Native Americans Apply the Methods of Sacha Baron Cohen

Coyote Mick Tomi leads the audience in the Black Snake Dance, part of the Indigenous Pipeline Council Presentation.

The video seems legit, with its corporate-sounding platitudes and scenes of pretty families.

“Everyone deserves energy,” it begins. “Energy fuels our favorite moments. But lately, the pathway to prosperity has been blocked. Those who live in the way of energy pipelines are also standing up against them, and it’s for good reason.”

Cut to the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock, then an exploding pipeline in British Columbia.

“To our indigenous brothers and sisters,” the voiceover says, “the land is our sacred mother, and she is our life. But our people know the value of energy too, and we know there’s a better way. We believe the prosperity of pipelines ought to be shared—and the burden, too. And we’re proud to bring that solution to you.”

“Here at the Indigenous Pipeline Council we blend cutting-edge technologies with the wisdom of our ancestors to create and change the way energy is moved. [A] pipeline of reconciliation…because energy is life; energy is us.”

“Energy is life” is a conscious echo of “Water is life,” the cry at Standing Rock.

Only the video’s caption gives a hint what it is for: “We’re proud to announce expansion into Duluth, MN. We have a stunning vision for how this city will become a symbol for #energyprosperity and #energyequality.”

On October 26th the Indigenous Pipeline Council (IPC) held a meeting for business and political leaders in a ballroom in Duluth. Two young men spoke on behalf of the IPC. One said he was Carl Iron Eyes, “CEO and Clan Father of the Indigenous Pipeline Council, the only fully native-owned and -operated energy company in the Americas. I am a Native American Indian of the Athabascan Oil Sands area in Alberta, where we’ve been operating since 2016.”

Iron Eyes said, “White people’s search for energy independence has often hurt Native Americans—like Coyote Mick here and myself. Where a hundred million of us used to roam, only five million of us live on.”

Coyote Mick Tomi said he was “Chief Technology and Communications Officer,” “a Clan Father for the IPC family, and an Ojibwe from right here in Minnesota.”

Tomi said, “Our lands were destroyed, our peoples poisoned, our fauna and flora extinguished, all in the name of ‘freedom’—which is what people now mean by ‘energy independence.’ And the legacy continues as oil and pipeline companies destroy our ancestral lands. No wonder we have ‘reservations’ about them.”

The pun was jarring, and an indication something was awry.

“But Enbridge isn’t like other companies,” Iron Eyes said. “When Enbridge undertook the Line 3 Replacement, they fully intended to avoid all sacred lands. They quickly realized it wasn’t possible, so Enbridge did the next best thing: they asked us at the IPC to finish the final 19 miles of the Line 3 Replacement. And that’s exactly what we’re doing!”

Tomi said the IPC pipeline would ensure “that those who share in the wealth from oil production and transport also share in the risk,” by running the pipeline through the heart of downtown Duluth.

It was all a performance, of course. There is no IPC, and Enbridge’s proposed replacement Line 3 will not go through Duluth. Carl Iron Eyes (apparently named for Chase Iron Eyes, one of the leaders at Standing Rock) and Coyote Mick (Crocodile Mick Dundee?) are actually “Gitz Crazyboy” and “Tito Ybarra,” indigenous activists performing political theater in conjunction with groups called The Yes Men, Honor the Earth, and Stop Line 3.

The Yes Men “work with progressive orgs to help fight neoliberal policies through humor and trickery.” Their site teaches false PR, “Writing Funny,” “Crashing a Conference,” and “Accosting Strangers,” which they qualify as meaning “to grab the attention of unsuspecting strangers.”

Protest groups partnered with The Yes Men sometimes use Monty-Pythonesque tactics, such as the “Teddy Bear Catapult, which “gently lobb[ed] teddy bears into lines of riot cops” at the 2001 Québec City negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

“The catapult action was not just good theater,” a group called Beautiful Trouble writes, “but also effective activism. It attacked, both physically and symbolically, the fence that kept civil society away from trade deal negotiations that would impact everyone. In the end, the protests were a success … the hemisphere-wide trade deal was never signed.”

Another tactic they describe is “media-jacking,” which “subvert[s] your opponent’s spectacle for your own purposes. Politicians, corporations and lobbyists have much bigger PR budgets and name-brand draw to attract press to their staged media events. Through well-planned creative interventions, however, you can refocus things and highlight a different side of the story.”

In this case, the entire IPC production was an attempt to media-jack Big Oil’s methods and to flip the narrative, in order to help urban whites understand what Native Americans have endured when extractive energy projects claim eminent domain through their land.

“It’s hard to imagine that a pipeline as bad as the IPC’s could exist, but it’s actually close to the truth, just in reverse,” said Winona LaDuke, Executive Director of Honor the Earth, which was involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) fight.

Standing Rock, in 2016 and 2017, was the protest by Native Americans and their allies against DAPL bulldozing through graves and other sacred sites, and running the line under the Missouri River less than a mile from the reservation, endangering the reservation’s water supply. The pipeline route purposely avoided Bismarck, which is 92 percent white. This was seen as a form of environmental racism by the tribes. As one person in the Oceti Sakowin camp put it to me, “DAPL had a problem with the Bismarck route: Not enough brown people.”

In the staged meeting in Duluth, Carl Iron Eyes said IPC would put a floating oil platform on the Duluth waterfront, as well as a shipping port and a refinery. The two were enthusiastic about “boomtown” oil. They said the IPC was “native-owned and operated, but we commit to hire multiple non-native contractors, and create dozens of jobs, several of which could possibly become semi-permanent.” [My emphasis.]

All their statistics, apparently based on real situations near tribal land, were about increases in violent crime, drug use, prostitution, and traffic fatalities (due to unregulated trucks and makeshift roads).

The audience looked nervous.

Coyote Mick Tomi said, “Together we have shared the benefits of our land for a very, very long time. Now it is time to share the responsibilities. Each one of you here is a representative of many thousands of your neighbors and fellow citizens. As you agree to join us here today, your community agrees to join us as well. We thank you.”

Now the audience looked concerned, confused, or bemused, but most were soon dancing the “Black Snake Dance,” conga-fashion, behind Tomi, wearing foam headdresses that said Oil Chief. The Black Snake is what the tribes call a pipeline, a death image. Tomi was traditional-drumming and singing something that may have been, “Mockin’ you in a big way.”

As Sacha Baron Cohen has shown many times, you can get people to do or say the darndest things by telling them things similar enough to what they truly believe that they cannot hear the irony in them.

As part of this satirical campaign, members of the IPC also went to a country club to do fake surveying for the line that would run—above ground, they told white golfers—through the middle of the course.

They went to a church in hazmat suits and pretended to begin disinterring and relocating casketed remains to clear the way for the pipeline. They “accidentally” dropped a casket, several times, on the road in full view of white churchgoers. One of those bystanders demanded to know what they were doing there.

“You ever hear of grave removals for pipelines?” Carl Iron Eyes said.

“Not here, no,” the old guy said indignantly.

A fifth video, called “Pipelines are the birth canals of the economy,” shows Iron Eyes and Tomi talking to two older women in Duluth, who were protesting abortion.

“Being pipelines, we’re also pro-life,” Iron Eyes told them. “Yeah. We’re trying to create an economy.”

He said the pipeline would run through a school, but they could always build a jungle gym or a slide on it. One of the women started to get concerned about having a refinery on the city’s waterfront.

“What would you put first,” he asked, “a couple of houses, or America?” Schools, graves, Duluth’s downtown, anything in the way of the pipeline would have to go. The woman agreed: “America first.”

As the two IPC characters walked off down the sidewalk, Coyote Mick Tomi suddenly turned to the camera and said in a convincing Cockney accent, “I feel like washin’ my bloody hands after shakin’ hands with them.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.