How Indigenous People Got Their Very Own Comedy Night

Janelle Niles started the comedy show Got Land? to help bring more Indigenous voices to the big stage.

As a kid, Janelle Niles loved to watch Just for Laughs on TV at home in Truro, N.S, not far from her Sipekne’katik First Nation community. If she was able to laugh at something, she felt, it couldn’t hurt her or be used against her. Now a 33-year-old massage therapy student and hospital security guard in Ottawa, she’s channelled her childhood obsession into a moonlighting gig as a stand-up comedian.

But she was disappointed to be the only Indigenous comic on the bill most nights—and it didn’t take long for her to grow tired of being the “token.” Niles admired the comedian Kenny Robinson’s long-running, all-Black Yuk Yuk’s Toronto set, Nubian Show, and wondered, “Well, where’s ours?”

First, she gave her all-Indigenous show a name. Got Land? is a nod to the Land Back movement, which is, in turn, part of a complex conversation around what it would mean to return colonized territory to Indigenous peoples. Next, Niles recruited talent. Her roster now counts 12 emerging and established Indigenous comics, such as Don Kelly of APTN’s Fish Out of Water.

Last September, Niles stood up inside Eddy’s, an Ottawa diner, and welcomed the audience to her inaugural show. The night sold out: she had to turn people away at the door. Looking around, she joked, “We’ve got to kick out all the white people to make room for the Natives.” The room erupted in laughter—and the rest of the evening only grew more raucous.

Since its kickoff, Got Land? has hosted even larger crowds at both Algonquin College and Carleton University, and was set to do the same with two shows at Ottawa University before COVID-19 put plans on hold.

Mélissa Lambert-Tenasco, a 27-year-old executive assistant who attended the first show and is now a diehard fan, will be in the audience when the comics are back on stage. “Laughter is big in our communities,” she says, “and it was really nice to laugh with a bunch of Native people—it’s nice to be making the jokes for once.” And while the show is “for our people, with our people,” Niles also wants Got Land? to help boost Canadians’ general knowledge about Indigenous culture. “It’s a safe environment for us to engage with each other, have an exchange, gain some knowledge,” she says, “but also tell those harsh truths.”

One of Niles’ first—and most popular—bits is a parody of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” in which she changes the lyrics to tell the audience that, in fact, the land belongs to Indigenous people. “This land is my land, this land ain’t your land,” she sings, mimicking the tune of the familiar folk song. “You pretty much stole it, right out of our hands. You made my people sign a treaty which we didn’t fully understand.”

Niles says her next step is to bring Indigenous comedy into the mainstream. She wants to see Indigenous comedians share the stage next to legends like Dave Chapelle and Bill Burr. Her own comedy dream is to be featured on Just for Laughs.

“With Got Land?, I’m trying to pull everyone together,” says Niles. “As I make my way through comedy, I want to bring everyone with me.”

Next, check out the best jokes from Canada’s top comedians.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada