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If you ask the members of the 1491s if they ever felt a video went too far, all of them will say no. But because of the reaction it elicited from viewers, they will all also mention “Halloween PSA.” The video opens with Matt Kull, an occasional group collaborator, looking sincerely into the camera and saying, “Hello, white folks…It’s almost that time of year when you are going to make some important decisions … That’s right, it’s almost Halloween and you’re going to need a costume.”
The video continues with Kull discussing the inclination of “hipsters, college professors [and] those of you who are fans of teams with Indian mascots” to dress up as American Indians for Halloween. “That costume is bullshit,” he says.
The video continues with Kull offering a detailed explanation of why it’s bullshit, until it cuts to a scene where Kull’s face is painted black and he wears a giant Afro wig. He holds a watermelon and swigs from a brown-bagged bottle of booze. He concludes, “So stop and think for a minute about what it is that you’re doing [when wearing an Indian costume]. Not only are you making yourself look extremely ignorant, but you are making white folks as a whole group look ignorant as well,” he says. “And everyone knows white folks rarely if ever make racially charged fashion statements for the sake of entertainment.” The words “Think Before you Indian” appear on the screen before the closing credits.
According to Pensoneau, the video provoked a furor of vitriol on online message boards and blogs. “People who identify as oppressed said we can’t do that ever,” he says, referring to the scene where a white Kull wears blackface. “They said you can’t use one person’s oppression to make that statement … But that’s not the conversation we were trying to have.”
After the video was posted, the members of the 1491s discussed how best to deal with the backlash. For a while, they took the time to respond on message boards, and further explain the point they were making. But it quickly became clear that was only adding fuel to a flame that just wanted to blaze.
Instead, three days after the original, they posted a second video. It features a black screen with the 1491s’ logo and the voice of Pensoneau reading from a prepared statement. At one point during the statement, Pensoneau distills their message: “It’s a horrible truth in today’s society that you can go to a Halloween party dressed as Tonto and nobody will give two shits. But if you go dressed as Sambo you get all the shit in the world,” he says. “We’re just looking for an equal amount of shit-giving.”
The response video concludes with Pensoneau interviewing a woman he met at a University of Utah Utes football tailgate. The woman says she identifies as both Navajo and African-American. She is standing next to a table where a white girl wearing a headdress is throwing ping-pong balls into plastic cups of beer.
“Would you put on black face if it were part of the team tradition?” Pensoneau asks the girl, who is also dressed like an “Ute.”
“No,” she says.
Pensoneau then gestures to the girl playing beer-pong. “So why would this be okay and that not?”
The girl pauses and stares away from the camera. “I have absolutely no idea,” she says.