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An environmental activist who uses comedy to help stop oil pipelines

An environmental activist who uses comedy to help stop oil pipelines
Dallas Goldtooth, left, with other protesters against the Keystone XL pipeline in 2014. (Michael S. Williamson / Washington Post)

Doom and gloom. White and uptight. Self-righteous. Litigious. Shrill.

You have heard the cliches about environmentalists.

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But have you heard of Dallas Goldtooth?

He helped stop the Keystone XL pipeline, and now he is trying to stop another — the 1,170-mile Dakota Access pipeline that would carry crude from the Bakken region of western North Dakota through South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.

In the process, he has made a lot of people laugh.

Like in his skit about Native American "hunters" running through the woods in loincloths, only to wind up in a fast-food joint ordering hamburgers. Or in his interview with MSNBC, talking about how tribes had pitched tepees on the National Mall to protest a pipeline. He was charging tourists $10 to take his picture, Goldtooth deadpanned. After all, he is a real, live Native American.

As a member of the Dakota and Dine tribes, Goldtooth is both sketch comic and committed conservation campaigner. He is the son of Tom B.K. Goldtooth, the director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, one of the nation's leading Native American environmental organizations. And while the younger Goldtooth is out on the protest lines too, he may be better known for his comedy bits on YouTube.

"We've been told this narrative that we have a certain amount of issues that are bad and we have to respond to these certain amount of issues with this certain kind of approach, and I'm just tired of it," Goldtooth said in a recent interview. "The angry Indian activist character, I think, is hilarious. I actively choose to go about my organizing in a different manner."

The angry Indian activist character, I think, is hilarious. I actively choose to go about my organizing in a different manner.


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Most recently, he was here in North Dakota, serving as an improvisational emcee at a meeting of several hundred people camped along the Cannonball and Missouri rivers to fight the Dakota Access pipeline, which would travel just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation.

The protest has become a rallying point for Native Americans across the country, and the meeting this month was part planning and part pep rally. Goldtooth's job was to keep it moving. He also kept people giggling.

As Dave Archambault, the imposing chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, stood a few feet away, Goldtooth informed the crowd that organizers of the protest had run out of towels for people who wanted to use the sweat lodge. Not to worry, he reassured them, the chairman himself had volunteered to take his steam bath wearing only a dish cloth.

"For the people," Goldtooth said, feigning tribal solemnity. "For the people."

It was another joke – and it was good enough that even the chairman laughed.

Environmental protests are not inherently funny, nor is the frustration felt by Native Americans over having their land and way of life repeatedly threatened. Yet Goldtooth has become a mainstay at recent indigenous protests.

"Whenever we need an emcee for an event, Dallas is definitely high on the list," said Jane Kleeb, the executive director of Bold Alliance, a nonprofit that fights oil pipelines.

"Sometimes you see large environmental groups thinking they need another cultural values memo written to their staff in order for them to resonate and connect with people," Kleeb added. "Dallas never does focus groups or writes a values memo before he goes out and speaks with people. He can be very serious but also in that same serious moment be very funny. He just has this way of connecting."

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It is a surprisingly elusive skill in this realm. Environmental groups often excel at organizing, pressuring and creating spectacle — boarding oil rigs at sea, blocking railroad tracks and occupying trees. But intimate, persuasive engagement with human beings has not always come naturally – and some of them know it.

Organizations as mammoth as the United Nations and the World Bank have tried to increase awareness of climate change by sponsoring "storytelling" contests. The tiny nonprofit DearTomorrow recently won money from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a project it says will "shift behavior and broaden the climate culture" by asking people "to send open letters about climate change to loved ones in the future." Earthjustice, known for years for filing lawsuits, has asked staff to post "personal stories" about what inspires their work.

Goldtooth does much of his work as part of the 1491s, a sketch comedy group that confronts stereotypes that surround the kind of Americans who were here before the arrival of Columbus.

His motto on Instagram: "Laugh. Love. And live."

Learning from his father, he grew up blending humor, people skills and protest. He and his stepbrother, Migizi Pensoneau, spent their youths traveling to events with Tom Goldtooth, watching him navigate between native and largely white audiences. They had a chance to see how differently Native Americans lived and were perceived in various parts of the country.

Then they would come back home to Bemidji, Minn., and watch Monty Python movies.

Years later, after both boys attended the Native American Preparatory School in New Mexico, they began making short, satirical videos about native themes with a friend, Bobby Wilson. They soon connected with Sterlin Harjo and Ryan Red Corn, who were also making comic videos.

The five were just getting to know one another when they made their first video, "New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions," in 2010. It portrays them trying out for roles in the Twilight film series, doing their best to out-Indian one another.

At one point, Goldtooth's character tells the producer conducting the audition that he cannot be filmed because the camera "may take my soul." When the producer explains that he would not get a role without trying out on camera, Goldtooth quickly changes his mind. "Film away," he says.

The video has been viewed nearly 300,000 times. The 1491s have become a steady act, making dozens of videos, some crass, some cryptic, some laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Their work often mocks stereotypes that have been perpetuated in mainstream culture, high and low, whether the 19th century photographs of Edward Curtis or the 1970's "Billy Jack" movies. Their send-up of Irving Berlin's show tune "I'm an Indian, Too," filmed at the Santa Fe Indian Market, demands repeated viewings.

"The world is so lazy, society is so lazy, that it continuously tries to minimize the complexities of entire cultures and people in the simplest of terms," said Goldtooth, who is also a poet. "Our job is to push back, to make it complex. Don't be afraid to dirty that narrative."

His comedy career developed along with his activism. The long fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have delivered oil from Canada's tar sands into the United States but was rejected by President Obama late last year, brought him fully into the environmental work his father had helped lead for two decades.

"For too long, it's been upper-class, Ivy League-educated white folks who have been on the front lines of press releases and press conferences," Kleeb said. "Dallas represents this whole new generation of people fighting for climate justice, which is very different than saying you're fighting against climate change. For Dallas, that means making sure that sovereignty is protected for tribal nations."

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Goldtooth said saving the planet is serious business but does not require taking himself too seriously.

"At times, I do get angry and I do speak out with passion on certain issues," he said. "But I love to not lose sight of the lightheartedness of the world, to not lose sight of the power of laughter in the work that we do."

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