Rethinking Native American identity 

click to enlarge A Tribe Called Red plays the Eiteljorg's Contemporary Arts Party earlier this month. - DESHONG PERRY-SMITHERMAN OF THE EITELJORG
  • A Tribe Called Red plays the Eiteljorg's Contemporary Arts Party earlier this month.
  • DeShong Perry-Smitherman of the Eiteljorg


On a Friday night in a small, packed theater at the Eiteljorg Museum, The 1491s, a comedy troupe featuring four Native American men in their 20s and 30s, satirized some of the worst stereotypes about American Indians.

The performance included an animated short produced in collaboration with ITVS for a new short film called Injunuity, which airs on PBS stations this month. An Indian baby covered in Band-Aids sits on littered ground on a reservation. Another baby is tossed out onto the lawn. "I'm feeling tipsy, man," he tells the first baby. "I'm supposed to be on the bottle; my mom's been on the bottle the whole time, man." "You'll be OK, just crawl it off," says the Band-Aid-covered baby, who then shares his shame over being beat up by a feral dog while fighting over a piece of meat. "That's what's wrong with our people, we gotta take back what's ours," the second baby says. And they head off to confront the dog.




The video is not a commentary on the poverty and dysfunction of reservation life; it is about identity, says The 1491s' Migizi Pensoneau, who wrote the script. "What they're actually just talking about is 'I don't know who I am, and I wanna figure that out. Let's go get my food back.'... All these people are lost, and they have no idea who they are."

The 1491s credit the generation that founded the American Indian Movement in the 1970s for opening up the space that now exists for them to explore Native identities through satire.

"In my opinion, that generation, the generation that came right before us, they are the remainder of an equation that was since 1492," says troupe member Ryan Red Corn. "That generation is the one that got backed so far into the corner that they became that hard-lined; that environment structured their entire social outlook. And the only thing they knew how to do was to fight back and lash back and burn things down. But for better or worse they cleared out a lot of space so that we don't have to be like that."

"What's the next step once you're done yelling? Once you're done bein' mad?" asks Pensoneau. "I think our time is spent answering that question. Now that the generation before us is like 'We're humans and we have a voice!' We're the next generation and we're like 'What's that voice sound like?' And unfortunately it's irreverent and ridiculous with us."

click to enlarge Students at IUPUI recently explored issues of Native American identity on dry erase boards in the common area of Campus Center. - REBECCA TOWNSEND
  • Students at IUPUI recently explored issues of Native American identity on dry erase boards in the common area of Campus Center.
  • Rebecca Townsend

Native people still have to counter the perception that they are a people of the past, said Carolina Castoreno, president of IUPUI's Native American Student Alliance. She told a story: One day her 9-year-old son came home from school in tears. A classmate refused to pass him the ball in a soccer game. The boy said he wouldn't pass Carolina's son the ball because "You're Indian, and Indians don't exist anymore."

Castoreno is a member of the American Indian Movement, and while she does participate in protests, her focus is on education. "What I've been doing every day during Native American Heritage Month [November] is posting a 'myth versus fact' on my Facebook wall so that all of my friends can see. And I make it public so that they can share with their friends, and I have complete strangers inboxing me telling me thank you so much for setting that straight."

In a recent post, she took on the myth that women are considered inferior to men in Native societies. On the contrary, she wrote, Native cultures are matriarchal. Among her people, the Apache, she's quick to point out, woman warrior Lozen fought the U.S. army alongside her brother Victorio in the 1870s and 1880s.

"Once I have ... educated you, you no longer have the excuse of saying 'I don't know,' " Castoreno says.

While Castoreno and the 1491s are creating a virtual space for young Native Americans, Canadian indigenous DJ trio A Tribe Called Red is in the business of creating a physical one in their home city of Ottawa, Ontario, and across North America. They headlined the Eiteljorg's Contemporary Arts Party earlier this month, mixing Native singing and drumming with hip-hop, reggae, and dub-stepped influenced electronic music. They host a monthly party in Ottawa, the "Electric Powwow," and this year released their second album, Nation II Nation.

"We wanted to create a space that had the same sort of idea of powwow," says Ian Campeau, aka DJ NDN. "Where people come to check out new music and meet new people, and to see old friends, and to hang out, have a place that's ours. In an urban setting, the only place where you could actually do that would be in a club." Their first show was sold out with representatives from not only Ottawa's Native population of 20,000, he says, but college students from tiny reserves in the far northern reaches of Canada, looking for a connection in the city.

Campeau is also involved in the Idle No More, a contemporary movement in Canada whose members are fighting for environmental protections, land and water rights, and greater representation of Natives in the Canadian government. "It's our civil rights movement, finally," he says. "When it started last year during the Christmas break, we started occupying shopping malls, where everybody was," Campeau recalls. " And huge, thousand-people round dances were going on in these shopping malls, just to say look, we're still here and you can't push us around."

Castoreno says she hopes to bring A Tribe Called Red and the 1491s back to Indy next year — this time to IUPUI.

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