He may leave them laughing now, but Don Burnstick’s early life was anything but funny.
The youngest of 15 children in the family, he was the only one that didn’t go to residential school.
But the system still had a devastating effect on the other members of all the Alexander First Nation near Edmonton.
“All the stuff came back to our home – they had been beaten, sexually molested and they brought that back to the community,” he says, noting the survivors took their pain out on other band members. “It put all the little ones, the five-year-olds, at risk. We never felt safe.”
Burnstick, a Cree, says that is a pattern that just kept being recycled, trickling down through the generations.
“I had to go through all this grief, acceptance and deal with my own stuff,” says Burnstick, who has been sober since 1985.
Burnstick says most of his family is sober now and he cherishes the fact that his nieces and nephews have never seen the adults drunk.
Burnstick was sobering up in a stint at Round Lake near Vernon, when he met First Nations singer and comedian Winston Wuttunee.
Well-acquainted with drugs, alcohol and life on the streets, a newly-sober Burnstick obtained post-secondary training in holistic urban youth at the University of San Diego and counselling and healing certificates from other institutions.
Burnstick applied his humorous take on life in prevention and counselling. Not only did it work, but when he ran into Wuttunee at a concert in the early ’90s, it opened another door.
“He told me I was funny and should be a comedian and that’s how it took off,” he says, noting he had achieved some notoriety for the way he used humour in counselling. “I shared my experience, but most importantly, I got them to trust and share with each other.”
“My biggest message (to teens) is try to slow down – they want to grow up so fast,” he says. “They want to drink, do drugs, party, shack up. First Nations kids rush through the adolescent process, that’s one of the reasons there’s such a high pregnancy rate.”
On-stage, Burnstick is one of about 40 native comedians and in high demand.
“It’s very cool, it’s an accomplishment,” he says, noting that when he first took his humour to the stage there were only about four native comedians performing in all of North America. “I am very grateful.”
Burnstick plays comedy festivals and numerous other events but does not perform in comedy clubs or bars.
“I don’t use bad language – being a funny Indian in bunch of a drunken white folks is not the path I chose to take and I’ve done well by that,” he says. “It can get to a place where it’s difficult to come back. That’s why I’ve never gone that route.”
Burnstick says he has seen a lot of progress with an ever-increasing number of natives in professional careers, but new problems have reared their ugly heads.
“In the last 25 years we’ve also seen crack, crystal meth and the evolution of ‘gangsta’ rap,” he says.
But Friday evening at the Sullivan campus theatre will be all about fun and laughter.
“I grab a microphone, walk on stage and whatever happens happens,” the popular comedian laughs about his routine. “I know my audience, I know what makes my people laugh, so I just go with it.”
And proceeds will go to a good cause – the Neskonlith Youth Committee – for field trips, sports and playgroundequipment, says organizer Tammy Thomas, who is grateful for assistance from School District #83, Jeremy Biron, Christie Sound and Iris Jules.
An Evening with Don Burnstick begins at 7 p.m. Friday, April 27 with a welcome by Chief Judy Wilson and a grand entry featuring dancer Bailey Marcellay, Iris Jules and family hand-drumming and “Coyote” Ken Thomas. Tickets at $20 are available at Askew’s.
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