MEG exhibition on indigenous rights and environmental justice runs until Sunday

Anishinaabeg researcher and artist, Elizabeth LaPensée, created an iPad game inspired from healing songs from her indigenous community. (Credit: MEG)

The Geneva Ethnography Museum (MEG) mixes history, artistic expression and activism to retell the story of indigenous peoples’ struggle for their rights, with Geneva as one of the battlegrounds. The exhibition is open to the public until Sunday 21 August.

As visitors walk into the somber exhibition room of the MEG, a number of old documents are displayed to the right side, enclosed in a glass cabinet. One of the black and white photos inside depicts Cayuga Chief Deskaheh of the Iroquois nation standing outside the Palais de l’Athénée when he first came to Geneva in 1923. He hoped to address the League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, but his petition was refused by the peacekeeping organisation, marking the beginning of a century-long uphill battle for the recognition of indigenous rights.

Ninety-nine years later, Geneva continues to be at the heart of the ongoing struggle. Through its exhibition on environmental justice, which opened in September 2021 and is on display until August 2022, the MEG showcases the work of indigenous artists to show that while they are the worst threatened by environmental degradation and climate change, they also hold immense potential for tackling these issues regularly discussed in Geneva’s multilateral fora.

The most vulnerable yet the safekeepers of the planet

In one of the first rooms, the soothing singing of Anishinaabeg women from North America can be heard in the background. The words sound foreign for those who don’t speak the language, but they are meant to heal water from pollution and other harms. The artist, Elizabeth LaPensée, Anishinaabeg herself and a researcher at the University of Michigan, turned one of her community’s traditional songs into a game, showing how indigenous knowledge can be shared with everyone through modern technology.

“It was important for us to show that traditional knowledge on how to take care of land, how to be responsible towards natural resources, not thinking that humans are superior to natural resources and to non human beings, can be conveyed through artistic practice,” Carine Ayelé Durand, chief curator at the MEG and incoming interim director, told Geneva Solutions.

Indigenous peoples make up six per cent of the global population, yet they safeguard 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Their knowledge has been increasingly recognised as a key tool to fight off climate change, with UN agencies publishing a growing number of reports and studies on their traditional practices.

But indigenous groups are also the most vulnerable in the world when it comes to climate change and the degradation of nature. “While indigenous peoples are good at preserving their lands, they're confronted with huge pressure from the exploitation of natural resources, from illegal logging, to oil and gas extraction, to the building of electric dams,” said Durand.

In 2007, the UN adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a landmark document that recognises among others their right to self-determination and to control their ancestral lands. The document was drafted in Geneva.

“​​The city of Geneva is considered today by many indigenous peoples as their home,” Durand noted. However, she warned that despite the appreciation that many convey towards the city, there is also a sense of frustration.

“The process has been long and it is certainly not finished. Some indigenous peoples may even say that even if they now have rights, what about the implementation of these rights?” she added.

(Credit: MEG)

Another section of the exhibition entitled “Crisis” has a more distressing mood, casting a light on what happens when indigenous peoples’ right to free, informed and prior consent is not upheld by governments. 

Through her poignant poetry, Marshallese performance artist Kathy Jetñil-Kijinerf addresses the legacy of the nuclear tests conducted by the United States in her home island 70 years ago, now compounded by the rise of sea levels caused by climate change. 

Read also: The Marshall Islands 'fight for survival' in Geneva 

Sami journalist Máret Ánne Sara denounces the massive reindeer slaughtering ordered by the Norwegian government in 2012 with macabre photographs of hundreds of decapitated heads of reindeer stacked up in a pyramid.

“One of the objectives is to raise awareness about what has happened, the way people remember and many still live with the consequences of those events,” Durand said. 

Bridging the gap with International Geneva

The MEG doesn’t just address one of the issues close to international Geneva’s heart. It also worked closely with some of its key organisations to put it together. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) helped organise interviews with indigenous activists, which can be viewed throughout the exhibition.

According to Durand, the museum has also worked closely with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) as part of their effort to decolonise their practices, an issue particularly touchy for ethnographic institutions.

“So far, the museum and entities like ours are the owners of these collections, and we manage them as we want,” she said.

“We are interested in what we call shared collection management, which is how to take care of collections in collaboration with the communities related to these collections and we know that international Geneva can help us get there.”

As part of the exhibition, which will be open to the public until 21 August, a number of online and in-person events will be held throughout the coming months, from animations for children, to film screenings, to zoom encounters with the artists, to a workshop to build one’s own instrument.