What Migizi Pensoneau (left) and Bobby Wilson “do in [their] spare time.”
Ryan Red Corn
“If the Redskins’ name is changed, and I have kids,” one man asked during a Sept. 25 “Daily Show” segment, “what will I pass on to them?” In the controversial segment, correspondent Jason Jones interviewed two sets of panelists—one was all for calling the Redskins “the Redskins,” the other totally against it. Then the two groups met—and one of them felt pretty uncomfortable.
The infamous “Daily Show” segment
The anti-name panel included Ryan Red Corn, Migizi Pensoneau and Bobby Wilson, three members of the 1491s, a Native American sketch comedy group based in Minnesota and Oklahoma who perform at a benefit for the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (2401 12th Street NW) on Saturday, Jan. 10. Their brand of comedy often deals with issues of racism in absurd and irreverent ways, but it was their very serious confrontation of the pro-Redskins fans that made them a public face in the battle against racist stereotypes of Natives.
The 1491s, which also includes Sterlin Harjo and Dallas Goldtooth, officially formed in 2010. Their name of course alludes to the year before Columbus’ arrival—as such their comedy often explores issues of racism and colonialism. Which turns out to be way funnier than it sounds. “New Moon Wolf Pack Audition,” one of their most well-known videos, solidified the group and gave them the impetus to do more sketches. A spoof of the Twilight series, the skit has the self-described “out of shape” members audition shirtless for the role of wolves in the movie New Moon.
The group may have gained a following from their YouTube videos like “Wolf Pack” and the even more popular “Indian Store,” which satirizes white expectations of commodified Native culture, but their live shows are what allow them to engage with their audience.
“Our live set is a big bag full of ridiculousness,” says Wilson. “We pull members from the audience into our crazy world of near-nudity.” The group consistently pushes against any preconceived notions of what Native performers do. “People often think there’s a specific thing called Indian humor, [but] it’s just universally funny to have out-of-shape guys with their shirts off.
“When people know they’re going to see an ‘Indian show,’ they seem to think they’re going to see Last of the Mohicans live or an intense history lesson,” says Wilson, “or find out how fucked up the reservation is.” The group is not bound by what some audiences may expect Native performance to be. “We really give off this notion that Indians are not, first, stuck in history, and second, trapped in this pitiful world in need of rescue.”
Although the group works hard to create performances that are varied and have a clear message, they often have to contend with audience members who frankly just don’t get it. “We’ve opened it up to Q&As, and some of the questions we get from older white members of our audience are completely absurd,” says Wilson. After a recent performance Wilson had to stop one man from asking a completely out-of-context question. “It was a mostly Indian audience, and this guy had clearly not been watching the show, and he asks, ‘In a typical Native American drumming circle, do you think—because I personally think the songs of the Native American people are the most beautiful songs on the planet—’ and you could hear the necks creaking as they turned and the eyes rolling. He saw a flyer that said, ‘Indians will be here,’ and he thought of that.”
It’s this sort of misplaced curiosity and voyeurism about Native Americans that the 1491s often spoof. “People are curious, and I get that,” says Wilson, “but I mean a lot of times people just don’t think things through.” Most of the time this thoughtlessness is due to pure isolation and ignorance. “If you don’t hang around Indians ... you may have questions, and you definitely have preconceived notions.”
Ryan Red Corn, bruh
Besides the “Daily Show” panel discussions, the 1491s joined Jones at a tailgate party and mingled with Redskins fans. As Migizi Pensoneau later reflected in an editorial for the Missoula Independent, “I’m a big dude—6’1” and a lotta meat on the bones. But a blonde little wisp of a girl completely freaked me out as I waited in line for the bathroom. ‘Is that shirt supposed to be funny?’ she asked motioning to my satirical ‘Caucasians’ t-shirt. And then she said, ‘I’ll fucking cut you.’” The 1491s expose this disturbing behavior with their live shows and sketches, subverting expectations and revealing racist notions even as they find humor in these awkward and sometimes volatile exchanges. Their comedy is often empowering, sometimes deeply revealing and always hilarious.