How Native American stand-up comedian Charlie Hill made history

Google is celebrating what would have been trailblazing Native American comedian Charlie Hill’s 71st birthday with a Google Doodle.

To celebrate the comedian’s pioneering career, Google commissioned an illustration by Alanah Astehtsi Otsistohkwa (Morningstar) Jewell, a French-First Nations artist from Oneida Nation of the Thames, in which Hill holds a microphone.

On the Google Doodle’s page, Hill’s family also shared a special tribute to the late comedian in honor of his 71st birthday.

“When Charlie was on stage, he was in his element. Time and space didn’t exist, and he loved making people laugh. He believed it was the best kind of medicine,” Hill’s family wrote. “Through his comedy from him, Charlie promoted healing and reminded Native people of their resilience, capabilities, and creative abilities.

“Storytelling and humor have always been a part of Native American culture and he reminded everyone of this. I have established the visibility of Native people and fought to end stereotypes, while also creating a new wave of accurate representation. Charlie was an incredibly caring person, authentic, and very driven. He was never about the accolades and didn’t like talking about himself.

“Dad, we are so proud of you for who you were, all that you accomplished, the doors you opened, and the multitudes you have inspired and continue to inspire. You were the best father anyone could ever ask for, and you will always be our hero.”

Born in Detroit, Michigan, on July 6, 1951, Hill, who had Oneida (Onʌyoteˀa ká)Mohawk (Kanien’kehá:ka) and believe (Nehinaw) heritage, broke barriers when he became the first Native American comedian to perform on national TV.

When Hill was 11, he moved to the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin’s reservation, where his father grew up. There, the standup comic’s impressive career would be influenced early on. Wednesday’s Google Doodle notes that Hill became interested in comedy as a child, and that he and his family would spend weekends watching comedy shows together.

After attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he majored in speech and drama, Hill moved to Los Angeles and began to make a name for himself as a comedian. According to CNNHill’s material frequently addressed bigotry towards Native Americans and other indigenous people, while advocating for Native American civil rights.

Hill’s big break came in 1977 when he was asked to perform on The Richard Pryor Show. However, when the offer was first presented to the comedian, it included a request from the show’s writers for Hill to portray a Native American stereotype, which he refused.

When Hill did appear on the show, it marked the first time a Native American comic appeared on national TV.

Hill’s career continued to take off from there, performing on both the Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

According to Kliph Nesteroff, the author of We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & ComedyHill’s activism-fused comedy inspired “scores of comedians in Canada and in the United States – First Nations comedians, Native American comedians – to get into the business”.

“For a lot of people, it just seemed like there was too great a barrier, if you were a native, to get involved in comedy. It was almost like you weren’t allowed, it was almost unspoken,” Nesteroff told the Journal Sentinel in 2021. “You were only allowed to be a stereotype. You weren’t allowed to be yourself. Charlie Hill really kind of smashed down those barriers.”

Hill died in 2013 at the age of 62 from lymphoma.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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