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We Had a Little Real Estate Problem, by Kliph Nesteroff

This book, We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans and Comedy, by Kliph Nesteroff was published last February, but recently caught my eye. Native American  history, culture and politics...plus comedy! Given that my wife performs stand-up comedy, how could I resist? And given the fact that those saintly Pilgrims so mythologized at Thanksgiving actually offered bounties for the scalps of Native American men, women and children, this seemed a suitable counter-programming review for Thanksgiving week.

The book’s title comes from a favorite joke of Charlie Hill, a member of the Oneida Nation and one of the best-known Native American comedians: “My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York. We had a little real estate problem.

While there are examples of comic routines by Native Americans throughout the book, it is actually much more of a social and political history than I expected. Take the life of Charlie Hill, for example. Hill was born in 1951 to a family with a long history of its own. His grandmother had graduated what was then called the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, and was the second Native American woman physician in the country. He was enamored with the comedy he saw in the early days of television, though even as a child he could see the negative stereotypes of Native Americans that percolated through not only through Western series but also sitcoms like Dennis the Menace, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart, Mister Ed, The Munsters, and more. The book cites at length an episode of I Love Lucy, in which Ricky Ricardo is auditioning people to play Indians in his nightclub show:

Lucy Ricardo, unaware that her husband is holding auditions in their home, answers the door when a pair of sitcom Native Americans arrive on her doorstep. She screams in terror and runs around the living room in a spell of racist paranoia, convinced the men are there to scalp, steal, or murder her newborn baby. With the help of her friend Ethyl Mertz, Lucy bashes them over the skull with a flower vase and knocks them unconscious. Ricky explains the mix-up to his wife and a mortified Lucy helps the beleaguered men to their feet.

 LUCY: Mr. Indian, oh, me heap big sorry me smack-um on coco.

ACTOR: Huh?

LUCY: Oh, you speak English?

ACTOR: [in Bronx accent] Soitenly I speak English! Whaddaya tryna do? Murder me?

Earlier in his childhood, the young Charlie Hill, peeking out of his bedroom as his parents watched the Tonight Show with Jack Paar in 1961, saw Black comedian Dick Gregory do a routine. Not only was the humor political, but Gregory even did a joke about Native Americans!

“About three months ago I worked up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and everybody told me, ‘Greg, you’ll love the state of Minnesota. We have terrific civil rights laws. And in this state you’d never know you’re Negro.’ That’s true—because they’re too busy picking on the Indians. If the Indians ever pack their bags and leave the state of Minnesota, I’ll be getting on the next train out of there.”

It seems Minnesota has had a policing problem for a long time. The Minneapolis Police, in order to meet their arrest quotas, would prowl the bars frequented by Native Americans around Fourth Street, arresting on average 200 per week to be sent to do unpaid labor. The American Indian Movement (AIM), the famous grassroots activist organization patterned after the Black Panthers, got its start in Minneapolis. [Click READ MORE below]

Charlie Hill, when he started college in Wisconsin, became involved with the Clyde Warrior Institute, which used nonviolent action to advocate for civil rights for the Native population, hoping to do for them what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had done for African-Americans. One of their actions, to protect fishing rights for the Tlingit Nation in Washington State, was covered by Hunter S. Thompson. That story is included in Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time. Hill was also inspired by the groundbreaking 1969 book by Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.

Hill managed to combine his politics with his love of comedy and acting to become one of the best-known Native Americans in the field. His 1970s performance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was the first time, and about the only time, a Native American comic appeared on the show. Hill also appeared on the Richard Pryor Show (his routine is in the book), the David Letterman Show, and was active in television and the comedy circuit until his death in 2013.

Using the comedy career of Charlie Hill to open the door to a wide range of Native American history and politics is the template used throughout the book and the many comics it covers. Will Rogers, for example, plays an important role. I confess, having had only the most cursory cultural familiarity with Rogers, that I did not know he was a Cherokee. His grandfather was controversial: he was one of the minority of Cherokee to make a deal with the Andrew Jackson administration, after the passage of the Indian Removal Act that led to the forced ‘Trail of Tears’ march from Georgia to Oklahoma, where 25% of the Native Americans died. Robert Rogers and others who agreed to the relocation were given large plots of land and cash, and were greatly resented by the survivors of the Trail of Tears. In 1842, he was murdered in a vengeance killing.

But not before he had sired a son, Clem, Will Roger’s father. Clem owned slaves and hedged his bets during the Civil War, though nominally a member of the Confederacy. After the war, a new treaty with the federal government banned slavery in the Cherokee Nation, and also opened the door to white settlements. Clem Rogers ultimately lost his land and fortune as Whites moved in with the oil boom.

As is the case with comedians of many stripes, Will Rogers turned this tragic past into a great source of material. His newspaper column reached 40 million people at a time when the U.S. population was 120 million, leading H. L. Mencken to say, “He alters foreign policies. He makes and unmakes candidates….Millions of Americans read his words daily, and those who are unable to read listen to him over the radio….I consider him the most dangerous writer alive today.” Rogers responded directly, saying that no one would take his jokes seriously. Mencken responded, “They are taken seriously by nobody except half-wits...in other words...85 percent of the voting population.”

Rogers was a very political humorist, and Native American history was a large part of it as well. At one performance before an audience of thousands of native Americans in Asheville, North Carolina, his cutting jokes about Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears prompted one white reporter to say: “His transformation was terrifying, and for three minutes his astonished audience was treated to a demonstration of what primitive, instinctive hatred could be.” Then as today, whenever minorities dare to speak their minds, the white establishment is quick to judge. Still, Rogers himself got into serious hot water when he used Black racist slurs on the radio.

After his death in a plane crash in 1935, Rogers radical politics and his Cherokee heritage were slowly downplayed. But Will Roger’s son, Will Rogers, Jr., while eschewing the performing arts, became politically active, serving in Congress for a period, and working for Native American rights.

There is lots of history in the book. In the days of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Native Americans were often given the choice between prison or performing. The infamous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where so many Native American children were tortured, abused and died, also created musical and comedy troupes which opened limited opportunities in vaudeville for Native Americans. Native Americans were very active in the early days of Hollywood, protesting the racist imagery and the use of white actors to portray Indians.  In a version of blackface, white actors had their faces done up with a mixture of red clay and water known as bole armenia. There were plenty of Native American actors available, but Hollywood viewed them as not authentic looking; in other words, they did not conform to racist stereotypes. There were also protests against the racist language used, like redskins and squaw. Such protests continue today, with sports teams under pressure to change their names, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s directive that place names with the word ‘squaw’ be changed.

And there’s plenty of comedy in the book as well, including glimpses of current performers, comedy troupes like the 1491s, and comedy showcases featuring Native Americans. Parts of the book will horrify you; others will make you laugh. As the sitcom writer Lucas Brown Eyes puts it:

“There are huge stereotypes that every one of us deals with. The stoic, not-laughing, black-and-white photo—that’s what people think Native Americans are. But the reality is the exact opposite. We are constantly joking around. I’m from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the average life expectancy is forty-five years old. It is known as one of the poorest places in America. I grew up in that context….It gave me this skewed vision of reality. I think that’s why I gravitated towards comedy.”