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The making of the 1491s

Native humor goes viral

From left, Bobby Wilson, Migizi Pensoneau, Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Ryan RedCorn

Like so much Internet comedy, the 1491s were born from a “Twilight” spoof.  

While in Minneapolis for a film screening, Tulsa filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and Pawhuska designer Ryan RedCorn met with writer and producer Migizi Pensoneau, who’d recently started making comedy videos. Along with activist Dallas Goldtooth and artist Bobby Wilson, the group shot “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions!!!!” The silly, lo-fi short lampooned the teen vampire series’ regressive portrayal of Native Americans by depicting an imagined casting call. Harjo and RedCorn drove home the next day on a high, beginning to see the ensemble’s potential. 

Overwhelming response to the video (it currently has more than 264,000 hits) prompted them to choose a name—the 1491s—and make more videos. Their audience quickly expanded beyond YouTube-savvy young adults to kids and elders. 

“No one had really picked up a video camera and made YouTube videos for native people,” Harjo said. “There was a space for us to do it, because no one else had done it.”

Another early 1491s hit was “Smiling Indians,” a powerful response to the stoic, unsmiling portraits of Native Americans by early-1900s photographer Edward S. Curtis. In March 2011, Melissa Block interviewed RedCorn about “Smiling Indians” on All Things Considered.

The 1491s made national headlines in September 2014 when three members appeared in a segment on “The Daily Show” featuring a panel discussion about the Washington Redskins mascot.     

In a sorely misguided recap of the episode (addressed at length by Native Appropriations), The Washington Post pitted aggressive natives against the embattled Redskins name. Subsequently, 1491s member Migizi Pensoneau gave a troubling but enlightening account of the taping in the Missoula Independent—a story The Huffington Post quickly snatched up. Don’t watch the segment without reading Pensoneau’s story; it’s an essential companion piece.

Whether you’re already a fan or just getting acquainted before their appearance at the 2015 Blue Whale Comedy Festival (8 p.m. Fri., June 19 at Fassler Hall), Harjo walked us through a quick guide to the 1491s, based on a brief selection of their videos. 

For more by the 1491s, we recommend "Bad Indians," "I'm An Indian Too" and their "Cherokee" music video. 

The Tulsa Voice: New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions!!!!” does a hilarious job of calling bullshit on the real “Twilight” wolf pack. The series’ use of native actors and spotlight on Quileute culture have been celebrated, but it mostly just looks like objectification—they’re animals, and they’re shirtless, and some of them have trouble with their tempers. 

Sterlin Harjo: Yeah. Well here’s the problem. Everyone knows how hard it is for a native actor in the industry. So, we’re just taking baby steps. It’s like, thank God they cast natives— fuck, I mean, it’s werewolves, and it’s a vampire teen movie, but they did cast Indians. So there’s a sense of pride of like, wow, they’re all in this big Hollywood movie; let’s let all that other shit slide. 

Just imagine that most everyone in your inner circle is Native American. And there’s certain things that you identify with … so any time you turn on the TV and there’s a Western, you’re seeing Indians, but it’s nothing that you can relate to. But you’re still so excited because there’s Indians on the screen. It’s like, at least you’re getting a mention. At least they haven’t totally forgotten about you. 

But also, that’s the success of the 1491s—we do make fun of ourselves, and we do make fun of people that will exploit their culture to get a leg up. The wolf pack auditions is about Indians who are really going after it and exploiting themselves just to get a role in a film. And that’s why it was successful—because we’re making fun of ourselves, instead of just making fun of white people. That’s what our logo is—an arrow shooting itself. 

TTV:Strip Hand Game”—Not that funny. What am I missing? 

SH: It’s a very Indian thing. Hand Game is sort of an intertribal game that a lot of different nations adopted. It’s kind of a guessing game, and people really get into it. There’s two sides, and there’s referees and score keepers. So the idea was to take that and make it a strip poker. It is something that not everyone’s going to get, and we knew it going into it. 

TTV: What about the collaborations with native comedian Tito Ybarra, especially “Self Defense” and “Singing Lessons?” I get that Ybarra was a powwow singer, so “Singing Lessons” is funny for that reason—

SH: It is definitely a more Indian side of our humor. It’s requested a shitload. It’s a perfect example of what Indian humor is to me. I love Ricky Gervais’ “The Office” because I feel like it’s very similar to Indian humor. One of the funniest things, I think, is when somebody really goes out on a limb and gives it their best and just fails miserably, just crashes and burns, and then the look on their face—it’s just like all these expectations. That, to me, is Indian humor. It’s also watching Dallas (Goldtooth, who plays the singing instructor) acting like he knows what he’s doing. It’s funny when people try to be, there’s a word for it—it’s called chiefy—it’s when Indians try to get on a high horse a little bit. 

TTV: And “Self Defense”—?

SH: I just think that’s kind of dude humor, honestly. It’s one of our early ones, and it was one shot. And we don’t hit it right every time. 

TTV: Willy Jack” (son of Billy Jack) really tickled me, but I also didn’t get it. 

SH: “Billy Jack” is this 1970s Redsploitation movie about this guy that’s half-Indian and is a martial arts expert, and his name’s Billy Jack. He wore this flat-billed kind of Indian-looking cowboy hat and had his shoes off all the time and would get in these scraps with white guys. It was a popular film, so people that know it, know it. So it’s kind of taking that and turning it on its head—this nonviolent son of his. 

What’s great about Bobby (Wilson, who plays Willy Jack) is that he was kind of a street kid. He’s from Minneapolis, and he was a graffiti artist. He had to learn how to be funny and talk to everyone. They automatically love him, and that translates to videos, too. 

TTV:Deer Hunter” is kind of confusing.

SH: Me and Migizi and Bobby do some pretty weird shit together. The deer hunter video was kind of like, “Let’s see if the fans will go with us down this alley.” Every tribe has trickster stories, and they are sometimes pretty fucked up. Where I’m from, it’s turtle and rabbit. And it’s these teachings on life told through stories. The message sometimes is hard to get, and you really have to think about it. And for us, “Deer Hunter” was like that, where it’s fucked up, and I don’t know what you’re supposed to take away from it, but it’s something—there’s a lesson in there.

For more from Molly, read her story on biking to work and her feature on Tulsa Public Schools superintendent Deborah Gist.

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