Every culture uses satire and humor to deal with hard times, and Native Americans are no strangers to telling jokes when it comes to life on and off the reservation.
Today, one modern Native comedy troupe is taking it a step further.
I’m talking about The 1491s, a comedy group named for the time before Columbus “discovered” America. You may have heard about their commentary on mascots, but this comedy group does more. In their world, nothing is untouchable...not even the Trail of Tears.
It’s a packed house at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma. But the lines aren’t snaking around the building for the Rick Bartow exhibition or rare southwest Indian pottery. They’re here for the 1491s, the take no prisoners Indian comedy act that uses videos, improv, and sketch comedy to wield the sword of Native humor in sometimes painful ways.
Sterlin Harjo, a Creek filmmaker from Holdenville, Oklahoma, explains that the group’s power rests on playing to their audience.
“First and foremost, I think it’s to make Native people laugh. There’s not a lot of Native people on TV. There’s not a lot of Native humor on TV. So, people don’t know the rhythm and the humor that Natives have. It’s like watching the British Office for the first time. The first episode, you’re kind of taken aback, but once you get the rhythm of that, it becomes one of the funniest things you’ve ever seen.”
This five-member comedy group began seven years ago when they made a video spoofing the Twilight movie series called New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions. Today, they’re in hot demand—selling out venues ranging from art museums to restaurants. They even had a spot on The Daily Show.
One of their first shows was at the University of North Dakota, right after the university got rid of their Fighting Sioux mascot. In the skit, 1491 member Dallas Goldtooth plays a mascot activist, but there’s a twist, as Bobby Wilson of the 1491s explains.
“His big secret that he has to reveal to his brother is that he is the mascot. And there’s a moment where he pulls his shirt off and there’s the fighting Sioux logo. And the crowd reaction was just priceless. I just want to turn it into seasoning and put it on my food. It was just delicious. The ones in the front were all Indian and they were like, ‘YEAHHHH!’ Like flipping out but you also heard some, ‘Uhhhhhh’ ‘MMMMM’ ‘EHHHHHH’ It was every emotion possible.”
Fast forward to today and you’ll hear laughs and cheers erupt during a skit about a dating game where members acted out Native male stereotypes.
Then, there are some videos [sketches] where the subject matter is so serious you can’t even believe you’re laughing, like the video "Cherokee". It’s actually a music video the 1491s made for a real song recorded by Swedish heavy metal band Europe in 1987. In the short, members headbang and perform dramatic air guitar. There’s a few scenes of Indian actors walking along the Trail of Tears while a visible Sterlin Harjo throws fake snow. The video is meant to mock the song, but you catch yourself wondering whether or not you should be laughing at their antics given the enormous real life tragedy.
There are some things off limits—things the group won’t touch, as 1491s member Migizi Pensoneau explains.
“Victims, though. Disparaging victims. We don’t do that. There’s a difference between making a joke about someone who’s a chauvinistic (EXPLETIVE)and making a joke about the woman who keeps going back to the chauvinistic (EXPLETIVE). There’s a difference between those two and we tow that line because somebody being in a bad situation isn’t funny.”
Sometimes, they do get pushback. After a show in Arizona, an audience member took to social media to complain about some of their material-particularly the way they portrayed Navajo men. Complaints aside, their Youtube channel has more than 34,000 subscribers and more projects are in the works. Sterlin Harjo is writing a feature length film all about the 1491s, which should be in production next year.
Below, watch more videos from the 1491s. (Warning: some content might not be suitable for all ages.)