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Indigenous People Protest Climate Change at the British Museum

Ahead of the COP26 summit that is being held in the UK in November, indigenous leaders decided to stage an unauthorised healing ceremony in London to focus attention on what they called centuries of ‘injustice and oppression’ around the world. The protest was held by a group of leaders from indigenous communities from various parts of the globe along with COP26 Coalition inside the British Museum. COP26 Coalition is an informal association of climate justice activists from around the world that saw plenty of common ground with the group of indigenous leaders. It is understood that COP26 Coalition will also be gathering at the climate conference in Glasgow to demand that politicians and global leaders see the fight against climate change within the context of historical, institutional and systemic injustice, some of which is still ongoing.

In late October, the Minga Indígena COP26 collective of indigenous leaders led a group of activists – as well as ordinary visitors to the British Museum – through some of the instituion’s galleries to highlight what it saw as systemic global oppression. One of the group, Panchita Calfin, who is an elder from the indigenous Mapuche nation – in what is modern Chile – held a healing ceremony inside the museum. The British Museum did not authorise the ceremony which sought to acknowledge and draw attention to much of the injustice former colonial powers, like Britain, have caused around the world.

Perhaps understandably, the Americas section of the museum was chosen as a suitable location for Calfin’s unsanctioned healing ceremony. As the ceremony unfolded, those present were surrounded by cabinets of objects taken from the area, sometimes without permission, many of them symbols of European power in South America. During the unauthorised event, several galleries in the British Museum were splashed with water that had been brought to the UK from the Andes mountain range.

Symbolism

In an act of symbolism, the healing ceremony was begun in front of the moai statue of Hoa Hakananai’a, originally from Easter Island in the Pacific. The statue, which is regarded as one of the finest examples of sculpture in the culture of the region, was removed from its location by the crew of a British ship in 1868. The ownership of the moai has been in dispute ever since. Indeed, in recent years, the people on Rapa Nui formally contacted the British Museum to demand the return of the famous statue. Although the museum’s authorities acknowledge that the restitution of the statue is part of a wider struggle among islanders to strengthen their identity, the disputed statue remains in the possession of the museum with no sign of it being returned anytime soon.

Given that many people from around the world have travelled to the UK ahead of the UN COP26 conference, it probably did not come as much surprise to the British Museum that it, too, would be targetted by some form of protest at this time. It is understood that the Minga Indígena COP26 group of indigenous leaders and representatives will also make their way to Scotland along with hundreds, if not thousands, of global climate activists. Of course, for many indigenous people from delicately balanced ecosystems and islands which are at the mercy of rising sea levels, historical justice for colonialism and the fight for the survival of their cultures in the face of environmental change go hand in hand. For many, ecological justice and the acknowledgement of historical wrongdoing are two sides of the same coin.

Marginalisation

The lead coordinator of the Minga Indígena COP26 group, Calfin Lafkenche, said that indigenous communities have been marginalised throughout the history of the last few hundred years. “They have a right to be a part of the discussion,” he said. Lafkenche, who is also from Chile, went on to say that the current climate negotiations are not taking into account the needs of indigenous people enough. Speaking at the unauthorised intervention, he said that it was institutions like the Brtish Museum where the spirits of his peoples had been imprisoned. “For years, we have been asking for these artefacts to be returned,” he said, before adding that he considered climate justice to be a question of racial justice, too.

Nashieeli Valencia, from Zapoteca people in modern-day Mexico, was also in attendance. She said that she had come to the British Museum to speak about peace but to also demand justice. “It has been our communities and indigenous peoples who have had to pay… [for historical failings],” she said. Valencia went on to say that it was important that the negotiations between the world’s biggest powers at the summit did not exclude indigenous peoples.

Farhana Yamin, a climate lawyer and negotiator, echoed Valencia’s remarks. Speaking at the British Museum’s great court to journalists, she said that the entire building of the museum represented a vast injustice that has not yet been sufficiently acknowledged. “At COP26, we have a great opportunity to recognise the harm that has already been done,” she said. However, Yamin also warned that her experiences of similar summits in the past meant that this one needed to show the desire for change. “Richer countries have sidelined poorer ones before, shutting them out of the process,” she said. “The green transition [being negotiated at COP26]…must not repeat the mistakes of the past,” she added.

This is not the first time representatives of indigenous peoples and climate activists have focussed their attention on the British Museum. The museum has a sponsorship deal with the oil and gas giant, BP. According to recent reports, BP has paid former intelligence officers to infiltrate and spy on activist groups. Thus far, the British Museum has not revealed the exact extent of its financial relationship with the company.

Interested in how museums can respond to the climate crisis? Join us for the Green Museums Summit in March 2022.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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