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Daniel Pewewardy is best known to Wichita audiences as a stand-up comedian and creator of memes, those jokey combinations of text and images that fill your social media feeds.
But over the past few years, the 36-year-old has found their way back to filmmaking, which they studied as an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University. Pewewardy, who is a member of the Comanche Nation, participated in the Sundance Native Lab in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in May. The Sundance Institute program is designed to mentor Native American filmmakers as they develop screenplay and directorial projects.
Pewewardy earned the fellowship with a draft of their first feature-length screenplay. “Residential” is a narrative about a young Native man who faces a paranormal threat in his new apartment building, which he discovers was once an Indian boarding school.
Adam Piron, the director of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, connected with Pewewardy through meme accounts he operates on Facebook and Instagram. Combined, they have more than 30,000 followers.
“It’s comedy from my perspective, which in essence makes it an Indigenous perspective,” Pewewardy said. “It’s definitely my most personal project comedically, and while the drive is to be funny with it, resonating with people who might feel left out from broader comedic works is a huge part of it.”
Pewewardy also uses the account to document other creative endeavors, including the 2020 short film they starred in, “Must Love Pie.” Directed by Seabold Krebs, the 13-minute narrative screened at more than a dozen film festivals and won multiple awards. In addition to “Residential,” Pewewardy is working on “Franks for Nothing,” an animation project in collaboration with fellow Wichita filmmaker Ian Blume. You can watch their proof of concept on YouTube.
Kansas isn’t the best place for a filmmaker to live, Pewewardy said. They are a strong advocate for production incentives, such as tax credits or rebates, for movie and television projects that film in the state. Kansas is one of 17 states without a tax-incentive program for filmmakers.
Despite that, Pewewardy plans to stay in Wichita. They have found a creative community and regularly meet to go mall walking. They can afford to both live and create here, and feel a connection to their ancestors.
“I want to continue that legacy of great Comanche men in this area,” they said. “This was our most northern territory. I am on my tribal lands, where my people have been for centuries. I think that’s pretty cool.”
The Wichita Beacon asked Pewewardy about their comedy, volunteering with the Mid-America All-Indian Museum and working as a librarian. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You applied to the Sundance Native Lab with a screenplay for a film that feels incredibly timely, given a recent Interior Department report about unmarked graves at the sites of Indian boarding schools. What inspired you to combine Native history with the paranormal genre?
What inspired me was seeing it being done terribly for most of cinema history. In horror, there’s this concept of Indian burial grounds as these evil places, which is really dehumanizing. I wanted to write a ghost story that flipped the Indian burial ground concept on its head.
I’m the first generation in my family on my dad’s side not to attend a residential school, or Indian boarding school, as we say in the United States. When those stories (about burial grounds found at residential schools) were coming out, people were saying, “It’s like a horror movie.”
Also, I live in an industrial building that has been converted to loft apartments. The Midwest is going through a period of gentrification, and I thought, what better place to really address these issues than in a haunted school?
Why is it important to see Indigenous stories on TV and in movies?
I always think of this story from when I was a kid. I didn’t know I was Native until I was about 4, but I knew about Native Americans. My grandmother told me I was Indian and I bawled, because all I knew about Native Americans was that they were the bad guys. They were villainized by Hollywood for decades, especially the Nʉmʉnʉʉ — the Comanche — who were villains in John Wayne movies. I feel like representation is important because I don’t want any other 4-year-old kid to have that experience.
You run the meme account @pendletonmane. What got you into meme creation and what appeals to you about that form of comedy?
I wanted to have a platform where you can just make jokes and you don’t have to go to comedy clubs and get two-drink minimums and hang out in a toxic environment. I can just be funny. I was a road comic for a second, and it was not an environment I could thrive in. It would have been self-destructive if I continued on that path, so I decided to tell jokes from home.
I wanted to approach Indigenous issues, too, and I can’t tell Native jokes on stage in Wichita, Kansas. The best part of Pendletonmane is connecting to people from other communities, other urban areas, and especially Indigenous folks who are white-presenting or Black-presenting, or who are queer, who have a connection to the culture but feel like they’re on the outside, often just because of geography. Getting messages from them and feeling that my comedy resonated with them is the most rewarding thing about it.
Why did you decide to volunteer your time as a board member for the Mid-America All-Indian Museum?
I decided to serve on the board because (the museum) is part of my community, and I wanted to put my money where my mouth is. I wanted to actually do the work, not just be a keyboard warrior.
You’ve been a comic, actor, meme creator, and now screenwriter. You’re also a librarian for Wichita Public Library. What motivated you to pursue that career?
I went to film school for my bachelor’s, and I needed to find something I could do (for a living). My parents were very adamant about (my brother and me) having bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They both worked for city and county government. They struggled, and they didn’t want their children to struggle like they did.
I was a movie collector obsessed with organizing my movies, and I’m also about solving mysteries and doing deep dives and trying to find answers. Being a librarian seemed like the perfect fit, and honestly it was a pretty good fit.
I’m lucky to work in a very inclusive environment that values intellect and compassion. In orientation the HR person said, “You’re working for the government, you’re a public servant, you’re not making somebody rich.” And I always think about that. I do good work. I can go to bed knowing I did my best.