The Story of Colonialism and Climate Change Told Through Centuries of Indigenous Artworks

Two exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum explore Native perceptions of nature and themselves.

Installation view, Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks

Brooklyn Museum

When preparing his exhibit Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks for the Brooklyn Museum, artist Jeffrey Gibson encountered a bronze sculpture, languishing behind the museum next to the parking lot, of a man slumped atop a bone-thin horse. The sculpture, Charles Cary Rumsey’s The Dying Indian (circa 1904), is one of several pieces from the turn of the last century meant to represent the decline of Native American tribes.

Through much of his own work, Gibson, who is of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, examines and reimagines historical, and often patronizing, depictions of Indigenous people. For his exhibit, which runs through January 10, the artist brought the sculpture indoors and presented its subject in a more heroic light. The man now rides before a brightly colored mural riffing on Native American motifs and a lively engraving of a bison hunt. On his feet the rider wears a new pair of moccasins, hand-beaded by Pawnee-Cree artist John Murie. Inscribed within the beading are words from a Roberta Flack song: I’m gonna run with every minute I can borrow.

Next door in the museum’s Art in the Americas galleries is another exhibit, one that explores the relationship between nature and Indigenous artists, past and present, and the environmental destruction European colonialism has fueled in North, Central, and South America over centuries. The more contemporary pieces in Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas, on view until June 20, comment directly on climate change and its devastating impacts on Indigenous communities from the Arctic to the Amazon.

Alaska Native artist. Engraved Whale Tooth, late 19th century. Sperm whale tooth, black ash or graphite, oil, 6 1/2 × 3 × 2 in. (16.5 × 7.6 × 5.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum; gift of Robert B. Woodward, 20.895. Creative Commons-BY.

Brooklyn Museum

Curator Nancy Rosoff recalls “the constant barrage of news from Brazil about the fires in the Amazonian jungle, along with reports about the increasing temperature in the Arctic and the melting of the Arctic ice,” when she started organizing the exhibit in the summer of 2019. Her team drew upon the Brooklyn Museum’s extensive collection of Indigenous art, which, with more than 35,000 pieces, is one of the largest in the country. The 60-plus artworks chosen for the exhibit span 2,800 years, ranging from a 500–200 BCE Chavin ceramic figurine of a priest in a jaguar headdress holding a San Pedro cactus, from the area that is now Peru, to an engraved 19th-century sperm whale tooth depicting Native Alaskan hunting and fishing scenes, to a 1960s Tembé ceremonial feathered headdress for girls from Brazil that has rarely appeared on exhibit since its acquisition by the museum. Each piece illustrates a profound cultural relationship with the natural world, one that stands in stark contrast to that of colonialism. “We had all these masterpieces, and this gave us an opportunity to let people look at them closely and think about this really important message of climate change and environmental justice.”

Gina Adams, from Broken Treaty Quilts series, 2019. Hand-cut calico letters on antique quilt, 74 × 79 in.

Accola Griefen Fine Art

Hanging on a wall, a large quilt by contemporary artist Gina Adams, who traces her heritage to both Ojibwe and Colonial Americans, offers a pointed rebuke of how the U.S. government treated the land and its Indigenous inhabitants. From her Broken Treaty Quilts series, the piece calls out the Dawes Act of 1887, which broke up tribal lands into small, private plots, offering American citizenship to tribal members in exchange. On an antique quilt from the time, Adams hand-sewed the words of the declaration in colorful fabric letters. The act resulted in reservations losing staggering amounts of land to homesteaders and helped precipitate the western migration of American colonists. “Before the Dawes Act, Native Americans were stewards of the land,” she says. “There was no over-farming, cattle grazing, barbed wire, or extraction of water, oil, gas, or gold.”

Organized by region, the exhibit presents the artworks alongside the geography of individual tribes. Hopi and Zuni artworks—including the museum’s famed collection of 19th-century Kachina dolls by She-we-na artists—are displayed beside a wall description that references the controversy over Bears Ears, an ancestral homeland to the Pueblo people of what is now southeastern Utah. “We’re trying to show how objects in our permanent collection—and the artists who made them—connect to issues that concern people today,” Rosoff says. In 2016, President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument to honor its 100,000 archeological sites and its continued importance to the region’s tribes. The following year, however, his successor, Donald Trump, shrank the monument’s size by roughly 85 percent to enable mining and drilling on these sacred lands.

Gail Tremblay, When Ice Stretched On for Miles, 2017. 16mm film, white leader, gold and silver braid

Brooklyn Museum

“We’re destroying the things that make life possible and beautiful,” says Onondaga-Micmac artist and poet Gail Tremblay, who applies traditional weaving techniques to nontraditional materials. Her contribution, When Ice Stretched On for Miles, is a basket handwoven with 16-millimeter celluloid film footage of a 1967 ethnographic documentary about the Netsilik Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. Not lost on the artist is the irony that the filmmakers staged scenes in which the Inuit reenacted a way of life their ancestors had experienced decades earlier but one they could no longer fully pursue. “Plants are dying, animals are dying, all kinds of things are out of balance,” Tremblay says. “I try to address these issues in my work because people do need to think about them.”

Installation view, Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas. Right: Tailyr Irvine, photograph from Standing Rock: Framing a Movement, 2016. Left: Teri Greeves, 21st Century Traditional: Beaded Tipi, 2010.

Brooklyn Museum

At the entry to the exhibition, a beaded tipi by Kiowa artist Teri Greeves stands in juxtaposition to a 2016 image of a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline and its path across the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, taken by Salish and Kootenai photographer Tailyr Irvine. Greeves’s tipi depicts lighthearted scenes of contemporary Indigenous life—a drummers’ circle, a woman in traditional dress walking with a toddler in a T-shirt—together with more mythic imagery overhead of a sunburst, a spider, and a snake. Based in Santa Fe, the artist sees the tipi as the perfect symbol of the ability of Native societies to live as one with their environment. “I’ve seen tipis hold their own in 50-mile gusts,” she says. What’s more, she says, tipis were traditionally sewn of buffalo hides, a gift from nature that was never taken for granted. “For Native people, this world is us, and you can’t just use it up,” Greeves says. “You can call it environmentalism, or whatever you want. It is how we have always viewed the world.”

Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until June 20, 2021. The exhibit Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks, runs until January 10, 2021. stories are available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the story was originally published by and link to the original; the story cannot be edited (beyond simple things such as time and place elements, style, and grammar); you can’t resell the story in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select stories individually; you can't republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our stories.


From saguaros to sacred waters, the writers weave their personal relationships to the environment with the ancestral.


Long after the age of fossil fuels has drawn to a close, a Cherokee teenager attending an elite tribal school puts the last ghosts of coal and oil to rest. A story that retells the experiences of those who lived through the tumultuous transition away from fossil fuels, published by Fix, Grist’s solutions lab, with support from NRDC.


Southeast Sider Luis Cabrales is fighting to deconstruct colonial thinking about nature and empower other Latino youth to work in conservation.


Matriarch Lana Jack continues a decades-long fight for federal recognition of her band—and the right to continue living on the lands of her ancestors.


Four writers explore their place on our troubled planet and treat us to readings of their poems.


On her new album, indie-pop artist Tamara Lindeman explores the complicated ways that climate change is changing . . . us.

Latest News

She would be the first Native American to run a Cabinet-level agency. And this agency, in particular, needs someone like Congresswoman Haaland to run it.


Watch these wax sculptures melt under the Florida sun to reveal important messages about climate change.

Western Dispatch

Thirty years ago, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes led the effort to save Snake River sockeye salmon from extinction. Today, they’re still fighting for the fish’s survival—along with their own.

onEarth Story

Princeton is displaying iconic paintings, photography, and furniture in a new light (and it’s not always flattering).


How Governor Stitt teamed up with the head of the EPA to keep tribes from regulating fracking and industrial pollution on their own lands.


Allan Saganash Jr. grew up in the bush, living off the land—then watched as industry shrank and changed his beloved boreal forest home. He’s determined to save what’s left.


The scientific community is starting to confront internal biases that support social stratification, hinder international cooperation, and—sometimes—impair research.


Writer, editor, teacher, and podcast host Mary Annaïse Heglar uses the art of storytelling to help people feel less alone in facing the climate crisis—and to build the movement for climate justice.

Madagascar deforestation
Latest News

Food insecurity, biodiversity collapse, and skyrocketing global temps loom. But a new U.N. report says we have the tools to fix it.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.