A Chat With 'The 1491s' On Making Light Of Heavy Indigenous History

Apr 9, 2019

The Native American comedy troupe, The 1491s, is an intertribal group of comedians who have regularly satirized, lampooned, parodied, and teased many aspects of Indian life.  This includes digs at Westward Expansion as well as more contemporary topics, like New Age Shamanism and Hollywood depictions of the First Nations.  Well-established on YouTube, the five members have committed much of their energy recently on their first theatrical production, Between Two Knees, which premiered this past weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, Oregon.

KLCC's Brian Bull caught up with The 1491s after their final preview performance, and interviewed them about their thoughts on crossing from online comedy to the stage.

The 1491s, from left to right: Ryan Red Corn (Osage Nation); Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee); Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota-Diné); Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca-Ojibwe); and Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival final preview performance of Between Two Knees, April 6, 2019.
Credit Photo provided by Migizi Pensoneau

Brian Bull: This is the first time that the 1491s have ventured away from YouTube  video skits, and have done a full-blown theatrical production.  How’s it feel?

Sterlin Harjo:  It feels really, good.  I mean it’s pretty amazing to…we’re used to seeing our videos and making our videos for YouTube, that it’s pretty amazing to watch a play that feels in good way on those videos, it felt the same way on the stage, it’s just a bigger production.  But we also embrace the raw and low budgetness of ourselves, like that’s part of our charm, it like…not being fancy, and the play stays true to that.

Larry the narrator (Justin Gauthier) walks the audience through much of the storyline in Between Two Knees.
Credit Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Dallas Goldtooth: I’m so excited for this entire play, the purpose of this was really..this was our best attempt to subvert the narrative of what it means to be a native person in the world right now.  I like that we are not afraid to make fun and tease white people in this space, and really to challenge the notions of what it means to be an ally, what does it mean to be native, like…I think that’s biggest thing.  We went into this with…an intention to just challenge everything.  Challenge how do we see ourselves, native people, how do white folks see us, how does the outside world see us in general?  So I feel like I’m pretty happy with the accomplishment, here.

Brian Bull:  Do you think that comedy is a better vehicle to convey certain messages than a more straightforward, serious, dramatic production?

Bobby Wilson: Maybe it is, maybe it’s not.  I dunno.  Comedy’s different.  I mean like, drama is, very straightforward. It has this very straightforward purpose.  Right?  Comedy is all over the place. There are people that hate whatever the joke is, and there are people who love whatever the joke is.  Especially the type of stuff that we’re talking about.  But I personally think that comedy as an art form, as a piece media, can be an incredible tool to just totally subvert people’s expectations about things.

The main characters are Isaiah (Derek Garza) and Irma (Shyla Lefner), a Native American couple who fled their boarding school together to explore the world and start a family. Yes, that's a samurai sword on Irma.
Credit Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

And I find it very beneficial to see when people actually decide that they don’t like a joke, or that they don’t understand it.  As long as it makes them think about things…and people who walk out, that’s fine! (LAUGHS)  it’s fine!  It’s fine!  You know what?  It’s fine.

Ryan Red Corn:  Giving the general American population access to…this type of humor, gives the rest of the public maybe a more well-rounded, dimensionalized view of indigenous people. And hopefully makes people treat them better, makes them critically think about the times throughout the general public or pop culture when audiences may interact with indigenous content, uhm…and I think when you put it into humor, it opens people up and it makes them vulnerable to those voices that are often left out.

Dallas Goldtooth: I think comedy is the most effective way to deal with issues of trauma and darkness, when it’s needed.  We need to laugh sometimes, and we need to allow ourselves the freedom to laugh, and I think that’s…I hope this play, “Between Two Knees” helps us accomplish that.

Brian Bull:  Now there’s some people who think theater should be in general a comfortable and casual experience for a couple hours, and you walk away feeling entertained. But with comedy like this…it can be edgy, it can be offending non-Indians and Indians in the crowd.  Should theater be provocative and push back sometimes?

Migizi Pensoneau:  I mean yeah, obviously.  Theater needs to be provocative.  But I don’t know. There’s room for all….doesn’t matter what art you’re making. The craft of like pop songs is just as valid as something that’s not so poppy and weird.  And I think that if you have something to say that’s challenging, you should find a way to make it at least… if not like palatable, then digestible anyway.  Even if you have to force feed it down their mouths, at least they got to eat it.

The title, Between Two Knees, refers to the storyline which happens after the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and right after the 1973 Wounded Knee Standoff.
Credit Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

For us, the comedy has been a way for us to deal with our own stuff.  Not for the audience.  We’re just making ourselves laugh, first and foremost.  So we don’t really put a lot of thought into what the audience is going to think.  We just don’t care.  If it’s making us laugh, it’ll probably make other people laugh, but we really don’t think about the end product abut that kind of impact.  We ask, “Does it speak to us, is it making us laugh?” That kind of thing.  And if it does, then it usually sticks into what we’re doing.

Sterlin Harjo: Yeah, I think are…in general, it’s best when it’s polarizing.  Like I just mentioned…comedy making a message digestible, but I also think that challenging audiences is really important. And we do that.  I think that people that connect with it will connect with it, and those who don’t connect with it are also connecting with it on another level.  And no matter what, the message is coming through.

The show takes on everything from Manifest Destiny to Vietnam, but it especially roasts the boarding school era. Here, Rachel Crowl plays a megolamaniacal priest, while James Ryen plays an underling Sister.
Credit Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Bobby Wilson:   Y’know, especially with comedy!  I think that bad comedy panders.  If everybody’s laughing at every single joke, I think we’ve probably done something wrrooooong.  This art form, all forms of art, should be done with purpose, and should be having layers to them and be well thought, you know.  Especially with the comedy that we like to create.  It can be very subversive.  Even when it’s uhm….irreverent. 

Bull: As a writer, this was a collaborative effort.  Was there any one bit in “Between Two Knees” that you’re especially proud of, something really provocative, offbeat, just something that you’re proud to have put your name on?

Ryan Red Corn:   Yeah, I did the explosion.  That was me! (laughs)  That was one of the things that I put in there, but it still makes me laugh.  Because I had just put it into the script as a placeholder, while we were writing, and it never got deleted (laughs)….and then when I showed up here, I was like, “It’s just a place holder, it can be “Oh no no, it’s already happening”.  And they told me that they already sent stuff to costume, and they started working on the outfit, so…that ship had sailed! (laughs) and so, uh….watching James Ryen do that is a treat, every time.

Bobby Wilson:  My favorite part I guess, is the contribution that the actors make to the telling of the story and how amazing it is to watch them work together to tell this story, and to help deliver the comedy.

A more reflective moment with Irma (Shyla Lefner), her son William, (Shaun Taylor Corbett, and Isaiah (Derek Garza) in their home on the prairie.
Credit Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Brian Bull: Is there any one particular message that you want the audience to leave with?

Bobby Wilson: No, no there isn’t! (LAUGHS)  There’s too many messages!  There ain’t one particular message in all honesty like…a lot of this is…really…I don’t know if I’d call it racially-charged, necessarily, but I think it gets perceived in that way a lot. But the comedy and the humor, and the things that people take away from it, I hope are a little more introspective.  And when I say “people”, I mean all people. There’s lots of things in here that are jokes in here about American history, jokes about white people, and jokes about Indians.  And I hope this helps native people kind of take a look at how we tell stories, and how we cope with our histories, and all of the things, from the traumas, the heartaches, the happiness and the joy…we hope that it helps our people, kinda think about these things.  But critically too.  I don’t think that we go easy on Indians, either.  I think that there’s some very biting criticisms about people from our own communities, within this play as well.  And I’m curious to see how that is perceived by our audiences.

Ryan Red Corn: And even within our group, each version of us has their own type of humor that we’re more prone to.  But it…when you give people access to that, and you show them that…maybe it might change the way they vote, might change the types of baseball teams they support or football teams they support, might change the movies that they go see, might change what they put in front of their children.  Might change the way, the things they tell their children.  Which then affects the lives of my children. 

Subtlety isn't a strong point for Between Two Knees, but it was never on the menu. Here, Larry the narrator (Justin Gauthier) explains a plot device. Check the tag.
Credit Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

So…this is…for OSF to put us on the stage like this, and give us this type of voice and this kind of platform, and expose us, this type of audience exposure before a demographic that normally doesn’t search for our content…is a blessing, it may have long-term effects...probably have long-lasting effect on my life, and maybe other people’s lives who come into contact with the play.

Bull: Anything else you want to add before I let you go?

Migizi Pensoneau:   No, I’m cool!  (laughs) Come see the play!

Sterlin Harjo:  Been really great being here in Oregon, so many of us didn’t have experience with plays, but OSF has been so helpful with us, and has really helped us really kind of find our voice within theater.

KLCC's Brian Bull with The 1491s. Hey! Where did Dallas run off to?
Credit Margaret Bull

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