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In 1906, J.P. Morgan commissioned a photographer named Edward S. Curtis to photograph American Indians. The project lasted for 20 years, and Curtis produced some 2,000 sepia-toned images of Native people from 80 tribes. The photos are iconic as seminal representations of American history always depicting American Indians as unsmiling and steely eyed—a people made different not only by the color of their skin, but also by a near-unhuman capacity for stoicism.
According to Gyasi Ross, who grew up on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation and works as an attorney, writer and blogger for the Huffington Post, the images produced by Curtis represent a fundamental rift in the nexus between American Indian and mainstream American culture. “For a very long time, we’ve had no control over messaging in this country,” Ross says. “The way of portraying Native American people, way back to the Transcendentalist period with the noble savage … all the way up to the Hollywood Indian, we’ve had no control.”
It is in response to this co-opting of the American Indian image that Ross believes the 1491s do some of their most effective work. “They are resisting the way Native American people are portrayed in America,” he says. “They are commenters and they do an exceptional job at it.”
Heather Cahoon is a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana. She is Pend d’ Oreille and grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation. She says many of her students are fans of the 1491s and while she agrees with Ross that the group is part activist and their use of social media is new, the basis of the 1491s’ work is generations old. “Oral traditions have sustained tribal culture for millennia. Basic information about food, clothing, shelter, spirituality, social behavior, every element of culture was passed orally from generation to generation,” she says. “This is what these guys are doing—it’s an extension of that behavior.”
She adds that while the 1491s may seem contemporary, humor has always been a method by which Native culture “comments on and changes social behaviors.” A recurring example, she says, is the appearance of the trickster character in American Indian stories. “The stories are funny because the behavior of the trickster is outrageous,” she says. “But [the stories] also work to communicate to audiences inappropriate behavior.” The irony so deftly deployed by the 1491s is not so much a product of cynical times, but a testament to the traditions from which they come.
The group, however, resists this sort of analysis. “There’s an apprehension when we talk about things academically, because you lock yourself into being a certain way,” says Pensoneau. He adds that while the group receives a lot of feedback from fans regarding future videos they should make, he says such requests miss the point. “If somebody asks us to do something, it won’t be our voice. Our response to that is always ‘get a camera and do it yourself.’ If we’re going to humanize the Native American experience,” he says, “[the 1491s] can’t be the whole image. It’s got to be everybody else.”
In February 2011, Red Corn and Harjo produced a 1491s video titled “Smiling Indians.” The video is four and a half minutes long and, while it’s not funny, it’s an example of the 1491s’ sensitivity to insinuation and their goal to include other Native people in their message. The video is a simple montage of American Indians, their friends and strangers, smiling for the camera. It is shot in color and set to a mellow soundtrack of a twanging steel guitar.
The opening screen image reads, “This film is dedicated to Edward S. Curtis.”