The title Between Two Knees may conjure up images of lasciviousness. But, in fact, it is a theatrical chronicle of the events that took place between the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and the takeover of Pine Ridge in 1973 by the American Indian Movement — known as the second Wounded Knee. Irreverent and controversial, the show is currently rocking the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through October of this year.
In the first few minutes of the play, Larry, a host-moderator played by Justin Gauthier, instructs the audience: “We gonna talk about war, genocide, PTSD and molestation, so it’s OK to laugh.” Then he unveils a Wheel of Fortune-like game in which the categories are Indian massacres. The whole anachronism is so jarring that the audience is seduced into a zany, albeit horrifying, history lesson. As they laugh, they learn.
Between Two Knees is written by an intertribal, Indigenous sketch-comedy troupe called The 1491s: Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota-Diné), Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee), Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca-Ojibwe), Ryan RedCorn (Osage Nation) and Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota). They take their name from the year just prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus and European colonialism. They are perhaps best known for creating comedy sketches that depict Native culture in the tradition of Monty Python — routinely trouncing on tropes and stomping on stereotypes. To date, they have posted more than 150 videos to YouTube and enjoy more than 50,000 followers. (My personal favorite: “A Day In The Life of a Powwow Emcee.”)
Impressed by their talent, Rhiana Yazzie, artistic director of the Twin Cities-based New Native Theatre, suggested to Alison Carey, of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions Program, that they co-commission a full-length piece from the group. The 1491s thus received the support to come together in Oregon for ongoing writing sessions, and, for the first time, to work with a director, Eric Ting, who is also the artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater.
Serving as the group’s informal spokesperson, Wilson says that he grew up in the homeless shelters of Minneapolis, earned his high school degree at age 20, and found his true family within the arts community. He describes The 1491s as a collaborative: “So many pieces of us intertwine. As I look at the play, I can tell in each spot who contributed what humor. We are a unified voice.”
Between Two Knees opens sometime after the 1890 massacre of the Lakota. Its central characters, Irma Jean Snake and Young Isaiah, meet in a boarding school where the curriculum aims to “kill the Indian, save the child.” Feisty Irma convinces Isaiah that they must resist their captors but a priest and nuns move in to crush their sprits. Irma and Isaac, however, suddenly develop Ninja skills, vanquish them video-game style, and proceed to run amok, freeing Native children all across the nation. They marry, build a house and have a baby called William. “We bathe this child in the tears of a thousand white women named Becky,” we hear. “We wash his ears so that he will not hear people lecture him on what should be considered racist or offensive.”
The play then hopscotches across time, past World War II and right to the era of the Vietnam War. It is 1973; we’re at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during protests against the US government. The scene I have excerpted below is an ingenious example of how The 1491s filter an intense situation through a devilish sense of irony. FBI agents have just broken into Irma and Isaiah’s home with drawn guns, and everything is shouted.
OLDER IRMA: You installed a dictator in our tribal government…to exploit what little resources our small nation has!
FBI 2: You all have a very lovely home here! If things are as bad as you say, why not use this house as collateral on a home to move somewhere else with less poverty!
IRENE: Banks won’t take property on tribal lands as collateral because the land is technically held in trust by the US Government!
FBI 2: Wow…where can I find more information on these important issues?
FBI 1: You can’t because we actively suppress that information from the public, while simultaneously supplying poor communities with firearms and addictive substances to keep them pacified!
Between Two Knees is like a ride that you go on and later wonder where the hell you’ve been. Seeing history through Native eyes can be disorienting; the perspective, disturbing. Experiencing what it is to be “the other” for two hours is not for everyone. I was recently made aware of this commentary, written by a member of the (mainly white) audience:
My wife and I were really puzzled by this production and, had we not been seated in the interior row, would not have waited for the intermission to walk out…a waste of money.
Some Americans are bewildered that Natives don’t want to celebrate Columbus Day. They don’t understand that it’s a little like asking Jews to celebrate Hitler Day.
Jonathan Swift, the renowned Irish satirist, based much of his Gulliver’s Travels on his experiences during a time of intense political turmoil in the early 1700’s. For The 1491s, the systematic genocide of Native peoples is a relatively recent experience. Satire, defined as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity and vices” is a powerful tool in any era.
Generations of oppression — and post-traumatic stress — can take a toll on even the most ebullient collective’s self-esteem. When I asked Wilson about his hopes for Between Two Knees, for example, he said he hoped it would be a success but “I’m lucky to have low expectations.” When I asked why that is, he gave me a wry answer: “I’m Indian — I’m used to failure.” Then his voice brightened as he told me that he and his wife, a student medical school, expect their first child in July, a girl.
Between Two Knees exposes a deep cultural scar not by delving but by dancing across the decades. Indeed, if making something funny is what can permeate guilt and open minds, then laughing at Between Two Knees may help people embrace a more complete picture of the truth. You can’t change history but you can try not to repeat it. Wilson’s little girl, God willing, will someday be able to write her own.