With a few exceptions, aspiring to renowned fame in the movie business has been mostly an elusive dream for American Indians.
But, social networks like YouTube could change that for a group of relative unknown filmmakers called the 1491s.
Osage photographer, video-producer and actor Ryan Red Corn said he has used a camera or camcorder as long as he can remember. He would make movies the old-fashioned way, linking videocassette recorders together to edit and splice film.
His father was a musician who taught him the art of sound editing. From his photographer mother he learned photography and took photography classes in high school. To further his passion for creative storytelling, he earned a degree in visual communication and sought jobs and internships to further his skills.
“I just tried to get as much experience as I could. I went wherever they would have me, to learn what I could.”
He also entered art shows.
In 2006, he won a third-place “Best of Show” award in the Native American Rights Fund “Visions of the Future” art show. He was flown by NARF to Boulder where he met Sundance Film Festival award-winning filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, a Seminole- Creek, also from Oklahoma.
Red Corn shared some ideas with Harjo and they began to work on projects together like Harjo’s acclaimed feature film, “Barking Water.” Harjo then served as cinematographer on Red Corn’s PBS-funded short film, “Bad Indians,” found on YouTube by searching “PBS Bad Indians.”
Afterward, the two served on a panel discussion at a Minneapolis conference with Dallas Goldtooth, Dakota-Dine (Navajo), and his partner-brother, Migizi Pensoneau, Annishinabe and Ponca. The brothers had been making comedy videos since 2008. After their videos became popular they started getting requests to do live performances, mostly at local colleges and tribal conferences, calling themselves Deez Muttz Comedy.
“It started out with us just messing around with a camera on our dad’s back 40 in northern Minnesota. Our first video was the “Buffalo Bill Dance Remix,” a spoof of a famous scene in the film, “Silence of the Lambs.” We made about three more videos that year, all posted on YouTube.”
Goldtooth said his brother took a job as a screenwriter in Los Angeles so they would film videos whenever Pensoneau came home to visit.
“But I also made some videos on my own with friends when Migizi wasn’t around.”
“Day in the Life of a Pow Wow Emcee” is one of those videos also viewable on YouTube.
While in Minn., Red Corn and Harjo traveled north with Goldtooth and Pensoneau to Bemidji and the four collaborated on a spoof of the popular mainstream “Twilight” film series in which vampires and werewolves cross treaty boundaries to woo and fight over a young female human named Bella. The result is the wildly funny project, “New Moon Auditions,” now found on YouTube.com.
Red Corn said it took the guys months to agree on a name for the loosely formed production company. Goldtooth said his Deez Muttz Comedy name lasted only a few months till the brothers met Harjo and Red Corn in Minneapolis and The 1491s was born.
“To be honest, the first time The 1491s got together was on the actual set of our first video, ‘New Moon Auditions,’” Goldtooth said.
Since then, they acknowledge the participants in that video as part of the group, The 1491s.
“So our group isn’t just Sterlin, Ryan, Mig and me. But also involves Bobby Wilson, Garrett Drapeau, Elizabeth Day, and Sedelta Oosawhee. Some of them may play a less active role in the group, but we still consider them integral to it.”
Actors for the 1491s are usually found in local communities or just by knowing who’s available.
“The process is kind of random. Part of it is random, part is just who we have access to at the time we’re filming,” Red Corn said.
Though The 1491s is still loosely organized, all want to pursue bigger projects in the future.
“From here, there’s a couple things we need to do quickly to be taken seriously and then there are some long-term things: comedy, serious and quasi-political,“ Red Corn said.
He thinks there’s a need in Indian country for The 1491s’ brand of entertainment, sticking with the YouTube-type videos that he calls sketches or skits and moving on to longer productions as the group’s skills mature.
Red Corn said he has in mind some seven to 15-minute traditional short-form films as the next step and possibly a feature film in the future.
He’s also planning to take on educational and health videos, saying education in the film format can be more effective than direct action.
“People remember it and pass it on,” he said, pointing to the effectiveness of the popularity of The 1491s’ “Geronimo” and “Slapping Medicine Man” videos on YouTube.
“Geronimo” was made in response to anger in American Indian communities after finding out that the U.S. Navy Seals used the name of respected Apache leader Geronimo’s name as code for Osama Bin Laden in its capture and kill mission in Pakistan.
“Slapping Medicine Man” was the hilarious brainchild of Ojibway comedian Tito Ybarra, who recently moved to Oklahoma, to visualize how people want someone else to solve their problems instead of helping themselves.
The 1491s have learned to overcome the problem of logistics but Red Corn said he does wish the group lived closer together so they could work more. He promised more videos would be forthcoming as a tool to empower and give voice to Native communities and encourage others to use their own creative talents to heal wounds of the past.
‘The 1491s are an historical root canal because we strike nerves for whatever reason.”