On the Cutting Edge of Native Comedy With the 1491s

A profile of the Native American sketch comedy team The 1491s

“To a certain degree Indian humor is dark humor - it’s satirical humor,” Dallas Goldtooth says. “I think the Indian people are the most cynical people on the planet. You can’t help but be cynical when you wake up and go through your daily life and see some of the tragically funny things around you; the behavior of your leaders, even some of the dysfunction in your own home. It’s at such an absurd level that you can just go mad, or just be cynical about it and make light of it all. I think that’s really strong, I think that’s what’s kept us alive as a people, making light of our situations.”

Goldtooth, who is Dine’ and Dakota, knows what he’s talking about. He and the other members of the comedy collective The 1491s are some of the funniest people in Indian country; they hold a mirror up to the culture and critique it with a pointed stick. From their earliest works, like the 2009 video “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions,” you can see once taboo subject matters brought to a head and then lanced like a boil that’s needed to be popped for the last 521 years.

In the “Wolf Pack” video, four (not particularly athletic) Indian guys have shown up, dressed “natively” (pretty much naked), for an open casting call for a new vampire movie that needs sexy Indians. While the piece depends heavily on silly humor, it also satirizes some serious showbiz topics -- like Hollywood’s lip service about “respect” in dealing with Native American depictions, and with Indian actors’ willingness to “act” the part of “an Indian.” The definition of who is an Indian also comes into play, as The 1491s’ Ryan Red Corn has pale skin and is questioned on whether or not he Is Indian in the sketch, and the part ultimately goes to a man who looks more African American than Native American, but he says he does have a little Indian heritage.

The 1491s are a group of Native Americans who got together to do comedy videos for fun and put them on YouTube.com to see what would happen. The videos, which range from biting cultural satire and serious political statements to just plain goofiness, went viral in Indian country and gained an instant following. They have made many others since then, many featuring other guest performers, and their continued success has led to a planned stage production and talks of a possible feature film, which isn’t much of a stretch as one of their members is the film director Sterlin Harjo.

The first two members came together when Goldtooth’s father married Migizi Pensoneau’s mother. Pensoneau, who is Ponca and Ojibwa, says he and Goldtooth made short movies when they were growing up together and spent a lot of time making up jokes and stories. “That’s kind of where our start is in all of this,” Pensoneau says, “entertaining our family during inappropriate times, like ceremonies and stuff.”

Pensoneau, who works as a writer in Hollywood, said one time he was home in Minneapolis and Goldtooth suggested that they make some videos, since they had a camera. The results were “Shinnob Life ep.1 – Muskrat Hunting,” where the two of them show how to hunt muskrats the “traditional” way (with a stick), and “Buffalo Bill Dance (Injun Remix)” where the killer in “Silence of the Lambs” steals Goldtooth’s clothes and dances around in them -- instead of a man wanting to be a woman, he’s a white guy who wants to be Indian. When they uploaded the videos to YouTube, they got thousands of hits.

“At the same time Sterlin Harjo and Ryan Red Corn were doing similar things -- like making really boring poetry videos and shit,” Pensoneau laughs. “I’m just kidding. They were doing things in a similar kind of vein.”

Red Corn and Harjo both live in Oklahoma, but they met at an art show in Colorado, which lead to Red Corn working on Harjo’s independent feature film, Barking Water (2009).

“I met Dallas through a mutual friend, and Sterlin knew Migizi through film festivals; me and Sterlin were in Minneapolis sitting on a panel about Native film and we all wound up in Minnesota that one day,” says Red Corn, who is Osage. Harjo and Red Corn extended their trip by a day so they could make a video with the group, which also included Bobby Wilson. The result was the “Wolf Pack” video.

“I didn’t realize they were going to get that many tons of hits on the Internet,” says Wilson, who is Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota. Wilson got his start doing spoken word poetry, which was humorous, and he started adding jokes and eventually also ended up doing stand-up comedy. “I was teaching spoken word poetry classes at an Indian school in South Dakota, outside of Rosebud for a week and that video came out the third day I was there. By the fourth day, everybody in that entire school had watched the video.”

Of course for all their success on YouTube, no one is getting paid yet. “If anything, we’re spending a lot of our own money just to make these things happen,” Wilson says. “We are releasing an Avatar video pretty soon, but to do Avatar you have to be fully blue and have makeup, so we went to a costume shop and bought fake ears and all this makeup and crap and rocked out for hours on end, and none of us even own the camera that we did it with.”

On the upside, since they are producing themselves, they are able to throw in commentary on subjects that make some people uncomfortable. Along with the statements on racial identification in “Wolf Pack,” another early piece, “Slapping Medicine Man,” brought up the subjects of alcohol, drugs, and diet into the satire. The video stars Goldtooth, Red Corn, and special guest Tito Ybarra, of the Pow-Wow Friends, who tell their problems to an unseen medicine man, Noah Ellis, who, rather than give them verbal advice, slaps them across the face.

“Why talk about social critique if you’re not going to push at the limit and make people start discussing some things?” Goldtooth said. “A lot of my characters are based on reality; these are people we all know. One of our greatest struggles in Indian country is often an utter lack of public space for positive social dialogue. All these conversations that are happening in the back room, or on the road as you’re coming away from your family, or leaving the powwow. These conversations should be happening in the front room. I hope some of my material makes people start talking. By putting it in a public space as we are with comedy, people feel more comfortable about it; it’s safer to talk about it when it’s framed as comedy.”

Pensoneau notes that Indians lampooning their own image is a way to reclaim their image from the dominate culture. “A lot of people talk about Indian humor and having a sense of humor if you’re Indian, but if you push the wrong button they get really angry and militant really quick,” Pensoneau said. “It’s like ‘Man, I thought you said you had a sense of humor!’ We have a sense of humor about everything, there’s nothing that’s off limits to us…or me anyway.”

Goldtooth says that ultimately his motivation to start making videos was to make something for his family to enjoy, and that’s still his main motivation. “That’s really in my mind when I make something new, I hope my family is going to laugh at it and I hope my peers are going to get it, that’s what keeps what I do grounded.”

“The group functions because we’re all making comedy from the exact same place,” Red Corn said. “When you’re way in the back of the bus you can see all the shenanigans that go on out in front of you, but if you’re way in the front, you have no idea what’s going on behind you. I feel like we’re WAY in the back.”

The group has received funding to do a play in Minneapolis next year. All the members are looking forward to working together in the same room for an extended period of time.

“As a collective, different chunks of us have been together at different times and made videos together in different ways, but all five of us haven’t been in a room together since ‘Wolf Pack,” Pensoneau says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when that happens again; it could break Indian Country apart, man. We could resurrect Sitting Bull and shit. Something WILL happen!”

You can see the 1419s video on their YouTube channel youtube.com/user/the1491s