Aboriginal comedy — many stories, only one legend

Ryan Winn

I met Charlie Hill in a building named in honor of his father’s service to the Oneida Nation. It was the summer of 2010, and we were both in the Norbert Hill Center’s Auditorium watching the debut of a play written by College of Menominee Nation students. As the script’s editor and the production’s director, I was seated in the back watching the audience laugh at our carefully staged punchlines. My heart skipped a beat as I recognized that the man seated down the row from me was the man whose career I’d often lectured about.

My students were aware of Hill, knowing him as the Oneida tribal member who shattered glass ceilings for Native American comedy. Like some of them, Hill graduated from West De Pere High School, played baseball on local diamonds, and dreamed of being successful while honoring his culture.

I inform students that Hill had moved to New York in the early 1970s to join the Native American Theatre Ensemble — the first Pan-Indian theatre group to garner both national and international praise. He was an original cast member of the play “Foghorn,” which is now celebrated in the canon of indigenous theatre for satirizing Native American oppression to the point of “absurdity.” What made Hill a household name throughout Indian Country was his foray into standup comedy.

Last month, Kliph Nesterroff published a book that’s an homage to one of Hill’s signature jokes. “We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans in Comedy” takes its title from Hill’s explanation of why the Oneida Nation is no longer living on its ancestral homeland in New York state. The text is rightfully lauded for its scope by non-Native comedians Steve Martin and Judd Apatow as well as revered Native scholars Philp J. Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux) and Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet). Some of the most engaging parts of the book center on Hill’s life on stage.

Beginning with an appearance on the “Richard Pryor Show” in 1974, Hill took the comedy world by force. He toured to much fanfare, making audiences of all walks of life laugh at his pointed jokes. A favorite from his early work being that Native people celebrated Halloween by dressing like “white people” and going door-to-door demanding what they wanted through the practice of “Trick or Treaty.” Later Hill suggested equality in problematic sports mascots by creating the “Kansas City Caucasians,” and noted that white people were not actually white but rather “pink like raw hot dogs.”

A venture onto YouTube brings a treasure trove of Hill’s trailblazing work. Watch as he made Johnny Carson laugh on “The Tonight Show” in 1985, and in 1992, he induced more laughter when Jay Leno sat in the host’s chair. Enjoy his numerous sets at comedy festivals, and view David Letterman’s on-air tribute to his friend’s life after Charlie passed in 2013.

If you can find them, check out his work on Canada’s Aboriginal People’s Television Network, or his 1984 starring role in the trickster tale about swindling grant money to grow mythical fruit in “Harold of Orange.” My students also love his colorful commentary in the 2009 documentary “Reel Injun,” where he adds levity to chronicle Native American cinema.

To me, Hill will always be the gracious superstar who took the time to compliment the work CMN students produced. At that first show at the Norbert Hill Center, students beamed when he stated, “I really liked the reservation radio announcer character. That’s a great concept.”

I also have many stories of Hill carrying on his family tradition of service to the community. He visited my CMN classes, talked to students about his experiences, and showed up at rehearsals in support of our productions. He was such a kind man who always sought to meaningfully connect with people both on and off stage.

Famed Oneida actor Graham Greene introduced Hill in 2005 by stating, “Aboriginal comedy has many stories, but only one legend.” Because of Nesterroff’s book, many more reviewers are now echoing that sentiment. Yet, all kidding aside, Hill should also be celebrated as a man who carried on the Oneida practice of making the road easier for the next generation to travel.

Yawʌ’ko, Charlie, for your friendship, inspiration, and laughter.



Ryan Winn teaches communication, English and theatre at College of Menominee Nation. For information about the school, visit www.menominee.edu.