Indigenous Art Collectives: Environmental and Social Justice Protests Through Artivism and Direct-Action Protest

Cheryl J. Fish

February 07, 2020

The use of expressive, aesthetically stunning art to protest extraction, pipelines, mining, land-grabbing, and exploitation of indigenous homelands in a time of rapid climate and environmental change, creates powerful, emotional forms of resistance. What is known as "artivism" can showcase the emancipatory potential of art that challenges state/corporate infrastructure developments that impact local environmental and social practices. I am interested in how indigenous art collectives share traditional knowledge and illustrate indigenous resilience by creating and sharing art in many parts of the world. I see my role as an ally, a non-indigenous scholar, writer and teacher, sharing and exploring the ways in which alliances are formed for environmental and social justice. Aesthetically striking visual posters, often with text, incorporating traditional knowledge and holistic ways of living with non-human species, attempt to wake up and inform as many people as possible and to make us aware of our interconnections and the exploitation taking place. We each have parts to play in collaborative resistance.

In the past few years, I have written about European infrastructure developments that avoid consent and/or collaboration with the indigenous people of Northern Europe, the Sámi (from Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula of Russia). Indigenous Sámi filmmakers and photographers tell powerful personal stories embedded in place, local knowledge and indigenous history. After two recent trips to Finland while on sabbatical from teaching, I began researching the activist artist (artivist) collective known as Suohpanterror. They made art to raise awareness of a proposed Transarctic railway that would have cut through reindeer herding districts in Arctic Finland and Norway, put reindeer at risk of train collision, and sped up Arctic development and resource extraction. Using poster art, performance and direct-action protest against a railroad proposed from Rovaniemi, Finland to Kirkenes, Norway,Suohpanterror used mimicry, parody, camp, memes, street art, animation, cultural jamming, with familiar iconography (in English, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Sámi) from social-justice movements as well as from advertising. They have a powerful presence on social media that helps raise awareness and combines public protest through art with direct-action non-violent protest and performance, such as moratoria, that crosses the line between art and activism.

The Sami version of the American "We Can Do It!" poster, signifies Sami feminism and self-determination. According to Suohpanterror spokesperson, Jenni Laiti, Suohpangiehta means "lasso arm" or the arm used to lasso reindeer at certain times of the year. Source: https://we-make-money-not-art.com/suohpanterror/.

Source:Greenpeace Canada.

The Arctic Railroad project made headlines on May 9, 2019, when businessman Peter Vesterbacka said the track would be built with private funding to create infrastructure and easier access for goods from China to ports in melting Arctic waterways. Suohpanterror had staged protests in the north of Finland in five locations on September 4-8, 2018, along with an indigenous youth group, Suoma Sámi Nuorat. They received transnational support from the Canadian First Nations tribal members, including the deputy grand chief of the Cree Nation in Quebec, and from the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Manitoba, as well as Maori from New Zealand, and Greenpeace. Sámi parliaments had already spoken out against the project. "No Consent, No Access" has been one of Suohpanterror's messages as Sámi communities have not been consulted in land rights or infrastructure policy decisions, or are only considered after a deal is done. As Jenni Laiti, Sámi activist artist and media rep for Suohpanterror, put it: "We defend our country and our climate by saying no to an industrial track that would spoil our country, destroy the conditions of life in the Sámi region and accelerate climate change."

In response to such proposals, Suohpanterror created poster art that explained their position and resistance, including one that said: "Things Are Not Always What They Seem: The REINDEER Isn't Crossing the Railway. The Railway is Crossing the Forest." Here, they reverse the language of development (using a literary trope known as chiasmus) by suggesting the agency of animals and plants as a fundamental right. Supporters of the railroad, on the other hand, emphasize competitiveness in business and enabling future growth. This shift evokes a movement in Chile by indigenous people, citizens, and environmental activists to look at granting legal rights — a form of legal personhood — to the nation's rivers. This campaign is not occurring in isolation, however, and is taking inspiration from other countries where a small but growing number of courts and legislatures have begun bestowing legal rights upon rivers. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to acknowledge nature as a rights holder within its constitution.1

Source: Suohpanterror's Facebook page.

The remarkable synergy and collaboration seen at the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, which brought together individuals from more than 100 indigenous peoples (including the Sámi) as well as non-indigenous Americans, prompts the question of whether other protest movements involving indigenous people and their supporters can re-create the same dynamic. How can social protest movements convey Sámi political stakes within Europe and beyond which often overlap with concerns of Indigenous persons and other marginalized ethnic groups in the Global North and South? Surely social media and eco-media (non-print media concerned with environmental justice) can help spread the word and perhaps spur us to action, coalition building, and empathy.

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I encountered two other important forms of artivism that share similarities with the work of Suohpanterror. The first was Amapolay, (a name distilled from "autonomous manufacturers") a graphic arts collective founded by Fernando Castro and Carol Fernandez-Tinoco, based in Lima, Peru. They were featured in a powerful exhibit at The Museum of International Folk Art in their "Gallery of Conscience." Amapolay also ran a workshop in screen printing at the Santa Fe railyard district and I met Castro there. The collective promotes graphic resistance to exploitation of indigenous persons in Peru and Native communities in South America and wants to recognize and create self-sustaining workshops and factories. "Our work uses traditional color palette and methods, but we have expanded our themes," says Castro. "We use our folk-art tradition to raise awareness of issues affecting our communities." One side is aesthetic, but the other is struggle and resilience. They used street prints in the run-up to the 2016 election of Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori and used them again in 2018 to protest his pardon. They also created posters "Pueblos Originarios en Resistance" (First Peoples in Resistance) emphasizing "The earth for those who work it." In 2015, they participated in Monsanto Out of Peru" protests and created poster art to benefit forest communities. In Peru, indigenous rights groups have focused their efforts on protesting oil company intrusions and demanding government recognition of their territorial rights. Arts collectives have a rich history in Latin American countries, for instance Mujeres Custodias make murals in Quito representing the commons protected by indigenous women as a protest against mining projects, and from laws threatening food sovereignty and ancestral culture. The colorful posters use agrarian themes and a raised fist.

Poster art by Amapolay, from the Museum of International Folks Art, in Sante Fe, NM. Source: Cheryl J. Fish.

The second form of artivism I encountered in Sante Fe was an expansion of the exhibit "Entering Standing Rock: The Protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline" which opened at the Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque in March, 2017, to showcase the work of photographers, graphic artists, musicians, activists and organizations. The expansion I viewed at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC), "Beyond Standing Rock," (closed October 27, 2019), was curated by C.L. Kieffer Nail of MIAC and Devorah Romanek of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. The show included new artwork inspired by the events that happened at Standing Rock.2 The poster for the show (the museum does not allow photography inside the exhibit) was called "No Spiritual Surrender" by Zoe Urness (Tlingit). The photo was taken on Dec. 5, 2016, outside Cannon Bull, ND, at the edge of Standing Rock Reservation, and includes military veterans marching in support of the water protectors. The juxtapositions of oxygen masks and military clothing, an American flag, unfurled, held upright as the protestors walk over snow amidst a storm, suggests that this protest is a battle on many fronts and that protection is a powerful force, and also signifies that Native Americans who served in the U.S military cannot support oil and gas pipelines that disrupt life and sustainability.

Poster for exhibit at The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe. Source: Cheryl J. Fish.

Visual images that tell stories from indigenous perspectives can offer more holistic understandings of the world and ask us to reconsider how we comprehend historical contexts and power structures, and to consider diverse forms of identity and expression. According to a report on Climate Change and Indigenous people put out by the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2016, tribes across the U.S. are feeling the impact of the loss of traditional knowledge as well as the loss of land and water security. Artivism conveys some of those losses and encourages solidarity to anyone who pays attention.

Cheryl J. Fish is Professor of English, Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York, and Docent Lecturer, Dept. of Cultures, University of Helsinki. Follow her on twitter at cheryljoyfish.

  1. Anna Leah Tabios Hillebrecht and Maria Valeria Berros, ed., "Can Nature Have Rights? Legal and Political Insights," RCC Perspectives, 6, 2017. 

  2. C.L. Kieffer Nail and Devorah Romanek, "Gone But Not Conquered," El Palacio: Art, History and Culture of the Southwest, Spring 2019, 24. 


Cheryl J. Fish, "Indigenous Art Collectives: Environmental and Social Justice Protests Through Artivism and Direct-Action Protest," Enviro-History.com, February 07, 2020, http://Enviro-History.com/artivism.html.