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Responsibility in Art Activism

Written by Jessica Engelking and Graphics by Tobias-Ana Soudaly-Espinosa

It has been brought to our attention that one or more of the women involved in the Muscatine parade incident are claiming to have Indigenous ancestry. They are claiming that they carried out this racist act to show the historic mistreatment of Native people that isn’t being taught in our schools. First, we are in agreement about the need to teach the entire truth of our history in schools, so much so that we have an entire campaign devoted to this work. This is work we’re particularly proud of because it is a primarily youth-led initiative. However, what happened in Muscatine was not an acceptable or appropriate way of getting this message across–if that was their goal. Even well-intentioned activism, if not done in a good way, can cause harm. This was not done in a good way.

We at GPAS have been vocal about the problems caused by people with claims of Indigenous ancestry assuming that suffices for Indigenous identity. A large part of the problem stems from people treating Indigenous identity as an entitlement to do or receive things they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed. Being

Indigenous does not allow people to dress in tacky Spirit Halloween Pocahontas costumes. Being Indigenous doesn’t excuse causing harm by perpetuating dehumanizing imagery. Even if we grant that one of these women are Indigenous, they are definitely white-coded Indigenous people. That means that when people look at them, they see white women and the optics that result from this are bad. When doing genuine, meaningful art activism, you absolutely have to consider the optics as how your art is seen and interpreted is crucial to the success of your art. Literally no one looked at them and thought that they were seeing Indigenous people protesting the anti-CRT laws. It just looked like pure, unabashed racism.

For the sake of being thorough, let’s imagine that these were Native-coded women. Would their performance, done as it was, be an acceptable form of protest? The answer is still no. The way they presented themselves provided zero context to clarify their intent. There was no signage, no messaging at all. In fact, if these were Indigenous Peoples carrying out an action, why are they not letting the public know their tribal affiliation for the sake of legitimizing their action? It failed as art to convey the message intended and instead projected an image of colonial violence that itself felt violent. This was not done in a good way, with community consequences given serious thought and consideration.

It’s worth noting that as a result of this widely publicized stunt, we have spoken out about the correlation between violent, hypersexualized imagery of Native women and the ongoing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. I guess if that was their intent, they got their result. But benefiting from the labor we’ve had to do to address this mess should not be taken as an end that justified a means. Native people and Indigenous organizations are not your instruments.

To provide an example of how the good intent behind an act of art activism is insufficient to make that act appropriate, consider this instance from 2019. Environmental group Bold Iowa staged a performance in

which people stood on blocks of ice with nooses around their neck. Their aim was to draw attention to the current climate crisis. The performance was based on one done in Germany. The idea is that as the ice block melts, it represents the melting of the ice caps and the deaths that will result. The intention was good, the message is important, yet this stunt by Bold Iowa was a horrible mistake that never should have happened.

The imagery of the noose hits differently in the U.S., given our ongoing legacy of lynching. The optics were absolutely awful and no amount of good intention makes that particular piece of performance art ok for them to have performed. To their credit, Bold Iowa immediately admitted the error of their ways and were quick to apologize. Their mistake is a good example of just how much thought must go into art activism. When art activism is done incorrectly, it isn’t just a matter of a failed work of art, art that inadvertently harms people is just that, harmful. We owe it to our communities to do whatever we can to prevent their harm.

If you are interested in learning more about the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, please check out the work we do with our MMIR campaign. If you’d like to support our ongoing efforts to fight anti-CRT education laws in Iowa (and look good while you’re at it) please consider purchasing one of our The Truth Will Not Be Whitewashed t-shirts, made in collaboration with Humanize My Hoodie.

While this situation brought up a lot of anger and frustration, it has been heartening to have experienced the support we have and we look forward to moving closer to justice.

1 Comment

DecorahUU Contact
DecorahUU Contact
Aug 11, 2023

Hello from Decorah. Thank you for your concise explanation of how even well intended actions can cause harm. As a white person, when I want to support Indigenous causes, I need to listen to and follow the lead of Indigenous people and organizations like Great Plains Action.

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