I'm an Indian, too

What’s so funny about the 1491s?



The members of the 1491s comedy troupe filmed their first video in a youth center in Minneapolis. The video is called “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions,” and features Migizi Pensoneau, Dallas Goldtooth, Ryan Red Corn and Bobby Wilson as Native American men auditioning for a bit roll in the next installment of the Twilight series. The four men are shirtless save for Pensoneau who wears a gray faux-fur jacket and a headdress made of feathers. Red Corn wears beads around his neck and what looks like a turtle shell over his crotch, while Wilson and Goldtooth have allowed their long black hair to fall down their backs, nearly to their waists. They all stare stoically at the camera.

Sterlin Harjo, who directed the video, also appears on screen as John Haynes, a casting director from Los Angeles. “First off, we’d like you to do your sort of Indian stuff. Cultural stuff, anything,” Haynes says to the auditioning men. “Dancing, you guys dance?”

The men begin dancing in a circle. Red Corn stretches his arms toward the ceiling and howls like a wolf. Goldtooth struts and gobbles like a turkey. Pensoneau does a sort of understated shoe-gazer shuffle. Wilson does the worm.

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For six minutes, the video continues with the men indulging every one of Haynes’ requests to do “Indian stuff.” At one point, during a sequence of individual interviews, Goldtooth looks into the camera and says in a dusty, mock-tribal accent, “Before we start, may I ask you turn that off, because in our way, that thing you have there—that machine!” he says, pointing into the camera lens. “It may take my soul.” The cameraman responds that if he turns the camera off, Goldtooth won’t get the part in the movie. Goldtooth nods understandingly and says, “Film away.”

Since “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions” was uploaded to YouTube on Dec. 1, 2009, it has been viewed nearly 200,000 times, and in the following years the group has produced dozens of other skits. The 1491s have adopted a logo, hired a manager and attracted more than 13,000 “Likes” on Facebook and some 5,000 followers on Twitter. They have also begun honing a live act that is part sketch-comedy, part media presentation, and have performed at universities across the United States. Last month, they performed a 45-minute show at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Despite the notoriety, the 1491s are still producing work by the same means and to the same end as that first Twilight series spoof. Though it’s nearly impossible to justly convey in words, “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions” is funny. It’s funny because Goldtooth is relentlessly deadpan, because Red Corn’s dance moves are earnestly weird and because at one point Pensoneau looks into the camera and explains why the most convincing way to act like you are turning into a wolf is to act like you are giving birth to a child. He then proves his theory.

The 1491s are champions of slapstick in the Leslie Nielsen tradition, and they do parody in the vein of Monty Python and Christopher Guest. But what really accounts for the 1491s’ success is something less reducible and more uncomfortable. They are masters of insinuation, and they will make you laugh hardest when the joke is on you.

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.”

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  • 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.

Over the course of the past four years, the 1491s have produced videos and posted them on YouTube at a dizzying rate. Their most viewed works include a video about a day in the life of a powwow emcee with an inflated ego, another about a medicine man who addresses the ailments of his patients by slapping them in the face and one short video called “Indianer Than You.” Most of their videos work in the tradition of high jinks. The main characters are usually some version of pitiful, understanding far less about themselves than the characters that surround them. And often these characters are American Indian.

“First and foremost our critique is with Indian culture,” says Red Corn, who is Osage. “White people jokes are kind of low hanging fruit.”

Goldtooth, who is Diné and Dakota, echoes the claim. “In a lot of our indigenous communities there’s a lot of unhealthy behavior, a lot of dysfunction, and you can see that in a depressing light but on the flip side a lot of that dysfunction is so tragically and absurdly funny,” he says. “And we as Native men have accepted and reinforced this machismo, this warriors don’t cry mentality. It’s absurd and it’s funny.”

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Much of the work produced by the 1491s is angled in this way. Their logo is an arrow bent into a circle, so the pointed end is nearly touching its own tail feathers. If there was a symbol for self-deprecation, this would be it.

Yet, some of the most resonantly scathing work produced by the 1491s is not aimed at a single target. In a video titled “I’m an Indian Too,” shot last summer at the Santa Fe Indian Market, which bills itself as the “largest and most prestigious Native arts market in the world,” the 1491s veil their critiques beneath a fatty layer of slapstick. In the video, Red Corn is dressed in a headdress, loin cloth and dark Ray Ban sunglasses. The video depicts him running around the Santa Fe Market dancing to “I’m an Indian Too” from Annie Get Your Gun. At first watch, it is hilarious. Red Corn has a way of puckering his face and gyrating his hips that is a little bit infectious. In several scenes in the video, other people on the street dance with him. One geriatric man pushes him away in disgust but Red Corn keeps grooving. Red Corn and (most of) the people around him appear to be having so much fun, you kind of wish you had been there.

But, beneath the antics, there’s another story being told. The lyrics to “I’m an Indian Too,” written in 1946 by Irving Berlin, go “And I’ll have totem poles, tomahawks, pipes of peace/ Which will go to prove/ I’m an Indian too.”

And though his flamboyant dance moves obscure the lettering for most of the video, Red Corn has a word scrawled across his chest in black marker: “HiPSTER.”

The 1491s operate as a collective. All decisions are made unanimously, and they confer on everything. This is a bit of a feat considering their geography. Wilson and Goldtooth live in Minneapolis, while Harjo and Red Corn call Oklahoma home. Pensoneau lives in Missoula. Similarly, they all hail from different tribes, different traditions and in terms of style they have little in common. Goldtooth and Red Corn are considered the poets of the group. They are usually responsible for the more earnest and message-heavy work. Wilson (who is actually a poet), Harjo and Pensoneau are more interested in telling stories through film and being funny. “The big secret about the 1491s is that none of it’s intentional,” Pensoneau says coyly. “We generally get together and it’s mostly poop and dick jokes.”

According to Red Corn, it’s the differences between the members that make the group click. “The thing that makes us possible is we cast a wide net. We got guys from up north, from down south. You need guys that look a little bit white and guys that look exactly the way people think an Indian should look,” he says. “We have all those things. They’re ingredients to the same recipe.”

It’s these ingredients that make them so compelling, and often makes their work difficult to pin down. Depending on which member of the group you ask, they are either a comedy troupe that sometimes wanders into activism or an activist group that uses humor to impart their messages. In the end, of course, they are both.

In 1906, J.P. Morgan commissioned a photographer named Edward S. Curtis to photograph American Indians. The project lasted for 20 years, and Curtis produced some 2,000 sepia-toned images of Native people from 80 tribes. The photos are iconic as seminal representations of American history always depicting American Indians as unsmiling and steely eyed—a people made different not only by the color of their skin, but also by a near-unhuman capacity for stoicism.

According to Gyasi Ross, who grew up on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation and works as an attorney, writer and blogger for the Huffington Post, the images produced by Curtis represent a fundamental rift in the nexus between American Indian and mainstream American culture. “For a very long time, we’ve had no control over messaging in this country,” Ross says. “The way of portraying Native American people, way back to the Transcendentalist period with the noble savage … all the way up to the Hollywood Indian, we’ve had no control.”

It is in response to this co-opting of the American Indian image that Ross believes the 1491s do some of their most effective work. “They are resisting the way Native American people are portrayed in America,” he says. “They are commenters and they do an exceptional job at it.”

Heather Cahoon is a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana. She is Pend d’ Oreille and grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation. She says many of her students are fans of the 1491s and while she agrees with Ross that the group is part activist and their use of social media is new, the basis of the 1491s’ work is generations old. “Oral traditions have sustained tribal culture for millennia. Basic information about food, clothing, shelter, spirituality, social behavior, every element of culture was passed orally from generation to generation,” she says. “This is what these guys are doing—it’s an extension of that behavior.”

She adds that while the 1491s may seem contemporary, humor has always been a method by which Native culture “comments on and changes social behaviors.” A recurring example, she says, is the appearance of the trickster character in American Indian stories. “The stories are funny because the behavior of the trickster is outrageous,” she says. “But [the stories] also work to communicate to audiences inappropriate behavior.” The irony so deftly deployed by the 1491s is not so much a product of cynical times, but a testament to the traditions from which they come.

The group, however, resists this sort of analysis. “There’s an apprehension when we talk about things academically, because you lock yourself into being a certain way,” says Pensoneau. He adds that while the group receives a lot of feedback from fans regarding future videos they should make, he says such requests miss the point. “If somebody asks us to do something, it won’t be our voice. Our response to that is always ‘get a camera and do it yourself.’ If we’re going to humanize the Native American experience,” he says, “[the 1491s] can’t be the whole image. It’s got to be everybody else.”

In February 2011, Red Corn and Harjo produced a 1491s video titled “Smiling Indians.” The video is four and a half minutes long and, while it’s not funny, it’s an example of the 1491s’ sensitivity to insinuation and their goal to include other Native people in their message. The video is a simple montage of American Indians, their friends and strangers, smiling for the camera. It is shot in color and set to a mellow soundtrack of a twanging steel guitar.

The opening screen image reads, “This film is dedicated to Edward S. Curtis.”

If you ask the members of the 1491s if they ever felt a video went too far, all of them will say no. But because of the reaction it elicited from viewers, they will all also mention “Halloween PSA.” The video opens with Matt Kull, an occasional group collaborator, looking sincerely into the camera and saying, “Hello, white folks…It’s almost that time of year when you are going to make some important decisions … That’s right, it’s almost Halloween and you’re going to need a costume.”

The video continues with Kull discussing the inclination of “hipsters, college professors [and] those of you who are fans of teams with Indian mascots” to dress up as American Indians for Halloween. “That costume is bullshit,” he says.

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  • Wilson, a spoken word artist from Minnesota, left, and Harjo, a filmmaker from Oklahoma.

The video continues with Kull offering a detailed explanation of why it’s bullshit, until it cuts to a scene where Kull’s face is painted black and he wears a giant Afro wig. He holds a watermelon and swigs from a brown-bagged bottle of booze. He concludes, “So stop and think for a minute about what it is that you’re doing [when wearing an Indian costume]. Not only are you making yourself look extremely ignorant, but you are making white folks as a whole group look ignorant as well,” he says. “And everyone knows white folks rarely if ever make racially charged fashion statements for the sake of entertainment.” The words “Think Before you Indian” appear on the screen before the closing credits.

According to Pensoneau, the video provoked a furor of vitriol on online message boards and blogs. “People who identify as oppressed said we can’t do that ever,” he says, referring to the scene where a white Kull wears blackface. “They said you can’t use one person’s oppression to make that statement … But that’s not the conversation we were trying to have.”

After the video was posted, the members of the 1491s discussed how best to deal with the backlash. For a while, they took the time to respond on message boards, and further explain the point they were making. But it quickly became clear that was only adding fuel to a flame that just wanted to blaze.

Instead, three days after the original, they posted a second video. It features a black screen with the 1491s’ logo and the voice of Pensoneau reading from a prepared statement. At one point during the statement, Pensoneau distills their message: “It’s a horrible truth in today’s society that you can go to a Halloween party dressed as Tonto and nobody will give two shits. But if you go dressed as Sambo you get all the shit in the world,” he says. “We’re just looking for an equal amount of shit-giving.”

The response video concludes with Pensoneau interviewing a woman he met at a University of Utah Utes football tailgate. The woman says she identifies as both Navajo and African-American. She is standing next to a table where a white girl wearing a headdress is throwing ping-pong balls into plastic cups of beer.

“Would you put on black face if it were part of the team tradition?” Pensoneau asks the girl, who is also dressed like an “Ute.”

“No,” she says.

Pensoneau then gestures to the girl playing beer-pong. “So why would this be okay and that not?”

The girl pauses and stares away from the camera. “I have absolutely no idea,” she says.

Last year, the 1491s applied for and received a grant from Humanities Montana to produce a 10-part webisode series titled “A History of Native America.” The group’s grant proposal begins, “From its inception, American history has been one-sided. That is because American history has been written from the point of view of America’s conquerors and colonizers…Our film will challenge that one-sided look,” the proposal reads. “We will subvert it and make fun of it. And, as is the way with Native American humor, we will be making fun of ourselves.”

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  • The 1491s dish out slapstick comedy and activist messaging in a single serving. Above, Wilson prepares for battle.

The grant proposal goes on to describe the 1491s’ brand of humor. The plan is to recreate moments in history like Columbus arriving in America, the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Little Big Horn and spin it from the 1491s’ perspective.

So far, the project is still in pre-production. The group is writing this spring and plans to present storyboards and a more detailed plan to Humanities Montana later this year.

The proposal, which was received by the Humanities Montana board to the tune of $5,491, concludes, “Our audience finds us on YouTube, Google, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. In essence and in fact, we have the world as an audience. So, we just want the opportunity to spread to the world a single message, while making them smile,” it reads. “We have always been here, we are still here, and we will always be here.”

In the age of the viral video, notoriety is manifested overnight. Success is measured in views, retweets and Google searches. But for the 1491s success is less quantifiable. They exist somewhere in the margin between entertainment and advocacy. They want you to laugh, but they want you to squirm a little too. Because if you’re squirming—if your laughter dissipates too suddenly and leaves you wondering where it went—then, and only then, are you getting the joke.

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