Emery Burningrass creator talks trauma and comedy ahead of Beaufort Delta shows

How Donald MacDonald turned a $5 puppet into an Indigenous YouTube sensation

Emery Burningrass gives a satirical election speech in a 2017 video. (Ian Down/CKLB photo)

He’s small, he’s got attitude, and he may or may not still bootleg liquor.

Meet Emery Burningrass. He’s become a YouTube and social media star over the past five years, particularly among Indigenous communities, from which he draws his humour.

Now, Emery and his puppeteer, Donald MacDonald, are coming to the Beaufort Delta for a string of shows this month.

“He can tell legends, which are part of who we are,” says MacDonald. “And then at the same time, he can work with language, because he still has his language. And then at the same time, he can talk about bullying, because he was a victim of a bully, and he was a bully. He can talk about incarceration, because he’s been there.”

Emery Burningrass is a classic example of “Rez humour,” drawing on the shared experiences of living in Indigenous communities. Although MacDonald aims to make people laugh with his act, the character of Emery Burningrass was born out of trauma and struggle: Growing up in Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, MacDonald was raised by his grandparents, surrounded by addiction and abuse. After spending eight years in and out of incarceration, MacDonald discovered pow-wow dancing, which he pursued for 11 years. He eventually returned to his home community, where he found solid footing running his own trading post. “It fed my family; It motivated me to be something and to be somebody,” he says.

Then one day, he walked into a Value Village and saw a puppet on sale for $5. MacDonald had to do some work to transform that puppet into the character fans know today. “I put on some braids, hickeys, some tattoos, and gave him some legs and moccasins,” he says.

Donald MacDonald and Emery Burningrass with fans in 2022. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Five years later, and MacDonald’s YouTube channel has more than 700,000 views, and MacDonald and Emery have performed more than 500 shows across North America.

MacDonald says it was only a matter of time before communities in the Northwest Territories came calling. “Word travels. There’s not too many native First Nations comedians around and, you know, they’re starting to rise.”

At first, MacDonald says, the notoriety was overwhelming. “My head started to blow up, and I had to kind of step back and say, ‘Hey hey hey,'” he says. “You’ve gotta be humble with these things, you know? Because the Creator, he lends us these gifts, and, he can just take them back as fast as he lends them to us.”

A full list of Emery Burningrass shows in the Beaufort Delta this month are available here.

About the Author

Ian Down
Ian Down is a general news reporter from the West Island of Montreal. After studying journalism and computer science at Concordia University, he came to Yellowknife in 2021, joining the CKLB team in September 2022. When not behind his desk, you can find him at a local Yellowknife poetry reading, or annoying his roommates by playing his clarinet at odd hours. Feel free to reach out with any tips or story ideas at ian.down@cklb.com, or follow him on Twitter at @IanDown1996.