Bobby Wilson Combats Indigenous Stereotypes Through Humor

TUCSON, Arizona — Bobby “Dues” Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) works across various planes of creativity, from mural-making to beadwork and quillwork to poetry. His work as a founding member of the Indigenous sketch comedy troupe The 1491s, and as a writer for hit television shows such as Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs, has carved out a multifaceted terrain of art-making and cultural production. Wilson’s practice is aimed at dislodging preconceived and stereotypical perceptions about Indigenous peoples in North America. 

Wilson, who grew up in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, had his share of precarity as a child. “We bounced around battered women’s shelters for a while until we’d time out of them,” Wilson shared with Hyperallergic. “Then we were just staying with other people for a while until our Section 8 [housing] finally cleared.” It was at this time that he learned that the woman raising him was not his biological mother. “She confessed it and then I ran away from home, and I never went back.” While living on his own, he began tagging buildings and experimenting with graffiti. “I met a graffiti artist who was also Native in middle school named Gabriel Ward, and we became really close,” Wilson said. “But he was tagging gang [stuff], which was not really my thing at all. I always thought that it was insane how many dudes that I grew up with around there were in gangs, and that just did not appeal to me in any way.” 

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Though he did not participate in gang culture, he did very much enjoy the act of mark-making. “I really liked the idea of tagging on shit, so I started shoplifting spray paint with Gabriel until I got caught for graffiti.” At the age of 16, Wilson was arrested for graffiti and was sentenced to two years in the Ramsey County Boys’ Home. The arrest led to a life-changing meeting. “I always feel funny saying I had a good relationship with my parole officer, because I don’t think you’re supposed to,” he said. “Her name was Deb Knutson and I haven’t seen her since I turned 18, but she focused on what was going to do some good for me. She told me about the art programs for youth in the Twin Cities and said I should get involved with some of them.”

Bobby Wilson graffiti mural (courtesy the artist)

Wilson joined a program called Compass Arts in St. Paul, which had a summer program called Arts Work. During this time, he met Youa Vang, who provided the first formal training in fine art that he had received. “He is the guy who taught me how to paint murals,” he said. “He took a particular interest in me and two other kids who were there.” 

Vang taught Wilson the artistic skills he needed to pursue a professional career in the cultural field and gave him a foundation of discipline and respect for process necessary to succeed in the complex and often precarious visual arts field. Wilson had a successful career as a muralist in the Twin Cities, a practice he still engages with today as time allows. In addition to his painting, he creates delightfully irreverent pieces of beadwork and quillwork, often pastiching Indigenous techniques and popular culture, drawing from mass-produced imagery, such as a blue social media verification checkmark and objects like La Croix cans. Recently he collaborated with Brain Dead clothing in Los Angeles to produce a now sold-out edition of beadwork minions from Despicable Me. 

Perhaps what Wilson is best known for is his sketch comedy work with his troupe The 1491s. Comprised of Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan RedCorn, and Wilson, the group has produced biting satire addressing colonization, systemic racism, misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples, the commodification of Native imagery and culture, and sustained homelessness and poverty resulting from US governmental policies in Indian Country. A chance meeting in Santa Fe led to Wilson’s involvement with the group. After driving his aunt to New Mexico’s capital city for the annual Southwestern Association of Indian Arts Market in 2010, Wilson met Redcorn and Harjo. They became fast friends, and all have been collaborating ever since. 

Beadwork by Bobby Wilson (courtesy the artist)

In 2019, The 1491s were commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to create an original work, Between Two Knees. The play weaves together family relationships, love, and loss, and incorporates large swaths of Indigenous history in the United States that have been left out of US History curricula. The play spans from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, in which 300 Lakota people were slaughtered at the hand of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment, to the 71-day American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Running in Seattle at the Bagley Wright Theater through March 26, it offers a richly textured, darkly humorous, and unflinching look at the American genocide of Indigenous peoples via settler-colonialism. 

In addition to his mural practice, beadwork, and sketch comedy endeavors, Wilson is now becoming a fixture in television. He’s written for and appeared in Peacock’s Rutherford Falls opposite Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding (Cheyenne River Lakota), and is currently writing for the hit FX show Reservation Dogs, in which he also occasionally appears, and which was created by fellow 1491s member Sterlin Harjo in collaboration with renowned director Taika Waititi. The writing process has moments of flow and moments of obstruction. “Sometimes writing is the worst, I hate it!” he laughed. “It’s really about getting your mind in the right space for it, and so sometimes I will just paint something or write a poem to get it going. It’s a matter of finding that spot that’s inside my consciousness that delves into art, and it always looks a little different.” He allows the details of his everyday life infiltrate his writing and end up on the page in some way. “The writing goes through so many iterations — so for me, it’s getting over the block of needing it to be perfect.” 

It is that allowance of imperfection that is the beautiful crux of Wilson’s career — one that undulates, ever so gracefully, across multiple mediums and registers of generational pain, healing laughter, and Indigenous joy. 

Minions beadwork by Bobby Wilson (courtesy the artist)
Bobby Wilson taking a selfie (courtesy the artist)

Between Two Knees performs at the Bagley Wright Theater (155 Mercer Street, Seattle, Washington) through March 26.


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