Native American Comic Living The 'Indigenous Dream'
Native American comedian Charlie Hill says he's living the American dream.
Actually, make that the "indigenous dream," which he prefers to call it.
In many ways, Hill's comedy is about how native people weren't even allowed to have an American dream. Hill, from the Oneida tribe of Wisconsin, quips in one of his routines: "We used to be from New York. We had a little real estate problem."
Hill made his TV debut on The Richard Pryor Show in the 1970s, and has been on Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show. While he may not be very well known to the general public, to Native Americans, he's a hero.
Playing On Stereotypes
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hill has mixed feelings about the concept of the American dream. He believes he's attained his — but that it's been out of reach for most Native Americans.
Take the fact that Native Americans have been the source of endless mockery, he says. "They make fun of the way we dance, we sing, our drum, our names, our religion, our rituals — you name it."
So one of Hill's dreams was to turn that humor around. "My whole thing is to get people to laugh with us, not at us," he says.
Hollywood stereotypes have offered Hill a deep well from which to draw jokes. He re-creates the dialogue from old Westerns, but always gives the Indians the last laugh.
'How Do I Get In That Box?'
Hill knew he wanted to be a standup comedian when he was a little boy. Jackie Gleason, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson were some of his favorite comedians. Watching them on television, Hill remembers thinking, "How do I learn how to do that? How do I get in there? How do I get in that box?"
To get closer to getting "in that box," Hill started writing down every joke he heard. "I inadvertently taught myself how to write because of writing down jokes," he says.
Later, he headed to Los Angeles, equipped with only a backpack and a hand drum from his father. He started hanging out at the club The Comedy Store, where he met David Letterman, Richard Pryor and Michael Keaton.
Once Pryor and Letterman had their own television shows, they invited Hill on as a guest. He's been doing standup ever since.
Defining The Dream
"If the American dream means you can become anything you want, I believe that," Hill says.
But he also stresses that it wouldn't have been possible for him without help from other comedians, as well as other prominent Native Americans like the late writer Vine Deloria Jr., and singer Buffy Sainte-Marie.
The Native American community has been very good to him, and vice versa, Hill says. He often shows up at Native American conventions and political events, and he once appeared on a Canadian TV show wearing a Redskins jersey, singing, "I got those reservation blues."
In 1999, filmmaker Sandy Osawa — a member of the Makah tribe — made a documentary about Hill, On and Off the Res. Osawa says Hill is respected as "an innovator" in Native American communities for showing the wider public that they have a sense of humor.
Like Hill, Osawa believes in the American dream. But she thinks the definition of it is different for Native Americans, in that it's not tied to "individual pursuits" but rather to the well-being of the tribe.
"There's a strong connection to your tribal community, to your family life," Osawa says. "You have something that you look at that's greater than yourself."
For his part, Hill says he tries to live like a fairly traditional Native American. His wife is Navajo, and their four children speak her language. He still travels to Los Angeles for work, but his home is on the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin.
"You can't get any closer to the American dream than that," he says.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's turn again to our series on the American dream. Native American comedian Charlie Hill says he's been living it, or what he calls the indigenous dream. Charlie Hill made his TV debut back in the 1970s on "The Richard Pryor Show." Since then, he's been on "Letterman" and on "The Tonight Show." And even though he's not that well-known to the general public, to Native Americans, he's a hero. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In many ways, Charlie Hill's comedy is about how native peoples weren't even allowed to have an American dream.
CHARLIE HILL: My name is Charlie Hill. Sekoli. I am a Oneida from Wisconsin. It's part of the Iroquois Nation. My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York. We had a little real estate problem.
BLAIR: Charlie Hill's feelings about the American dream are split. He believes he's attained his, but that it's been out of reach for most Native Americans. He says take all the mocking.
HILL: They make fun of the way we dance, we sing, our drum, our names, our religion, our rituals - you name it.
BLAIR: So one of his dreams was to turn the humor around.
HILL: My whole thing is to get people to laugh with us, and not at us.
BLAIR: This is from Charlie Hill's television debut on "Richard Pryor" in 1977.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RICHARD PRYOR SHOW")
HILL: You see every day in the movies that the settlers come in, gets the Indian loaded and wants his resources, you know. Hey, injuns, which way does this road go? Hmm. Road stay, you go.
BLAIR: Charlie Hill says his dream of becoming a standup comedian began when he was a little boy watching TV.
HILL: I loved watching Jackie Gleason. I couldn't wait for Saturday night, and I'd sit on my dad's lap.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HONEYMOONERS")
JACKIE GLEASON: (as Ralph Kramden) Are you gonna start with the I-told-you-so's, Alice?
HILL: When I got a little older, I'd stand behind the door late at night, because I couldn't stay up. My mom would watch Jack Paar, and then later it was Johnny Carson. And I thought: How do I get in there? How do I learn how to do that? How do I get in that box?
BLAIR: To realize his dream of getting in that box, Charlie Hill started by writing down every joke he heard.
HILL: I inadvertently taught myself how to write because of doing it, writing jokes.
BLAIR: But to do standup, he thought he had to get to Los Angeles. So with only a backpack and a hand drum his dad gave him, he headed to L.A. and started hanging out at the club at The Comedy Store.
HILL: I was in line with Letterman, with long hair and a beard and big glasses, and Mike Douglas, who became Michael Keaton. And I've been blessed, been all these friends and peers I came up with.
BLAIR: Once David Letterman got his own show, he invited Charlie Hill to be on it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")
HILL: With the casinos, everything is really turned around. Remember a long time ago when the white man used to get the Indian drunk and take his money?
BLAIR: So, how does Charlie Hill define the American dream?
HILL: If the American dream means you can become something that - anything you want, I believe that.
BLAIR: But, Hill says, it wouldn't have been possible without getting help from other comedians and from other Native Americans, like the singer Buffy Sainte-Marie and the writer Vine Deloria. In fact, Hill says, the Native American community has been very good to him, and vice-versa. He often shows up at American Indian conventions and political events. This is from a Canadian TV show called "Indian Time."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INDIAN TIME")
HILL: (Singing) I got them old reservation blues.
BLAIR: In 1999, filmmaker Sandy Osawa - a member of the Makah tribe - made a documentary about Charlie Hill called "On and Off the Res."
SANDY OSAWA: Charlie Hill is looked at with a great deal of respect.
BLAIR: She too believes in the American dream, but she thinks the definition of it is different for Native Americans, in that it's not tied to individual pursuits, but rather to the well-being of the tribe.
OSAWA: There's a strong connection to your tribal community, to your family life. You have something that you look at that's greater than yourself.
(SOUNDBITE OF STANDUP SHOW)
HILL: My wife is a Navajo. She's from Arizona.
BLAIR: Charlie Hill says he's tried to live like a fairly traditional Native American and gotten some great material out of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF STANDUP SHOW)
HILL: He says to me, Charlie, you want to marry my daughter, right? I said, yes, sir. Can you support a family? Yeah. Good. There are nine of us.
BLAIR: Charlie Hill still goes to Los Angeles for work, but he lives on the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin. He says you can't get any closer to the American dream than that. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.