REDx talk uses laughter to help heal residential schools wounds

The topic of truth and reconciliation is no laughing matter. But humour can be used to heal.

Dallas Goldtooth uses comedy to talk about heavy topic

Comedian Dallas Goldtooth, right, performs as part of the 1491s, a troupe he founded. Goldtooth was in Calgary speaking at a REDx Talk. (Shane Brown)

The topic of truth and reconciliation is no laughing matter.

But humour can be used to heal.

That's the message comedian Dallas Goldtooth imparted on the Calgary Eyeopener program Wednesday, ahead of a REDx Talk at the University of Calgary — similar to the popular TEDx series — titled Truth, Reconciliation and the Future.

"I'm a native person who grew up in Minnesota, so the request for me to come was also to talk about, what does it mean from the context of being someone from the United States," he said.

"There's different perspectives on truth and reconciliation and the word reconciliation can be very convoluted, it can be very complex for a lot of people.

"The United States has done a good job of hurting a lot of ethnicities across the planet, so it would be hard to see a reconciliation process that is as focused as you see up here in Canada.

"It's really been focused on the Indigenous struggle and the impacts from residential schools, to see that process in the States would be very difficult, but that's not saying it's impossible."

Raised in Minnesota, Dallas Goldtooth named his comedy troupe the 1491s, a play on the popular Prince song, 1999. (Shane Brown)

The founder of the comedy troupe the 1491s, Goldtooth said laughter is a good way of dealing with emotional distress.

"We can't take ourselves too seriously at times, even though a lot of the issues we talk about are heavy, they're deep, they're rooted, it's a lot of trauma," he said.

"But at the same time we have to understand that humour and laughter is a critical component of our culture and we can't cast that aside when we talk about hard things.

"Actually, that's a perfect time to utilize laughter as a means of healing."

The name 1491s is a play on Prince's famous song.

"There's five of us in the group and three of us are from Minnesota, so we're all Prince fans and he did a song, party like it's 1999, so from an Indigenous perspective, let's party like it's 1491, the year before it all went to heck, the year before Columbus," he said.

"It just plays on the idea of how we talk about history as native people."

Comedian Dallas Goldtooth says laughter can be a good tool for healing, a message he imparted during a REDx Talk at the University of Calgary. (Shane Brown)

Former prime minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology on behalf of the Canadian government for the residential school program, which saw 150,000 Aboriginal children taken from their families, with many suffering abuse while being stripped of their heritage and culture.

An apology is the first step to healing, said Goldtooth, but it's what happens after that really matters.

"I have four kids and most of my kids are in elementary school so when one kid inflicts pain upon on another, it's always good say 'sorry,' to have that recognition, but then also I try to teach my kids you have to have follow-up, you have to demonstrate that you are sorry whether you're throwing a snow cone at their face or not," he said.

"That's a vastly different thing than boarding schools and residential schools, but I think the premise is that saying sorry does help, but it's what you do after that.

"Once you recognize something happened, then you are responsible to take actions to make sure that pain doesn't come up or you recognize what you can do to help."

Laughter aimed at eliminating stereotypes

Many of the 1491s comedy routines poke fun at native stereotypes for good reason, said Goldtooth.

"Growing up as a native person, whether you're in Canada or the United States, you're constantly bombarded with how society sees you and we're instructed on how we're supposed to see ourselves as native people," he said.

"It's hilarious at times how society sees native people.

"Aboriginal people are typically pictured as (having) long hair, riding on horseback and we're much more diverse than that so why not poke fun at how we see ourselves, but also how society sees ourselves. It's just  taking ownership of our identity."

With files by the Calgary Eyeopener