When members of the Native American sketch-comedy group the 1491s went on "The Daily Show" last year, they confronted a small group of Washington Redskins fans about the team's racist name. It was a funny and pointed segment in typical Jon Stewart fashion, though the 1491s (along with a few other Native American guests) played mostly stolid straight men to the satirical antics of show correspondent Jason Jones.
In their own daily life, the 1491s are the ones who make the points and get the laughs. Their YouTube videos and live performances dismantle the romanticized image of the stoic Indian. "We are people of color, we are in the minority, and our humor is aimed at what we know," says Migizi Pensoneau, the Missoula-based member of the troupe (and occasional writer for the Indy). "I don't want to sound like a damned Republican, but we aren't very politically correct. That said, we don't make fun of victims or tragedy. But we'll make fun of ourselves."
Ever since "The Daily Show" segment aired and garnered widespread media attention—positive and negative—the 1491s have been on a roll. Members Dallas Goldtooth, Bobby Wilson, Ryan Red Corn, Sterlin Harjo and Pensoneau are scattered far and wide—in Chicago, Phoenix, Pawhuska and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Missoula, respectively—but most of them were able to tour the states from fall of last year through this spring. They sometimes do sketch comedy and sometimes give talks about diversity in academic settings. Their videos can be goofy or, like Red Corn's "Bad Indians" video poem, poignant as hell. ("They used to say the only good Indian is a dead Indian/ I must be no good at being Indian cuz I feel alive and kicking...")
"We are trying to say something and we aren't," Pensoneau says. "We are not one thing or another. We are just 1491s. We do what we do—whatever that is."
In June, the 1491s started a food fight at a friend's Denver restaurant. "We did an invite with a blast on Facebook," Pensoneau says. "As soon as the restaurant closed there was a line around the block." Pensoneau had written a poem for Goldtooth to read out loud and the audience was given cues to react.
"They would boo or cheer or throw food anytime he said certain things like 'white woman,'" Pensoneau says. "It turned into a food fight of peanuts and Indian tacos. We did help clean up."
Besides the food fight, the group performed at the Pan Am Games in Toronto in July. They also recently uploaded a YouTube video called "Blasphemy," in which they get struck down by lightning every time they do something culturally taboo, like offer to smoke up a non-Indian with a peace pipe or wonder, momentarily, what the sacred eagle's meat might taste like.
This week, the 1491s kick off another tour starting in Missoula with a show for the University of Montana's 10th Annual Diversity Symposium. All five members will be present, Pensoneau reveals, which is a rarity. There will be no food fights, but Pensoneau mostly resists answering too many other questions. He'd rather it be a surprise.
"If you've seen the videos you know you can probably expect a lot of shirtlessness," he says. "And not in the Magic Mike XXL way. It's like Magic Mike extra small. I'm just going to say there are tights involved."
UM's DiverseU presents the 1491s at the UC Ballroom Wed., Nov. 4, at 7 PM. Free.