Vassar discusses the Indigenous movement, brings Dallas Goldtooth and 1491s to campus

Comedian and environmental activist Dallas Goldtooth, along with his Indigeneous comedy group 1491s, use humor and social media to lighten the heavy discussion of serious societal issues./ Courtesy of Hannah Benton

When topics are hard to talk about, sometimes one of the only things people can resort to is humor. This week, Vassar welcomes Dallas Goldtooth and his all-Indigenous social media and comedy group, the 1491s, to campus. Goldtooth is an Indigenous activist who is committed to fighting issues such as climate change, environmental destruction and economic injustice. Goldtooth and the 1491s will be giving a comedy performance to talk about these issues in Sanders Classroom Auditorium on March 2 at 7 p.m.

A multifaceted and activism-oriented force of nature, Goldtooth is a film producer, actor and comedian, as well as the national Keep It In The Ground campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network. He has worked extensively on the campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline and is an outspoken voice for the rights and needs of Indigenous people. Associate Professor of English and Native American Studies Molly McGlennen commented, “Mr. Goldtooth represents the type of activism that stems from long-standing Indigenous perspectives toward and relationships with land and peoples; it is an activism that, at its foundation, places peoples in a sacred relationship to lands rather than having dominion over it. It’s not a practice of conservation; it’s a practice of lived experience with it.”

While Goldtooth and the 1491s’ activism engages a personal and nuanced angle to Indigenous rights, a unique aspect of their approach that is incredibly impactful is their incorporation of humor. Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator Tom Pacio commented about the group, “They were able to take advantage of the platform that YouTube is to satirize some of the issues that face them as a community both socially and politically.”

Likewise, Associate Professor of Geography and Chair of Earth Science and Geography Mary Ann Cunningham, who helped organize the event, praised the group for their unique way of discussing these issues: “Politics and injustice are angry and bitter topics, and it’s hard to see them as funny. So I think anybody who can find ways to laugh at this craziness is doing us a big favor. A lot of times you have to loosen up to look at problems squarely. Everybody can get upset about injustice in the world, but not many of us know how to find humor to deal with it.”

This interesting use of humor and the pertinence of the group’s content were some of the reasons that McGlennen, Cunningham and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Director of Environmental Studies Stuart Belli wanted to bring Goldtooth and the 1491s to campus. With the help of Pacio, the Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Music Jonathan Chenette, the events were able to be funded. Pacio commented, “Three very different faculty members from three very different disciplines wanted to bring him here.” He emphasized how the significance of Goldtooth’s work and the lack of visibility around Indigenous issues in general made it all the more necessary to try to make these events happen at Vassar. McGlennen agreed with Pacio, saying, “We came together from different perspectives towards Indigenous activism—Professor Belli and Cunningham as scientists and myself as a Native American Studies scholar wanting to understand the ways which our approaches toward environmental advocacy and activism overlapped. We also noted the tremendous student interest in land issues and Indigenous peoples’ rights, especially since Standing Rock.”

Goldtooth also gave a lecture entitled “Defend the Sacred, Build the Power” on Tuesday, Feb. 27 about how the Indigenous movement centers the sacredness of land, how it relates to other movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement and how our extraction-centered economy ultimately violates its vision. Additionally, he and the 1491s are slated to participate in a public conversation about the role of comedy in activism on All College Day. Cunningham commented on the importance of these events, stating, “At Vassar, conversations about environment and conversations about identity and justice tend to be pretty separate a lot of the time. This is sad, because these issues have a lot in common, but we fall into these separate conversations and forget the common ground.”

More generally, there seems to be a lack of visibility of Indigenous people and a lack of awareness of Indigenous issues on campus. As McGlennen pointed out, “I think Vassar has a long way to go when it comes to Indigenous peoples, issues and activism. The fact that we don’t more creatively and critically recruit and retain Native students is entirely problematic. The fact that the ALANA center uses the NA in its acronym but a Native Student organization cannot be maintained in any real ways is irresponsible.”

McGlennen hopes that the events with Goldtooth and the 1491s will not only increase students’ awareness about Indigenous rights and issues, but will also teach students effective ways to be active in creating positive change both on and off campus. She commented, “We need more than conversations. We need action on this front. What would an Indigenous peoples initiative on campus looks like? That’s for people who go to the event this week during this residency to determine for themselves. There’s always more work to do.”  

Among the faculty that brought the 1491s and Goldtooth to campus, there is a widespread hope that one of the main points the audience will take away from the event is how strong and inspiring Indigenous leadership is and can be. McGlennen said, “Native peoples are still here, and not only that, they are providing—as they have throughout history—profoundly essential leadership toward healing so many contemporary problems that all people are affected by, whether that’s environmental degradation, human rights, sexual violence and so on. It is up to all of us to actively reckon with the message they bring to campus.”

Cunningham agreed with McGlennen and drew parallels between the Indigenous movement and other historically powerful movements. She highlighted, “The Civil Rights movement was a movement of people of color, and white people were not about to invent it, but it benefited everybody. I think that principle still holds, that change isn’t going to come from the center.”

The performance by the 1491s will be kicking off an already comedy-filled weekend. The group’s performance is not something to miss out on—Pacio remarked, “I have been on the phone with them and they are just hilarious. Every time I’ve spoken with them about this residency, I’m in a better mood after talking to them. I’m looking forward to this residency from an academic point of view, but also as someone who likes to laugh.”

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