Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Aboriginal entertainer got us laughing... and talking Thanks, Charlie Hill

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Winnipeg lost a special friend this week. The waters have taken Charlie Hill home to a sacred hunting ground and there are many of us here in Winnipeg who are forever grateful for the gifts this Native American man who knew no borders brought to us all.

Charlie was an Oneida Indian who made his way as a comedian -- a very successful one at that. Charlie was a regular at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and appeared on shows including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Merv Griffin and the original Richard Pryor Comedy Hour.

"I was on all the major programs... Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous..." Charlie used to say.

Charlie also appeared frequently in Winnipeg -- most notably on the Indian Time variety series with friends such as Buffy Sainte Marie, Tom Jackson, Shingoose, Kashtin, Derek Miller and the like. But he also came up here to perform at fundraising events for various charities. Charlie said Winnipeg was like his second home.

Charlie's greatest gift to Winnipeg was the gift he brought with him to every city in North America: the gift of laughter. This gift has healing powers, but perhaps more important, when combined with insight and enlightenment, it allows us to laugh at ourselves and others in a spirit of camaraderie and friendship that breaks down barriers. With the way things are between First Nations people and many Canadians, we could use Charlie Hill now more than ever.

One of Charlie's most popular routines was a Top Ten list of things "white people always say to Indians" and "things that native people never say."

That was the key to Charlie's success.

Brutal honesty that broke down barriers and got us laughing together.

It got us communicating and then, perhaps, we were ready to work together.

White folks always say: "That happened a long time ago and I had nothing to do with it." "Could you do a rain dance for us?" "Woo woo woo woo (while smacking themselves in the mouth) and, of course, "How!" (while raising their right hands) and finally... "My grandmother was a Cherokee princess."

Indian people never say: "I went to a great John Wayne Film Fest over the weekend." "Great speech, Mr. Harper!" "Pass me my Wall Street Journal." "I have new tires and car insurance -- let's go to the powwow." "We're way over-funded; let's give some of it back." "Here's the money for that student loan I borrowed." And "Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, come on in, boys, let's party!"

And that was the key to Charlie's success. Brutal honesty that broke down barriers and got us laughing together. It got us communicating and then, perhaps, we were ready to work together.

Charlie was a family man, married to a Navajo woman (their children are "Oneida-hos"). Charlie used to bring people together with humorous combinations such as "Cheerios" (Cherokee/Osage) and "ChickenPotPie" (Chickesaw/Potowanami/Peyote), but combining Mohawk and Huron was going too far.

He didn't like leaving his family for the road, but he was always available for a good cause here, such as the Manitoba Association for Native Languages, who appreciated the show he did at the old Walker Theatre to raise funds for the preservation of indigenous languages. Peguis First Nation appreciated the show he did for their youth to steer them toward positive role models. And then there was the show in Pukatawagan a couple of years ago.

Charlie did a lot of concerts in prisons because of the disproportionate representation of First Nations in the justice system (although he would just say he enjoyed a "captive audience").

Like all standup comics, Charlie was part of the last bastion for political incorrectness. His humour could be biting, but he would always bring it home, such as when he showed his appreciation from the stage at The Forks for the work being done by the crew of Indian Time 2.

"They're working with us, not for us, and we need a lot more of that," Charlie said.

I spoke to Charlie as the cancer was taking him and I asked how he was doing.

"I'm dying, Don," he replied. "I'm not afraid. I'm just going to miss my family and friends a lot."

Not as much as we will miss him. We thought we were going to lose Charlie after he had a couple of heart attacks a few years back, but he pulled through. His biggest concerns were financial, because of the high cost of health care in the U.S.

It was the Big C that took him and left his family with more financial burdens. They'd brought Charlie home so they could set up hospice care, but that proved to be beyond their means. There's a web page for people who want to help out.

But that's not the purpose of this piece. It is to let Charlie's family know how warmly and how highly a lot of people in Manitoba think of Charlie Hill.

On behalf of those First Nations and social service and cultural organizations he helped, comedians such as Ryan McMahon and Big Bear Barrett and Don Burnstick, who had a trail blazed for them, and all the friends Charlie made in Winnipeg, we just want to say thanks for the laughs, and thanks for bringing us together sometimes when we were keeping ourselves apart, and most of all, for making Winnipeg your home away from home.

As Charlie used to say,

"From here in Winnipeg, I'm off to New York, then Chicago, then it's on to L.A. and San Francisco... and if I can't find work there, I'll be back here."

Don Marks was the writer/director of the Indian Time variety series.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2014 A4

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