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Migizi Pensoneau and Dallas Goldtooth grew up in Bemidji, Minn., a town of about 12,000 that serves as the commercial hub for the Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake reservations. Pensoneau’s mother, a social worker and teacher, married Goldtooth’s father, an environmental advocate, when the boys were toddlers. Though they are not biologically related, Pensoneau and Goldtooth were raised as brothers.
Growing up, the two were enthralled by movies like Goonies, Ghostbusters and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Their mother remembers they would recite lines, re-enact scenes and perform for the rest of the family. “They were always bouncing off each other,” she says. “Especially for Migizi, the movies were something he always wanted to do.”
When Pensoneau and Goldtooth were 13 and 12, respectively, their father took them on a trip to Cherokee, N.C. Tom Goldtooth was visiting the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on behalf of the Indigenous Environmental Network, an advocacy group for which he is the executive director. He brought the boys along so they could see a different way of American Indian life.
Cherokee is a small tribal town in the winter and a tourist attraction in the summer. It’s a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and during the busy season the Cherokee Historical Association runs the Oconaluftee Village, where, according to the CHA website, visitors can “explore the historic events and figures of the 1760’s” and witness “the challenges of Cherokee life at a time of rapid cultural change.”
It was on a sidewalk in Cherokee that Pensoneau and Goldtooth witnessed a scene neither of them would forget: an American Indian man, wearing a headdress and body paint, posing for photographs with tourists. “This guy was dressed up like a cigar store Indian,” remembers Pensoneau, who is now 31 and lives in Missoula. “He was just the stereotype you get in your head, just the big Indian fella.”
- The 1491s work as a collective. The troupe includes, from left, Bobby Wilson, Migizi Pensoneau, Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo and Ryan Red Corn.
To that point, Pensoneau, whose mother is Ojibwe and biological father Ponca, had been raised close to the cultural traditions of his family. The image of the American Indian man accepting crumpled dollars in exchange for photos was bewildering, a sudden source of frustration with the world.
“The idea that someone could sell themselves out that way was sort of existential for me. My family never had those problems,” Pensoneau says. “That was something that always stuck with me.”
A few years after the trip to Cherokee, Pensoneau and Goldtooth left Minnesota to attend the now-defunct Native American Preparatory School in New Mexico. After graduating, Goldtooth returned to Minneapolis while Pensoneau moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in movies.
In late winter 2009, Pensoneau and Goldtooth returned home to visit their family in Bemidji, and as visits so often go, they found themselves bored one afternoon. “Dallas had a video camera, and we were just hanging out, and he told me to do this Ojibwe accent I do,” says Pensoneau. “We went out in the woods and made a video.”
The video is called “Shinnob Life, ep. 1” and chronicles two cousins filming one another as they expound on the intricacies of hunting muskrats in “the traditional way.” The video is six minutes long, and while they hadn’t planned on sharing it with anyone outside their family, they posted it on YouTube a few weeks later.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma, Sterlin Harjo and Ryan Red Corn were beginning a collaborative relationship of their own. Harjo had cast Red Corn in his second feature film, Barking Water, a quiet ballad of a movie that depicts the final road trip of an American Indian man who is dying of cancer. Harjo, who had met Red Corn—himself a filmmaker, graphic designer and musician—at a film festival in Colorado, cast him in the only role that could be considered wholly comedic. The script called for Red Corn’s character to bless a giant plate of bacon in a long-winded and melodramatic diner-booth sermon. Harjo and Red Corn later collaborated on a short film titled Bad Indians for which Red Corn wrote the script and directed, while Harjo filmed. That video was posted on YouTube.
Though none of the members can figure exactly how it happened, Pensoneau and Goldtooth began watching the videos of Harjo and Red Corn. Harjo and Red Corn followed the work of Pensoneau and Goldtooth. Harjo contacted Pensoneau and told him that he and Red Corn would be in Minneapolis for a screening of Barking Water. With no concrete plan in mind, they all agreed to meet at Goldtooth’s house. Bobby Wilson, a visual and spoken word artist, joined. Hours later, Wilson was unlocking the door of a youth center where he worked. “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions” was about to be filmed.