Charlie Hill is known as a comedian -- but there's much more to the man some call "Uncle" Charlie.
Meet him and you're immediately struck by his openness and warmth, and his honesty. What is supposed to be a formal interview soon eases into a front-porch kind of conversation. Listening to his words, you really do feel as though you're speaking with one of your elders, rather than an acclaimed actor and humorist. The former University of Wisconsin-Madison student is a great believer in and supporter of Native talent and Native Peoples, in all facets of life. He was on campus during the early 1970s as the social activist movement was gaining traction. He recalls, "every campus got their shot of freedom and pride and assertiveness, and even down to the writing. Because until the activism [began], most of the stuff about contemporary Indians was not written by us." He used his life experiences to fuel his comedic career.
A conversation with Hill is likely to cover a whole range of topics. As he told ICTMN at the outset, "Let's just free-form it. Ask what you want, make me look intelligent and make you look like a great writer."
The first topic was a short video piece he did with Kateri Walker for First Americans in the Arts called The Longest Walk Through Hollywood, in which Hill and Walker just spend an afternoon strolling through Hollywood searching out a few historic sites in Native entertainment. "It's a historical piece about how Indian actors were starting out in the '40s and '50s, and which ones were in front of the camera, and who knew who. " A great many Native entertainers have made their mark in Hollywood and the arts, Hill says, mentioning that he has known Keith Secola and Micki Free for years. He is quick to acknowledge that they have paid their dues. "Keith Secola is the real deal," he says. "I love seeing this whole new generation of Indian performers. Across the board, we had Indian performers in every genre of music, from opera to rap to heavy metal. Everybody's doing it, and I think we're doing it better than the non's, but they just aren't as well-known. And, that's the only difference." Hill also acknowledges his predecessors: "Before me, there were people like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Floyd Westerman and Paul Ortega opened up the door for my generation of performers. I remember when Keith Secola was a student." He is proud of the way a great many of his contemporaries and students have developed. He believes that "if you know how to do something creative, you can do anything. If someone has that artistic spark, he can do anything."
Charlie Hill on the Richard Pryor Show in 1977.
Hill's path and career didn't just happen. He studied and listened and watched the way other performers plied their craft: "I saw comedians on TV, and wondered -- how do I get in that box? How do I learn how to do that?" He moved to New York and hung out with other actors and performers, always asking for advice on what to do and how to get his career going. Hill may have started out in New York, but it wasn't long before he was performing at the famous (and infamous) L.A. Comedy Store. "I got in with the big boys. I wanted to be as good as all of those. I didn't want to be a rez act or a frybread act because it's real limiting." He auditioned alongside entertainers like David Letterman and Michael Keaton, his contemporaries, learning and growing with every encounter. "If you want to learn something, get around all the great ones, and try to elevate yourself to that level," he says. "Even if you only get half-way there, you'll have come quite a ways."
Hill is no fan of politicians, in general. "I don't support none of those SOB's," he says. "I don't believe politicians have any kind of answers. They never did. They never will. They're just 3rd and 4th generation Europeans that have no answers for Native people." Hill believes that the real instigators of change in the world "have been the artists, the writers, the poets, the musicians because they're the ones people always censor. They're the ones people lock up. Those are the ones who make you think." He goes on to say, "There's always controversy when they put new artistic products out. They take off the straitjacket." As an example, Hill brings up the late-80s gangsta-rap group NWA: As he sees it, they were shining the spotlight on the conditions and problems that exist in the inner-city, not unlike Richard Pryor when he came onto the scene. "People were terrified of him, until later they caught up, and started imitating him,"Hill recalls. "He was about freedom of expression, and what you say in your story."
Despite his didain for politicians, Hill voted for Barack Obama -- the only Presidential candidate he has ever voted for. "He's a tribesman, and a person of color," Hill says. "And, I just thought, this one time, I'll vote." Hill is confident that America will never have another white President. "Once you go black, you never go back," he quips. The nation is in the process of rejecting the old-boy network. "That kind of thinking is on the way out, like the 8-track tape," Hill says. "Guys like Romney and Bush and Bush II and all those guys -- Dan Quayle, Sarah Pale-face -- all of them. They're obsolete and they're out of touch." Hill believes that "overall, the Indians have the key to everything. I always say we have the answers to fix this country because we have the owner's manual -- and that's not just a joke."
"It gets right down to us," Hill explains. "If people don't know Native people, they don't know America. If Americans don't know anything about us, they don't know anything about themselves. When Americans don't know Indian people, they must look at their own world, their own science, their arts, their medicine in the same myopic way. It's right in their faces, and it's like, they don't get it." Hill is quick to point out that he does not believe that white people are evil, but collectively, and generically, when it comes to Indians, "Americans are stuck on stupid. It's not a skin color, it's an attitude. And, the only way they're going to get right with everything is to get right with Indians. The way it should be done -- with honor and respect."
Charlie Hill performing standup in 1983.
Hill is pragmatic about his performances: "Colleges are my audience, because they are really into what I'm doing. Casinos pay the bills, but the colleges are the heart of what I'm all about." He feels that Natives missed out on a huge opportunity with the gaming industry. "We could've had our own infrastructure to stand alone, and our own businesses." He laments the lack of Native-to-Native business relationships that could have been formed by using Native vendors. "I think that's a disgrace. And, you don't see Indian entertainers at these casinos. You might see Indian entertainers on a token basis, like at a grand opening. But don't have us there as regular performers. And, they never have us there at a regular salary. So, they have money for the white man performer, but when it comes to Indians, they put everybody on a budget." He continues, "I'm not saying this just for myself. I'm speaking for everybody that's performing. We have the best performers in the world, and we're being overlooked. It's a disgrace."
Hill is also sensitive to the image of Indians that the rest of America sees. "That damn mascot shit won't ever go away," he says. Like a lot of Native people, Hill finds no honor in those depictions. "It's always on their terms," he says. "I think the biggest, grotesque destruction they're doing is that Crazy Horse monument. Crazy Horse fought his whole life not to have his image taken, and here's some white man gonna carve what he thinks Crazy Horse looked like on these sacred mountains. I mean, these are sacred mountains. And he died defending these. And they're gonna carve it up to satisfy their egos. ... God made these beautiful mountains, but the white man is going to put something better on it. I always say we ought to get some Indian people over to Mt. Sinai over there, in their holy land, and say we're gonna build a statue of Joan Rivers so we can honor you people." Hill thinks "it's just blatant racism" and the more attention we bring to the discussion, the better. In regards to the Florida State mascot, Hill wonders whether there are "any Native Studies programs [offered by] the university. How much money are they putting [towards] Indian education." Hill has discussed these issues with numerous activists in the Native community, including James Billie, former Chief of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Suzan Harjo. He holds strong opinions, but stresses he does not want to argue. He recalls telling Billie, "That's your decision. But, while you're doing it, it makes the rest of us look bad because it gives them license to go 'The Seminole say it's okay, so we can call you guys Red Bastards,' or whatever name they got for us."
Asked for information on upcokming gigs, Hill confesses he doesn't know about any. "It comes and goes a lot," he says, but adds that he is plenty busy with writing, being a grandfather, and acting as what he terms a "young elder." And he wants everyone to know, that he's not about to retire. "I'm getting ready to refire," he says
As the conversation with Uncle Charlie winds down, he offers parting thoughts on the enduring Native spirit. "They cut off the top, but they never cut off the roots," he says. "The spirit of Indians is America. How could it not be? They talk about the roots of America, how could it not be Native?"