As COVID-19 cases increase among First Nations people across the Prairies, a social media campaign is relying on Indigenous comedians and humour to encourage people to protect their elders.
“[Comedy] is very important because it’s depressing for a lot of people right now. And I believe that our people believe in laughter as medicine,” said Dane Cunningham, who is Cree from Bigstone Cree Nation in Alberta.
Cunningham, along with Candy Palmater and Dakota Ray Hebert, are the latest Indigenous comedians to make public service announcements for the Protect Our Elders campaign by the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation in Alberta.
Cunningham is a two-spirit, drag comedian who has built a following by releasing make-up tutorials with a sense of humour online. He does roasting-style comedy and describes himself as “the Joan Rivers of Native people.”
He has had first hand experience with the virus. At the end of June, he helped one of his friends look for a family member that was missing in Edmonton. Afterwards, Cunningham was notified that the friend he was helping had contracted COVID-19. Cunningham was told to self-isolate for 14 days and ended up sick with the virus.
“I lost my taste and smell. That was like the worst part of it,” said Cunningham.
“I had fevers and… it was like they were getting hotter and hotter each time.”
Cunningham, who has been doing comedy for five years, is used to creating sketches on a regular basis but had to pull back this year from posting videos to balance out his mental health. But he wanted to make these videos to make sure people are protecting their elders.
“I know some of my close friends of mine had lost their moms and my ex had lost his grandma to COVID,” said Cunningham.
The campaign was launched earlier this year in May and included model and actor Ashley Callingbull, activist and storyteller Sarain Fox and Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear.
Hebert, who is Dene from Meadow Lake, Sask., is a stand-up comedian and writer who has three videos in the series that ask people to wash their hands, social distance and wear face masks.
She said that people are “comedy starved.”
“The world is annoying right now, at least to me,” said Hebert.
“I’m stuck in my house and there’s so much turmoil happening right now. I think everyone needs a laugh. Everyone needs something silly in their lives, especially to get through the winter.”
Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Chief Tony Alexis said the ultimate goal of the campaign is to make sure everyone takes the virus seriously.
“We have a responsibility to look after the elders as the knowledge keepers in our community,” said Alexis.
He said his community has had one on-reserve case that has recovered. On Tuesday, the First Nation announced that eight off-reserve members had contracted the virus.