Cree comedian Howie Miller uses humour to laugh at racism

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Howie Miller possesses a devastating, lighting-quick wit. And he uses it to tremendous effect – to explore, expose and finally laugh at some of the racist stereotypes many Canadians associate with First Nations people.

Take for example the opening joke of one of his older sets.

“I love being Native. I love all the free stuff,” he declares to the crowd. “The land is free. The Medicare is free. Did you know we even get free cab rides? Yeah – in the back of cop cars.”

Howie Miller

Howie Miller

Miller’s birth family is from the Paul Band, a Cree First Nation 70 kilometres west of Edmonton, Alberta. But he was adopted at an early age and raised by a white family in Edmonton, where he continues to live.

Being the only Native in an all-Caucasian family gave him a unique perspective on race from an early age. “This experience gave me an interesting view of life – I saw both ends of the colour spectrum.”

In school, Miller was also an anomaly. But that, he says, doesn’t mean he felt ostracized because of his race. “The schools I attended were so white that race didn’t even seem to matter,” he explains. “It was never brought up. I was just Howie. If I did something stupid, people didn’t make fun of me because I was Native, they made fun of me because I was Howie. Race didn’t really play a factor.”

Naturally funny, Miller was a class clown, using his talent for mimicry to make fun of his principal’s baritone and pleads to “be reasonable”.

“I remember a substitute teacher who said, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough of you.’ And I replied, ‘No, you have not!’”

After high school, Miller did a series of low-paid, largely ungratifying jobs. He worked at a McDonalds, at a car wash, and fought fires in British Columbia.

They were tough years, and he wasn’t merely fending for himself.

“I started having kids when I was 17 – like a good Native boy,” he jokes. By 23, he and his wife already had four boys.

It was at that point Miller began working as a stand-up comic, playing sets in Edmonton’s local comedy clubs.

And soon after, he began touring. He was the only Native stand-up comic working in western Canada, a unique and powerful voice on the comedy club circuit.

“I was lucky. I got a lot of work very quickly, which really helped. It helped with everything – with my writing, my delivery and my timing.”

One of the highlights in Miller’s career was meeting and becoming friends with his idol, comic Charlie Hill. A much sought-after stand-up comedian and actor, Hill had made a name for himself through politically charged humour.

“He paved the way for everyone doing Native-serving humour. He was the godfather of what we do, of what I’m now doing,” explains Miller.

The two became close friends before Hill’s untimely death in 2013, often travelling together between shows.

“Charlie could plough through an audience of 300 or 3000 people. And our styles were similar. He would tell jokes that were in your face. And that’s what I like to do, too.”

Edgy, in-your-face humour, of course, is not for everyone. And Miller says he’s developed a keen ability to read a crowd. He goes into a set with a beginning, middle and end. But he always leaves room to change things up, depending on who he’s entertaining.

“I’ll know within the first 30 seconds how they perceive me. I generally look to the older people in the crowd to get a sense of whether or not they’re laughing. And if they are, I might go into the more colonialism, dark, back-handed humour,” says Miller.

“I don’t want to be offensive. And I don’t want people to feel too uncomfortable. This isn’t about white bashing. But at the same time, I want to communicate the truth. That’s important to me.”

That sensitivity comes in handy for the corporate gigs Miller plays, where the largely wealthy, buttoned-up audience members tend to be more conservative than the First Nations crowds he plays to on reservations.

“Some people are so sensitive – it’s just amazing. I’ll make a self-deprecating joke, even about my weight. And people will get offended for me,” says Miller.

Miller says he’s hopeful about Canada’s future, that he can envision a day when Aboriginal people will face less racism. But he adds that racism remains a reality for many. And since it is, he’s going to continue to make fun of it – relentlessly.

“If I hear someone being racist, it’s horrible. But to me, it’s a joke, that someone would view and judge another because of the colour of their skin. I feel the more I joke about it, the more power I’m taking away from it.”

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