Farewell Charlie Hill: From a Brother and a Friend

Gale Courey Toensing

There was a poignant moment between Charlie Hill, 62, and his brother Rick Hill, 60, soon after the doctor gave Charlie the bad news about his terminal illness.

“Me and Charlie, we were talking, you know?” Rick told Indian Country Today Media Network on January 1, 2014, two days after Charlie died. “And I said, ‘You know, Charlie, we had a 60-year run. We did this and we did that and you were the best big brother anybody could have their whole life. You beat off all the bullies, and you took me here and you took me there…”

There was silence for a moment as the brothers contemplated the good times they’d had during their long relationship—and it’s imminent end. “Then Charlie says to me—this is right after the doctor gives him the bad news—he says, ‘Hey, you wanna come with me?” Rick said in an explosion of unending laughter. “So he always had a sense of humor, you know, and just wanted to go out with a standing ovation—which he deserves.“

And so Charlie Hill, the universally loved standup comedian who was the leading light for all Native comedians who followed him, kept his family laughing right up to the end of his remarkable life.

The Hill family issued a statement detailing the facts of Charles “Charlie” Allan Hill’s life: He was born July 6, 1951, and passed away early on Monday morning, December 30, 2013, in Oneida, Wisconsin. His death followed a valiant, year-long, battle against lymphoma cancer. He fought the disease with all the courage, irreverence, and humor that shaped his life and his comedic career, the family said. He was a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin and belonged to the Turtle Clan.

Charlie Hill graduated from West De Pere High School in De Pere, Wisconsin, class of 1969. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he majored in speech and drama and was a member of the experimental Broom Street Theater Group. Later, he toured Europe as a member of the La MaMa Experimental Theater Group, which was based in New York City.

He left college and moved to Hollywood, to pursue his dream as a stand up comedian. He lived in Los Angeles for the next 40 years, where he forged a successful career as an actor, writer and stand-up comedian. He was the first American Indian comedian in history and joined humor with political activism and social commentary, breaking down many stereotypes about Native Americans. His humor was universal and transcended the narrow restrictions of race, culture, or class. He succeeded in making people laugh with him, not at him. His groundbreaking talent and determination opened the door for generations of Native performers.

Charlie is survived by his wife of 33 years, Lenora Hatathlie, and their four children, Diné Nizhoni, Nasbah, and her fiancé, Jamison King, Nanabah, Nabahe, and one granddaughter, Tasbah, 3. He is also survived by two brothers, Norbert and his wife Mary Anne and Richard (“Rick”) and his wife Donsia, and two sisters, Rosa Coenen and her husband Rick, and Barbara Author, his father-in-law, Jack Hatathlie, as well as many nephews, nieces, cousins and friends. He was preceded in death by his parents, Norbert and Eileen, his brother, Jimmy, and his mother-in-law, Bessie Hatathlie. Charlie was the second son of a second son.

A funeral ceremony was held on Friday, January 3, 2014, in De Pere, Wisconsin. There was no public showing prior to the ceremony. In lieu of floral arrangements, a Memorial Fund has been established. Donations can be made to the Charlie Hill Fund, 532 Airport Road, Oneida, WI 54155. The family expressed deep gratitude for the outpouring of love, prayers, and support from countless individuals, family and friends, the staff of the Oneida Health Center, Heartland Hospice, St. Mary’s Hospital, the Anna John Nursing Home, and Dr. Jerry M. Winkler of Green Bay Oncology.

Friends and admirers have detailed Charlie Hill’s remarkable career in an outpouring of comments from friends and admirers:

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While family and friends detailed Charlie Hill’s early life and career, brother Rick Hill told stories—accompanied by tears of laughter—that describe the essential Charlie Hill, his struggle and the sense of humor that never abandoned him even during his last days.

The last year was hard, Rick said. “It was quite the Herculean effort, to say the least. Charlie suffered a lot of pain, but in the end he passed peacefully.” And there were ups and downs on the journey. “At one point when they thought he was close to the end his son had put him in a wheelchair—a couple of the nurses cooperated—and they rolled him around in a Superman cape and his robe and his son put on Superman music and wheeled him down the hall,” Rick said roaring with laughter. “Then my other brother went into Charlie’s room and panicked because he thought Charlie was gone—stuff like that. He kept everybody still on their toes.”

Toward the end, Charlie was moved from the hospital to the Oneida Nation’s new nursing home where he was put into “a nice, peaceful room,” Rick said. One day about a week before died, Charlie wanted to get up and go outside. “They’ve got this crane, so the crane lifted him and put him in a wheelchair. He wanted to be in the snow. It was so damn cold but he got to go outside. He said he wasn’t going to go till the Packers won—so they won on Sunday and he passed away on Monday!” Rick said, laughing again.

How do you describe a brother who meant the world to you? “He was a meteor just coming to you! I had a good 60-year run with him. He was fantastic, you know? He came with the sole purpose to reach everyone else’s soul. That’s what he did with his audiences—he reached their soul, he made them laugh. You talk to some people and they say the first time they saw Charlie, they laughed so hard, they cried. He could do that to a lot of people. He could give the energy back from the audience and he loved to perform.”

Charlie was “a student of everything”—especially show business and he picked the hardest form of show business to go into, Rick Hill said. “He was a standup comic in the true sense of the word, doing the satire that he did. He had the ability to story tell and to reduce a few hundred years of history into a few short words. It was a true art form—to teach people and to teach them through humor—and tell the flat out truth whether they could accept it or not. It was always fun to watch him work the audiences. He would scare ‘em with the truth!”

Charlie always said he liked performing at Oneida because it was the best training ground for hecklers, Rick Hill said. “He went to New York and California and all over but nowhere could top Oneida.

Charlie was not only a master of comedy; he was fearless. Rick said, launching into another story. “One time [at a performance venue] the guy gave him a memo that said, ‘Charlie, you can’t say this and you can’t say that.’ So Charlie opens up by reading the memo!,’ Rick said with another roar of laughter. “It was kind of a like telling Picasso, hey, I think you should use different colors on that piece of artwork there.”

Charlie had a lot of love and compassion for people. “There were people he didn’t like, but if he was your friend, he was your friend, you know?”

Tom Rodger, owner/operator of Carlyle Consulting and a good friend of Charlie’s, had this story to tell: “I remember one night at Rick and Donsia’s home with Charlie and I watching the Packers play the Bears on Monday Night Football. We spent the entire game discussing Oakland Raiders football trivia. All three of us that cold autumn evening loved to talk and laugh about the only Polish Hall of Fame Oakland Raiders football player who was born in Crivitz, Wisconsin,” Rodgers recalled. “The name of the player was not as important as that moment. Because we knew sitting there in what poets call a ‘spot of time’ that this beautiful laugh-filled moment would not last. Charlie was thought of by many as a comedian, but he was so much more than that. He was a poet. He was our librarian of laughter and now our beautiful library has burned down. But in the silent darkness of the evening we should remember his life as a book of candles, each page read by the light of its own burning.”

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bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
Big brothers. Sometimes they can be mean, beat you up and make you cry often as kids. And then they are there as you enter high school with those scary upper class men. They always laugh at you, but inside they want you to laugh at yourself as part of building character. When a close family member is direly ill or has passed on, you look up to big brother for strength and courage. Big brothers are generally there to celebrate your marriage, their nephews or nieces birthdays, and ready to sit with you if you need consoling at the loss of a job or a marriage that is going through the wringer. You often wonder where big brother gets his strength and ability to help you see life in a positive light at your darkest moments. The next time you see your big brother, or big sister for that matter, let them know how much you appreciate them being there for you. Pardon the cliches, but Charlie Hill lived a very full life. He was remarkable at his profession in every sense of the word. And when I see the next comedy act by a Native brother or sister, I know that they are benefactors of the foundation that Charlie helped establish. "Oh Charlie, when you see our Creator, please don't tell the joke about how a squirrel scratches his nuts."

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
My sympathies to every one of Mr. Hill's family members and friends. I'd heard Charlie before and he was graced with a talent to make everyone around him laugh. What a great gift to share with the world and what a great legacy to leave behind. You will be missed Charlie, and I hope the strawberries were fresh and plump just for your journey.l

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
What nice comments by Mr. Bullbear. I'm the oldest in my family and I'd like to think that my brothers and my sister look fondly upon the things I've done for them.