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Comedian Jackie Keliiaa on Keeping Tahoe Washoe

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Standup Comedian Jackie Keliiaa holds a microphone on stage, she leans forward slightly, smiling out at the audience.
Jackie Keliiaa performing at Manhaters. (Brooke Heinichen)

Jackie Keliiaa  is a stand-up comedian raised in Hayward and based in Oakland. She’s unapologetically Bay, and proud of her Yerington Paiute and Washoe roots. She’s also funny af.  

“I get asked a lot of weird questions like, ‘What brings you to the mainland?’ I have to burst their bubble and let them know I’m not from Hawaii. I’m from this exotic land in the East Bay called Hayward.”

Building off Charlie Hill‘s legacy, Keliiaa cracks jokes about colonialism, Native culture and family, alongside her trials and tribulations with dating.

Before the pandemic, you could catch her sets at Punchline San Francisco, Comedy Oakland and Tommy T’s.  Pivoting in these virtual times, she’s organized virtual comedy shows, Good Medicine, to fundraise for Indigenous communities hard hit by COVID-19.

Keliiaa is also featured alongside other Native comedians in the televised ‘First Nation Comedy Experience’ and continues to co-produce Amazonians which showcases women comics, and recently launched a podcast where she interviews her creative friends.

One of Keliaa’s latest endeavors includes contributing a chapter in the newly published book, We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy. It’s a deep dive into the under-appreciated legacy of Native comedians, taking its name from an iconic Charlie Hill joke, “My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York… We had a little real estate problem.”

In this episode of Rightnowish, Jackie Keliiaa gets real about the (sometimes) therapeutic benefits of comedy, why talking about land-theft isn’t hard, and teasing as a form of love.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Jackie Keliiaa.

Jackie: This is something that not a lot of people know, but teasing, it’s a really big thing in the Native community… just making fun of people. It’s way that you show love and affection…  So when I get on stage, I always mess around with my dad. That’s what I do for a lot of my Native audiences.

Marisol: What is that like to have your dad in your material? Is he like ‘that’s great, that’s me she’s talking about!’ Or is he like, ‘we got to talk…’

Jackie: Oh, no, he’s totally into it. Like, I remember my first ever showcase, it was at La Estrellita here in Oakland, and my dad came with my whole family. It was my first ever showcase — doing a full ten minutes — and I could just hear him laughing, like a real belly laugh. And I was like, ah, we’re good.

Jackie: In that particular performance. I was talking about sexuality. I was talking about all kinds of things. And it was just a fun way to, like, have a talk with my family without having a talk with my family… my family gets to meet me in a different light.

Marisol: It’s clicking for me… comedy is helping me to communicate things to my family or friends that I can’t otherwise say. I can go on stage and I can fabricate these experiences that are rooted in my lived experience. It’s like an opportunity to talk about something with them after the show.

Jackie: I think it is important to think about it as a space where you can unpack stuff. My teacher would always say, ‘Wait until you’ve processed it, wait until you’ve worked through it, because the last thing you want to do is like gut yourself on stage for the sake of a laugh and then you just feel naked and vulnerable’

Jackie: Go to therapy, basically, like, go to therapy.

Marisol: I’m curious to know your thoughts about talking about really challenging difficult things, but finding the laugh in it. It’s like a guttural laugh because you’re like, oh, snap like that hits because it’s truth and we don’t talk about it.

Jackie: Colonization, genocide and land theft all happened. And it’s just a fact and it’s a reality that I’m aware of. So for me, it’s not necessarily difficult to talk about, but I know it’s difficult for the audience to absorb. And it’s fun for me because I like to mess with that audience. Like one of the jokes that I was like, really proud of writing was about Lake Tahoe…   I’m like, Lake Tahoe is the ancestral homeland of my people, the Washoe people.  So this past winter, when you were skiing the slopes of Squaw Valley, just know that you were desecrating the sacred lands of my ancestors…

Jackie: And I usually point at a white man in the front and I’m like, ‘You got a season pass!’  It’s the funniest thing, because it’s a way to remind you this shit was stolen… I love Lake Tahoe, but guess what? I can’t afford a rental on the beachfront. And you need to know these things. You need to know that this is where we’re from. This should be for us.

Jackie: It’s not just white people. It’s everybody. It’s anyone who participates in this American dream. We all have to acknowledge the land on which we stand.

Marisol: I wanted to have you talk a little bit about the chapter that you contributed to the newly published book titled We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans and Comedy. Your chapter is about your roots in the East Bay, its richness but also how the urban Native community came to be.

Jackie: There was Urban Indian relocation that happened. It was about disinvesting Native people from their lands. Let’s be real. It was like, “Hey, is the reservation not doing it for you economically?” — It was built not to do it for you economically — but they were like, “Here’s a ticket. Go to an urban hub in the country. We’ll get you a job, we’ll get you a place to stay. And you can learn new trades and get jobs.” And so once that happened, flocks of Native folks came from all over the country.

Jackie: It brought all these people who are not used to cities. A lot of these folks are from straight rural ass places and [the program] brought them to the cities. If you don’t know your way and you’re not fluent, you could get caught up in something. And the housing was terrible, the jobs weren’t great. And [after getting this] one way ticket, they got here and the stuff that they were promised didn’t come through… surprise… a federal program.

Jackie: …[but] you had a time in the East Bay, and particularly in Oakland and San Francisco, where there were Natives of all nations everywhere. My dad grew up in that environment. So they had dances, and they had what was called the Four Winds Club in downtown Oakland. And my grandfather was huge into sports, and so my dad played all the Indians sports league.

Marisol: I think an unintended consequence of this program that was really trying to assimilate Indigenous culture ended up having the reverse effect because essentially the government put all these Native folks together and they were like, ‘hey, let’s learn from each other. Let’s like grow this community.’ And now you have descendants who are still living in these urban places and still carrying on their culture that their family passed down, but also inventing new ones, too.

Jackie: Absolutely. I mean, the fact that I can make jokes with my friends…. And we relate so heavily to all of our jokes, even though we’re all from different backgrounds, like we’re different tribes, we have different experiences…There’s something special about the fact that we can relate on so many levels and also simultaneously be so unique and so different…

Jackie: I’m just really proud of this book because it’s spotlighting so many amazing comics and writers that I want the world to see them and to know. Visibility has always been a big problem for Native folks. We always have the burden of proving we’re here. And so it’s exciting to have a book that’s like a rolodex essentially.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.



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