BIG CYPRESS — The American Indian Arts Celebration’s headlining comedy group the “1491s” made lemonade during their performance on Nov. 1.
As it is every year, the first day of the AIAC is school field trip day. More than 600 school kids attended every event in the tent which included alligator wrestling, the Billie Swamp Safari critter show and pow wow dancing.
Now they were ready to laugh.
The 1491s were faced with a tent full of lemons.
The secret to any good comedy act is the ability to think quickly and know how to handle every situation with humor and grace.
The five members of the 1491s, armed only with microphones and their quick wits, sat on the stage inside the tent and told the crowd they are an “R-rated” group and didn’t know they would be performing for children.
“So we’re just talking today,” said Ryan RedCorn. “We’re doing ‘Ask an Indian.’ There’s a lot they don’t teach you in school.”
The group, comprised of Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota-Diné), Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee), Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca-Ojibwe), RedCorn (Osage Nation) and Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), proceeded to take questions from the crowd of mostly students. The questions ran the gamut, but started with one from an adult.
“Is Johnny Depp a real Native American,” asked Everett Osceola, organizer of the Native Reel Cinema Festival.
“Johnny Depp is as Comanche as Barack Obama is Crow,” answered RedCorn.
The 1491s, who call themselves a group of indigenous misfits, started their comedy career with a series of YouTube videos in 2008.
Since then they have produced a play- “Between Two Knees”- and perform about twice a month throughout the U.S. Their name is a nod to the year before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and European colonialism.
Most of the rest of the questions came from the kids.
Q- Have you ever seen an animal make a baby?
A- Sometimes on the res you see two dogs stuck together. You have to stop everything and watch; it’s good luck.
Q- How do alligators communicate?
A- Hisses and clicks, but there’s also email.
Q- Why did you start a comedy show?
A- Because we’re unemployable. But we are a pretty big deal outside of this tent.
Q- Can an alligator kill a shark?
A- If the shark was on land, I’d say yes. But legally, I don’t think they can do that.
Q- How do you guys make money?
A- We’re doing it right now.
Q- Do you pay taxes?
A- Are you from the government?
The crowd loved the show and applauded heartily.
“You learn the most from the hard situations and having to recover when you bomb,” said Harjo. “You learn to just start messing with them [the audience] and don’t let it get you down.”
All the members of the group have careers in addition to comedy.
“We all do a lot of different things,” said Pensoneau. “1491s is something we all love doing, but it isn’t a career. We like making people laugh.”
Goldtooth is an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, a Dakota cultural/language teacher, poet, artist and pow wow emcee.
Harjo is a feature and documentary filmmaker. He created and is writing and executive producing a television series called “Reservation Dogs” for FX about contemporary Native Americans living in Tulsa.
Pensoneau, a television and film writer and producer, is currently working on “Barkskins” on the National Geographic channel. The series is based on the book by author Annie Proulx.
RedCorn owns a marketing agency, Buffalo Nickel Creative in Oklahoma, and is an artist, photographer and produced the tribute video played before Wes Studi received his Academy Award in October.
Wilson is a visual artist and actor.
“We like to make people laugh,” said RedCorn. “A happy, smiling Indian is a dangerous thing. Even though we are a comedy group, a certain demographic is threatened by our narratives; older, white males. I laugh at that.”
The group performs about twice a month somewhere in Indian Country.
“What we love about this job is we get to see all the faces of Indian Country,” said Goldtooth. “It’s our first time here and it’s awesome. The nature of this job takes you to the offbeat paths, which are the best places to be.”