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Indigenous Artists and Climate Change

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

National Nordic Museum, 2655 NW Market St 98107, ph: 206.789.5707 Hours: Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; Admission: varies by age, see website; FREE on first Thursdays

“Arctic Highways” by Meryl McMaster (b. 1988) What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth II, 2019 (in the series “As immense as the Sky”) Print on aluminum

Finally, museums are offering us exhibitions that directly address climate change. “Arctic Highways” at the National Nordic Museum, until November 26, features twelve Indigenous artists from the circumpolar North (Sápmi, Canada, and Alaska) who address “the silent and the silenced knowledge” of their Sámi culture. The Museum of History and Industry ( MOHAI), until March 3, 2024 , features an interactive exhibition “Roots of Wisdom: Native Knowledge, Shared Science” developed by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Entirely interactive, it reaches out specifically to ages 12 – 14, but anyone can enjoy it.


“Arctic Highways” emphasizes common themes and shared concerns among Nordic cultures, beyond the artificial borders of nations. It began as an artist residency in Granö, Sweden and has now grown into a traveling exhibition and a book. The artists boldly experiment with a wide range of media, from traditional crafts to video art.


The idea of “arctic highways” creates connections between cultures: “Highways that are cultural and spiritual, real and thriving – but as invisible as the system of national borders that have imposed their rigidness and weight upon us, pitilessly trying to nullify the free flow of ideas and identity connecting our souls.” (museum label)


Several of the artists are from traditional reindeer herding families. They are acutely aware of the changes caused by warming weather, as well as alternative sources of energy filling open space. Wind turbines severely disrupt the grazing land of reindeer and melting snow alters migration and herding rhythms.

Maureen Gruben (b. 1963), Aidainnaqduanni, Aurora, 2020. Print on aluminum

Maureen Gruber’s striking photograph of three polar bear skins hanging on an abandoned survey tripod, looks like polar bears are climbing the tripods, then it becomes frighteningly clear that they are only skins.


Perhaps the most dramatic photograph in the exhibition is Meryl McMaster’s What Will I Say to the Sky and the Earth II, 2019 (in the series “As Immense as the Sky”): the artist stands against an Arctic landscape, wearing a protective coat with insects embedded. She states “Among the coastal ice flows of Lake Erie, I am covered by various insect species—members of a poorly understood and very important class of lifeforms. There are millions of insect species that are unknown to us but play an important role in maintaining ecological equilibrium. To me they represent the fragile, harmonious balance that we are a part of and that we must take care to protect. Their silence is a warning that we are falling into a disharmonious condition.”


Works by Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Tomas Colbengston address the subject of Church boarding schools in Alaska and Sweden that stripped children of their Indigenous Sámi culture. Kelliher-Combs’s Credible, Small Secrets, consists of 35 finger sized sculptures referencing abuse with human hair, nylon thread, glass beads, and steel pins. Each one refers to a village with credible reports of abuse. Colbengston’s painting is based on a photograph of a boarding school with the children lined up in front.


These artists of the polar North witness change every day, as ice melts, temperatures rise, and animals and humans must change centuries old habits. The show is poignant, but also triumphant because the artists are both witnessing and resisting change.

“Roots of Wisdom: Native Knowledge, Shared Science” Building a Healthy River courtesy of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

MOHAI, 860 Terry Ave N 98109, ph: 206.324.1126 Hours: Tues-Sun 10am–5pm; Admission varies by age see website; FREE First Thursdays 5-8pm

Down on Lake Union at MOHAI “Roots of Wisdom: Native Knowledge, Shared Science” features interactive displays, created in consultation with contemporary tribal members. Each display highlights a different theme and tribe: “Reestablishing a Native Plant” (Eastern Band of Cherokees), “Restoring Fishponds,” (Hawaii), “Rediscovering Traditional Foods,” (Tulalip) and “Saving Streams and Wildlife” (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation). We can learn how to build a fishpond in Hawaii and or help preserve an ancient fish. The Lamprey, less glamorous than salmon, also suffer from the dams on the Columbia River. We can restore a river or learn why cane is better than grass near a river. We can weave a basket as we listen to traditional elders speak about caring for the land.

The MOHAI exhibit makes each pairing of contemporary science and indigenous knowledge easy to remember. Most striking perhaps was the section on “biopiracy” in which the question of patenting seeds is raised, a big issue in today’s world. “Native Origins” suggests all the everyday products we use, like popcorn, that originally were created by Indigenous peoples.

We are fortunate to have both of these shows featuring Indigenous creative ideas that suggest a few ways to survive on the planet.

Another interesting exhibit:

M Rosetta Hunter Gallery at Seattle Community College, 1701 Broadway (inside the building) Hours: Mon-Thur 10am-3pm

This Fall at the M. Rosetta Hunter Gallery at Seattle Central College, the exhibition “Lush Computation” explores digital and algorithmic aesthetics. September 26–November 16, 2023. Curated by the exciting artist and director of the gallery, Meghan Trainor, “Lush Computation” explores the idea of resisting AI as these artists manipulate digital aesthetics, rather than using AI generated ideas.


~Susan Platt, PhD www.artandpoliticsnow.com


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