Native American Comedy Troupe Takes No Prisoners

Five comedians who make up The 1491s have the mandatory noble savage look, but laugh at those very stereotypes of Native American representation in American society.

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Native American comedy troupe The 1491s at Vancouver art gallery before performance, February 21, 2013.
Native American comedy troupe The 1491s at Vancouver art gallery before performance, February 21, 2013.Credit: US Embassy Canada

“Today we are going to party like it’s 1491,” says the man on the stage, and the audience laughs hysterically. “We’re not beating up on the whites here,” said Charlie Hill, the man who got onstage before him. “It’s not white-bashing what we are doing here, it’s just a spiritual spanking you should have gotten 400 years ago,” he continues, to the thunderous laughter of the audience, whose Native American features are caught by the cameras. The descendants of those who lived there before the white invasion in 1492.

This scene appears in a 2009 video clip with stand-up acts. (Hill, a Native American comedian, who succeeded in the land of the whites, died in December 2013.) The video crops up in cyberspace between newer videos by a troupe called The 1491s, which I first heard about at a lecture last month in North Carolina.

The 1491s are five men, members of the Dakota, Muscogee (Creek), Navajo, Osage and Seminole tribes. They laugh at themselves, and laugh at the whites and the stereotypes and representations of the Indians in American society, and at how in their own way Native Americans commercialize the offensive and flattening representations.

In their video clips their looks are veiled, the way a noble savage is supposed to look, and they growl and mumble and speak in slow and “spiritual” sentences, as expected of them. It is much funnier, of course, when you see it, for example, in the video clip “The Indian Store” on YouTube. An aging beatnik is looking for books about tribal legislation and sovereignty, while the two sellers, dressed up in noblesse-oblige ornamentation, offer him books on spirituality and Mother Earth. No, he wants a book about the rights of the Creek (tribe), for example, and no, that they don’t have, but they do have a book of native tales that teach you "how not to be."

He continues to try; maybe they have one of the many books of the researcher of American policy towards the First Nations, Vine Deloria (a Sioux native), or something about the history of colonization; no, they have books about the language of the animals, and the latest edition of the book of photographs by Edward Curtis (which will be discussed below). There have been about 215,000 viewings of the video clip.

One of the members of The 1491s is named Ryan Red Corn, another is Dallas Goldtooth, who is also a social activist and one of the organizers of the huge Native American-ecological battle against the mega-project Keystone XL, which would produce oil from tar sands and transport it from Canada to refineries in Illinois and Texas.

Ryan Red Corn is tired of the automatic connection between Indians and seriousness. He created a four-minute film called “Smiling Indians,” because that’s what the Indians he knows do. One of the those most responsible for the stern-looking representation is photographer Curtis, who in the early 20th century photographed people from 80 different tribes, and whose serious, gloomy and miserable images left their mark on the collective image of the Native Americans.

Red Corn magnanimously dedicates the video clip to Curtis. But Adrienne Keene, who has a doctorate from Harvard’s School of Education and is a member of the Cherokee tribe, and who praises the video, is less forgiving. Five years ago Keene began to write a biting blog called “Native Appropriations,” focusing on stereotypes and the distortion of Native American cultural symbols. “Representations matter,” she declares in the heading of the blog, which so far has had over 100,000 “likes.”

Keene uses her blog not only to assist the growing opposition to the racist name of the football team from Washington, the “Redskins,” but also for a campaign against fashion designers, who copy or invent Indian motifs – while undermining their original significance. As a result of her blogs, there were some designers who apologized and have even begun to employ Native American designers.

In a lecture she gave 10 days ago at the University of North Carolina, she gave examples of the many cases of appropriation of Native American cultural symbols or Native American representations. She mentioned fireworks that are called the “Trail of Tears,” no less – after the death march of tens of thousands of Native Americans who were expelled by the United States government in the 1830s from their homes and land in the eastern United States to the west, in order to make territory available for whites.

One of the states from which they were expelled was North Carolina; one of the tribes that was expelled was the Cherokee, Keene’s tribe. One hundred seventy-five years later, she explained to nearly 200 fascinated students how the appropriation should not be considered a voluntary cultural exchange but rather a part of the mechanism of power, control and objectification.

In “The Indian Store,” The 1491s promise that the “dream catcher” – a popular item that translates faith into money – also improves reception on the Internet. And in fact the social networks turn out to be a productive path of activity for the members of the 562 Native American nations registered in the United States. Search the Internet: There is also Project 562, which documents them one by one.

Amira Hass tweets at @hass_haaretz