Native Americans have had an image problem for as long as non-Native people have had a say in it, from the Pilgrims to P.T. Barnum to Andrew Jackson to Hollywood movie producers. In the media, Indigenous people have been cast as savage, ignorant and unfunny, except as the butt of jokes. There is a sad logic to that: What would Native Americans have to laugh about? White settlers tried to vanquish them, denied them their culture, language and tribal lands, portrayed them as caricatures of their authentic selves and trapped them by systemic racism that fosters roadblocks to work and education. As the groundbreaking stand-up comedian Charlie Hill once said to a white audience, “For so long you probably thought that Indians never had a sense of humor. We never thought you were too funny either.”
Richly researched and told through the vibrant voices of the comics themselves—including Cherokee citizen Will Rogers and his son Will Rogers Jr., Osage member Ryan Red Corn, Kiowa member Adrianne Chalepah, Oneida member Charlie Hill and more—Kliph Nesteroff’s extraordinary We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans and Comedy chronicles a legacy deserving of inclusion in the history of comedy in the U.S. and Canada. Supporting players include Olympian, actor and member of the Sac and Fox Nation Jim Thorpe, who protested stereotyping in Hollywood Westerns in the 1930s and ’40s, demanding “only American Indians for American Indian parts.” Thorpe’s list of acceptable Native American performers, however, inspired the U.S. government to investigate whether those listed were truly Indigenous or if they were immigrants who were in the country illegally, according to Variety: “Italians, Mexicans, Armenians, and other swarthy-skinned foreigners have been passing themselves off as Indians, figuring no one could then question their entry.”
With the arrival of television, Native comedians-to-be, inspired by shows like “The Tonight Show,” began learning their craft at far-flung casinos and truck stops in the middle of the night. Pay was pathetic, and audiences were sparse and unsure of how to react to a funny Native American, though fellow Indigenous people had no trouble relating to their own. In the 1970s, Charlie Hill, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Robin Williams shared the sidewalk line for a spot on the stage of the Comedy Store, a famous comedy club in Hollywood where scouts would come to spot new talent who, in turn, would help other aspiring comics—as Letterman did when he invited Hill onto his show as his first Native American guest.