“I’ll fucking cut you.” Behind the scenes of the 1491s’ segment on “The Daily Show”

Photo courtesy of Migizi Pensoneau
Photo courtesy of Migizi Pensoneau

Posted by Migizi Pensoneau at the Missoula Independent

Editor’s note: Last night “The Daily Show” aired a segment about Washington’s controversial football team nickname. The segment included the 1491s, a Native American comedy troupe the Indy has profiled and which includes Migizi Pensoneau, who lives in Missoula and contributes regularly to the paper. Migizi wrote the following behind-the-scenes account of the segment and how it came about.

A couple of weeks back, the 1491s got an email from a producer at “The Daily Show” hosted by Jon Stewart. They were recruiting for a panel discussion regarding the Washington Redskins, and the mascot controversy that surrounds the team. And they wanted us—a Native American sketch comedy/video group that tackles everything from Indian Country politics to fart jokes—to weigh in. As a writer, educator, satirist and smart-ass, I was excited about the opportunity. While we love the reach that YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other Internet avenues provide, there’s something bewitching about being on national TV, and on a show we respect.

Less than a week after we got the email, three members of our group—including me—were whisked away to our nation’s capitol for two full days of shooting. The morning after we arrived, a Saturday, we learned more about the premise of the shoot. There would be two panels: pro-Redskins fans (as in, pro-mascot, pro-dressing up as Indian, anti-name changers) and anti-mascot activists, which included the three of us joined by five other indigenous panelists. The plan was to let the first panel make their case: talk about how the mascot honors Natives, that the name “Redskins” only refers to fans of the team and not Native Americans—standard pro-mascot arguments. Then, at a designated point, the host, Jason Jones, would ask, “Would you say all of this stuff directly to a Native American?” To which they’d presumably say, “Yes,” and then Jones would cue us to enter. The panel would be embarrassed, we’d be indignant, they’d be on their way—appropriately uncomfortable—and then we’d get our chance to talk.


After a long wait in an adjacent green room, completely cut off visually and aurally from the pro-Redskins panel, we were finally asked in. We entered the room, looked indignant, and there was a wonderfully uncomfortable silence. Jones played the buffoon, eating some wings and drinking a beer. But then, one of the pro-mascot fellas started to defend their position, and everything derailed. This is the part you don’t really see in its full glory on the segment: As some of the anti-mascot activists started in passionately on the issue, pro-mascot panelist Kelli O’Dell, who was previously employed by the Washington Redskins and whose Internet presence is devoted to her support of the team and mascot, started to cry. My ever-dapper 1491s colleague, Bobby Wilson, offered her his own handkerchief. It was an intense situation, but never mean-spirited. O’Dell, though, started to accuse us of ambushing and lying and “how dare you.” (Later, after the shoot but before the episode aired, it would be reported by the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Time, Gawker, Uproxx, Buzzfeed and CBS that she felt in danger and this experience would smear her name.)

Sobbing and accusatory, she and the others left. From there, we took a break to reset the room, and we did our panel. This one went incredibly well and I’m proud to have been a part of it. The producer, crew and Jones were wonderful to us, and we all walked out of there with hugs and smiles. It was 180 degrees from the previous panel, and we were happy about it.

The next morning, football Sunday, the three of us went to FedEx Field as part of the show. “The Daily Show” taped us wandering around the “Redskins Nation” tailgate, though that never made it on air. I, rather naively, thought maybe we’d be able use our presence at the tailgate as a way to showcase our humanity, and let the Washington Team know that there are Native Americans out there who are among them—real people not relegated to the eternal myth of history. Maybe we’d change a mind or two. Or, at least, maybe some ignorant hilarity could be caught on camera. It was worth a try, so with a camera crew following us, one little, two little and a third big Indian struck out into FedEx Field’s Redskin Nation tailgate.

That did not go as I’d hoped.

There were points during that hour-long experience where I actually was afraid for my life. I have never been so blatantly threatened, mocked or jeered. It was so intense, so full of vitriol that none of the footage ended up being used in the segment. I’m a big dude—6’1”, and a lotta meat on the bones. But a blonde little wisp of a girl completely freaked me out as I waited in line for the bathroom. “Is that shirt supposed to be funny?” she asked motioning to my satirical “Caucasians” T-shirt. And then she said, “I’ll fucking cut you.” Actually, she didn’t scare me so much as the wannabe linebackers standing behind her who looked like they wanted to make good on her threat.

On one level, I get it. I’m walking around with an ironic T-shirt on, being a Native in the middle of FedEx Field with a camera crew from “The Daily Show” nearby. But amid the jeers, mocking and threats, did I cry, and accuse them of ambush? No, because I knew what I was getting myself into. It’s “The Daily Show.” I know the format. More than that though, I didn’t back down or break down because I knew in my heart and conscience I was doing the right thing, as silly as the method may have been.

I think back to the tailgate: the man blowing cigar smoke in my face, the man who mockingly yelled, “Thanks for letting us use your name!”, the group who yelled at us to “go the fuck home,” the little waif who threatened to cut me, the dude who blew the train horn on his truck as I walked by the hood. I think of all of that, and I think back to O’Dell crying and trying desperately to get out of the room full of calm Natives. I thought she was crying because she was caught unawares and was afraid. But I realized that was her defense mechanism, and that by overly dramatizing her experience, she continued to trivialize ours. It was privilege in action. And as I realized these things, something else became incredibly clear: She knew she was wrong.

Watch “The Daily Show” segment here:

Native filmmakers get students to open up

GWYNETH ROBERTS/Lincoln Journal Star1491s member Bobby Wilson (center) dances for the camera as Native Youth Leadership Symposium Participants (rear) watch during production of a public service announcement video Tuesday, April 2, 2013, at Morrill Hall.
GWYNETH ROBERTS/Lincoln Journal Star
1491s member Bobby Wilson (center) dances for the camera as Native Youth Leadership Symposium Participants (rear) watch during production of a public service announcement video Tuesday, April 2, 2013, at Morrill Hall.

April 03, 2013 6:00 am

By KEVIN ABOUREZK / Lincoln Journal Star

It’s 10 in the morning, and eight high school students won’t speak.

Dallas Goldtooth threatens them: “Someone start talking or I’m going to start calling on you.”

A boy fidgets. Two girls giggle and whisper.

Goldtooth asks again: What do you want to say in your video about alcoholism?

A boy in a black Nike sweatshirt clears his throat.

“It tears families apart,” he says. “Some people forget their heritage when they drink.”

And so begins another video from the 1491s.

The guerrilla Native filmmakers and comedy troupe came to Lincoln on Tuesday to help participants of the Sovereign Native Youth Leadership program shoot a video. The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs hosted the 1491s’ visit and sponsors the youth program — high school students from Nebraska’s four tribes learning to be leaders.

Last week, to prepare for the 1491s’ visit, the students brainstormed ideas. But on Tuesday, the five members of the 1491s struggle to get students to share them.

Goldtooth, one of the group’s founders, tells students the filmmakers are there to help them find their voice.

“You dictate the direction,” he says.

Ryan Red Corn, an Osage member of the 1491s, shares the story of a young woman they met at a Native boarding school who told them about briefly escaping the school to retrieve berries from a nearby tree. The 1491s made a video about it.

The 1491s have lampooned everything from the movie “The Last of the Mohicans” to powwow emcees, and they’ve gotten hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.

Despite their popularity, at least two Native students haven’t seen their work.

As the morning wears on, the students begin opening up, a little at a time.

Two brothers from Winnebago speak about their dad, who once struggled with alcoholism but quit after his children were born. They talk about losing their uncle to cirrhosis, a liver disease prevalent in alcoholics.

“Top that,” student Skyler Walker says, daring the others to beat his story and eliciting laughter.

So how does a mixed bag of comedians and filmmakers get shy Native students to open up? Red Corn says it’s important to make them laugh and see themselves as important.

The 1491s spend much of Tuesday making each other laugh, poking fun at Red Corn for being half white and Goldtooth for enjoying food too much.

Eventually, they begin teasing the students, including Skyler and his brother Max, who are half Ho-Chunk and half white. The boys call themselves “half chunks.”

“Half chunk 1 and half chunk 2,” the 1491s call them.

Then they turn on each other: “Osage sounds like a drunk person speaking Dakota,” Goldtooth says to Red Corn.

But then, just a little, the tone of their conversation shifts.

As he talks about his love of gourd dancing in the Omaha tribal tradition, student Marco Ramos cuts short a conversation between Red Corn and comedian Bobby Wilson.

“Quit holding hands and pay attention,” he says, as the room erupts in applause and laughter.

Later at lunch, Scott Shafer of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs describes how difficult it has been getting the students to open up to the presenters they have heard since the program began its second year this past fall. So often, students have struggled to connect to policymakers and professionals, he says.

That wasn’t the case Tuesday as the students and the 1491s developed ideas for their video on alcoholism.

One student describes adults who tell her not to drink but who then drink themselves.

Somewhere in the room, an idea flickers.

Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, who has directed several movies and documentaries, offers an idea that involves the students making the video’s viewers believe they were talking about using drugs and alcohol.

“It helps me forget my worries,” Cheyenne Gottula, an Oglala who attends Lincoln High School, says before the camera. “My mom’s the one who got me into it.”

Then, the reveal.

“I like playing volleyball.”

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.