Comedian Don Burnstick uses humour to talk about hard issues

Thirty-eight years ago, Don Burnstick was sitting in rehab trying to figure out his life. He had to process the trauma and hurt he’d endured as a child. It was uncomfortable. It’s these experiences he draws from that make him so relatable to an Indigenous audience.

With 30 years of performing, his audiences span generations

Don Burnstick on stage at the Gathering Place in Six Nations, Ont., last week. (Artie K. Martin)

Thirty-eight years ago, Don Burnstick was sitting in rehab trying to figure out his life. He had to process the trauma and hurt he'd endured as a child. It was uncomfortable.

It's these experiences he draws from that make him so relatable to an Indigenous audience.

Burnstick performed a one-hour set in Six Nations, Ont., before a sold-out crowd last week. He uses humour to talk about the hard issues.

"Women are so far ahead of us in healing," said Burnstick.

"They'll talk about what happened to them and very openly. They'll pick up a microphone and tell their story. Men are not even close to that. I'm taking it upon myself to help men, this next go around.

"Indigenous men don't do wellness. The only time men show up for a community workshop is for lunch and then they leave."

According to Burnstick, the only time men's wellness is prioritized is when there's a crisis and once it disappears from the headlines, it's no longer a concern until another crisis happens.

Burnstick, 59, is Cree from Alexander First Nation in Alberta. He's been travelling, bringing comedy to Indigenous communities for over 30 years.

"This elder came to me and she said 'Don, this is my daughter, this is my granddaughter and here's my great granddaughter. I watched your VHS and now my granddaughter watches your TikToks,'" he said.

The audience at the show in Six Nations, Ont. (Artie K. Martin)

His shows aren't scripted, Burnstick said. He prays, and he trusts his process before he goes on stage. 

His material includes jokes about Indigenous women's laughter, the Auntie bun, dysfunctional relationships, and any Indigenous nation is fair game. He does this without being derogatory.

He has eschewed the mainstream comedy scene and doesn't perform in bars or clubs. He also doesn't swear on stage based on advice he received from his Elder.

Burnstick said he believes Indigenous people are still scrutinized today.

"It's 2023 and there's a lot of people who still think we're drunken Indians," he said.

Jace Martin of Six Nations runs the Darren Ross Agency representing Indigenous artists like Crystal Shawanda and Juno winner Murray Porter. He recently signed Burnstick and hopes to advance his career into the larger American market.

"We want to really take that step to expose him to those kinds of audiences because he's a great comedian; he's not just an Indigenous comedian," said Martin.

'Good medicine' 

Artie K. Martin traded his photography skills for a ticket to Burnstick's show in Six Nations, the first time he'd seen Burnstick perform live.

"He's one of us. He was up on the stage sharing our perspective and it was funny," he said.

"I was laughing because the audience was laughing."

Burnstick has been bringing comedy to Indigenous communities for over 30 years. (Artie K. Martin)

Burnstick's comments on men's wellness resonated with him.

"There's no one talking about how men need help," he said.

"Women have it together. They have a whole support network and workshops and wellness around that kind of stuff. Whereas men have to figure it out as they go it seems."

He said Burnstick's humour is "good medicine."

"He was poking fun at some people in the audience and they were laughing about it," he said.

"Even after his show was over, he stayed, and he wanted to meet everybody who wanted to meet him ... There was a huge line that went down the hall."

Burnstick said he was overwhelmed with emotion following his show.

"As I turned to walk off-stage — the emotion — I could feel the love of the people. I should've turned and just accepted it," he said.

Burnstick has another show in Six Nations this weekend, with a portion of the proceeds going to support the community's lacrosse.


Candace Maracle is Wolf Clan from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. She is a laureate of The Hnatyshyn Foundation REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Her latest film, a micro short, Lyed Corn with Ash (Wa’kenenhstóhare’) is completely in the Kanien’kéha language.