The travel route from Minneapolis to Tulsa runs right down the center of the country. If the Midwest is the heart of the country, this route looks like a jagged scar from open heart surgery.
This is the path that members of the nearly decade-old sketch comedy troupe the 1491s travel to meet up with each other and work on their shows and sketches. And if they have their way, their comedy will help to heal an ancient divide as sharp and deep as a scar.
Their work has had national play: In Al Jazeera’s 2012 piece “A dynamic year of indigenous communication,” reporter Manuela Picq led with a nod to the 1491s’ video “Geronimo E-KIA,” which riffed tellingly on the controversial use of the Apache warrior’s name for the Osama bin Laden raid. And members of the group of five appeared in 2014 on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” in a segment called “The Redskins’ Name – Catching Racism” about the controversial name of Washington, D.C.’s football team.
I recently interviewed three of troupe’s five members, then followed up with a more in-depth talk with Bobby Wilson, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota artist and educator. I also spoke with Migizi Pensoneau, an Ojibwe and Ponca writer and producer, and Ryan RedCorn, a portrait photographer and graphic designer from Oklahoma. The group is rounded out by Dallas Goldtooth, a Dakota and Navajo comedian and environmental organizer, and Sterlin Harjo, a Creek and Seminole filmmaker from Oklahoma.
Goldtooth and Pensoneau are stepbrothers who grew up together in northern Minnesota. Deadpanned Pensoneau: “My name is Migizi—it’s spelled like it sounds, only the e is silent.”
I’ll admit the discussion was slightly disconcerting; I felt a bit like I was interviewing frat brothers the day before Spring Break. Topics were introduced rapid-fire and ideas batted around with good humor. Laughter was abundant.
I learned that all their work is co-created. “We aren’t reinventing any wheels—it’s sketch comedy, but we are a different voice,” says Pensoneau. “We like to make what we like to make. We have our own guidelines. Five of us work as a collective. We are a unified voice.”
Wilson agrees: “There’s so much expectation put on indigenous people in the arts, especially in the media. It comes from a longstanding tradition of non-Native people, most often white men, writing stories for Hollywood and the stage. We’re fighting those tropes. If they show up in our work, it’s just to lampoon them.”
The five members met for the first time in 2009 at a festival called the Santa Fe Indian Market, which has been a national gathering place for almost 100 years. “It’s just where all the top Native artists and artisans go to sell their wares and party it up,” says Wilson. “Okies tend to travel in packs. We didn’t have a place to stay, so Ryan RedCorn invited us to stay in a hotel room.” They told stories and laughed for hours, and the group was born. They took their name in oblique reference to Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a touchstone of Native Americans’ culturally rich and advanced civilizations.
Since then the group has made and posted 150 videos to YouTube on topics from film depictions of Native Americans to sovereignty, from cultural appropriation to Halloween to Columbus Day. Their work traffics in silliness as much as satire, breaking up stereotypes and turning tropes around.
They say made their initial video just for fun: To satirize the depiction of the werewolf pack in the Twilight films, they shot “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions!!!!”, presided over by Harjo, they borrowed a camera for the day. The video took off and won them many fans who asked for more, leading in turn to requests for live performances.
“The videos were a blast,” says Wilson. Then, he said, they got queries from tribes who “asked us if we had ever done live comedy shows. They would ask us to come. They were pretty small venues. The demand for it became so frequent that we do three or four shows a month. As far as we know, we’re the only indigenous sketch comedy troupe in the U.S. If there is even one Native kid in a school district, they often ask for us.”
November has them touring most of the month, as it’s Native American history month. “It’s the only time you’re allowed to be Indian in public,” Wilson quips.
It was while the 1491s were performing at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa that they got a big break of sorts: The Twin Cities’ New Native Theatre took note and brought them to the attention of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Alison Carey, director of OSF’s American Revolutions program, offered them a commission. The troupe has finished their play’s second draft, about which they say there have been no restrictions.
Wilson explains their approach to playwriting: “We asked ourselves, what does a comedy look like in this space? We played around with the idea of doing a musical until we realized that none of us are musical, but there are some components that will end up in this production. We thought, let’s insert music for the comedic timing, and the sake of the storyline.”
As a subject they settled on pivotal moments in American history connected to the Wounded Knee Massacre. The action starts with the American Indian Movement’s occupation of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1970s, and flashes back to events at the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1890. The title: Between Two Knees.
While the consensus is that they want to act in the play’s first production, they hope it has a life of its own. “Our dream is that it will go out and there will be people producing it, and it will have a life outside of us,” says Pensoneau.“I would be thrilled if some tribal high school out in the middle of nowhere would put it on.”
There may be an even broader appetite for their work. The troupe recently gave a very well-received show at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (during a nor’easter, no less). “It’s super inspiring to know that Native jokes are landing with a non-Native crowd that is younger,” Wilson said. “A lot of the stuff that we do is regional, but being at Vassar, we were way far away from where we were raised. It gives me a lot of hope that there is definitely a shift and a change.”
By sharing humor with Native and non-Native audiences, the 1491s may just patch together a new American consciousness.