Writer, actor, comedian and environmental activist Dallas Goldtooth delivered the Native November keynote address the University of Wisconsin Thursday to wrap up the month of celebrations.
The 2023 Native November theme “Laughter Is Medicine” aimed to examine the role of laughter and humor in Indigenous culture. The event was hosted at Gordon’s Commons in collaboration with the Indigenous Student Center Coalition and the Multicultural Student Center.
Goldtooth — who plays “Spirit” in the FX drama “Reservation Dogs” — discussed how comedy is a form of healing for the Indigenous community. Goldtooth said that society often does not recognize the value of comedy, but that it is a way to change the mood in a room and move people from one space to the next. Because of this, Goldtooth said comedy is a valuable tool for healing within Indigenous communities.
Goldtooth also spoke on the beginnings of his career with comedy and acting in a sketch comedy group he helped found, called the 1491s. Goldtooth said several members of this group ended up writing for FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” including director Sterlin Harjo.
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Goldtooth said it was his and his brother’s dream to make movies and tell stories. Goldtooth went to college to become a teacher and his brother went to Los Angeles, California to become a writer but moved back to Minnesota. Goldtooth became a teacher in the Lower Sioux Reservation in Southern Minnesota and used a camera that was for language preservation videos to film a sketch in their garage.
“We started getting invited by colleges and campuses,” Goldtooth said. “And, you know, started traveling, and I’ve had the opportunity, the immense privilege to have seen so much of quote, unquote, ‘Indian Country’ known as Turtle Island.”
Goldtooth also worked for the Indigenous Environmental Network, where he was an organizer for the group.
The Indigenous Environmental Network is currently leading a coalition of Indigenous community representatives at the 28th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Dubai, according to the organization’s website.
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Creating space for activism is important, Goldtooth said. He said the ‘step up, step back’ model is extremely important for creating space and making sure everyone has a voice. Goldtooth said creating a space for those who have been feeling the effects of climate change the most need to have a voice is essential to climate activism.
Goldtooth said though events celebrating Indigenous culture at UW are a good start, there is more work to be done.
“We need more organizers on the ground, we need to organize in our communities …” Goldtooth said. “What we’re trying to do is confront power … ‘Reservation Dogs’ is a way of confronting power. Because for too long our stories have been told by non-native people. And so now we are taking power, telling our own stories and we can have a real native, on horseback, half-naked.”
Goldtooth’s visit came after a discussion about Native representation and storytelling in “Reservation Dogs” Nov. 9.
During his visit, Goldtooth encouraged the UW community to expand it’s investment in diverse groups across campus.
“This [event] should not be … the ceiling. We need to go beyond,” Goldtooth said. “I want to encourage any decision makers in this room … To invest not only in the Native community, but also other diverse communities on campus.”