroff wanted to use his skills to bring meaningful conversations around racism and fascism, by compiling stories of Indigenous comedy figures like Charlie Hill and Will Rogers and interviewing dozens of present-day Indigenous comedians. 

"Sometimes bleak times feed into resilience and sometimes that resilience comes through comedy," says Nesteroff.

The 'white-guy lens'

Nesteroff says writing this book as a non-Indigenous person "gave him an ulcer", because he didn't want to speak on anyone's behalf. He approached writing the book by letting comedians tell their story without filtering it through his "white-guy lens."

"I realized he wasn't telling the stories, but promoting them," says Dakota Ray Hebert, a  Northern Saskatchewan stand-up comic featured in Nesteroff's book. 

"When he first called, I felt like, 'Oh, I'm a big deal now.'" says Hebert, who has performed across Canada, U.S. and Mexico.

“I joke that I’m a cowboy and an Indian, my mom's native my dad's a cowboy, so I’m so full of inner conflict,” says Dakota Ray Hebert, who got her start in comedy at age 21 at a spoken word open mic, where she "hijacked the mic for 17 minutes" to talk about her IUD. (Sweetmoon Photography)

Hebert, whose family inspired her to do comedy, says that Indigenous comedy is community based. 

"That's where a lot of our humour and our jokes stem from. It's for community, it's by community, it's of community," says Hebert. 

"I think it's also making light of really horrendous situations. We as a people have gone through a lot, and continuously it seems going through a lot, so having like that break of tension with a really well-placed joke is so necessary," says Hebert. 

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