Who Owns the Earth, Who Owns the Water

Updated: Oct 18, 2018

By Jørgen Brynhildsvoll.

"Who owns the earth and who owns the water? A couple of generations ago, It was unthinkable to raise these questions. Of course no one owns the earth, we are merely a part of the earth. But you can’t think like that today. Today you have to fight for the rights." [1]

- Niillas A. Somby, activist for sàmi rights

Tapestries with Sámi motifs by the Swedish textile artist Britta Marakatt-Labba were displayed at Documenta 14 in 2017. Historja, 2007. Photo: Public Art Norway / Cathrine Wang

In 1968, the Norwegian parliament voted to hydroelectrify the Alta river, the longest watercourses in Norway’s largest and northernmost county, Finnmark. This is the land of the Sámi, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. The series of protests and demonstrations that followed throughout the 70s started as environmental activism, but became more of a question of the rights of this indigenous people. This historical event is crucial to a current resurgence of the Sámi contemporary art scene.

Since the middle of the 19th Century, the Norwegian state had waged a campaign of integration and assimilation of the Sámi – later named Norwegianization. These official policies had religious motivations: The shamanistic Sámi religion had aspects of animism and polytheism that didn’t sit well with the Lutheran Church of Norway. Sámi language was banned from schools. Ceremonies regarded as pagan, like the ceremonial songs joik, were prohibited. People who spoke only sami, and not Norwegian, were prohibited by law from buying land.

With the damming of the Alta river, Sámi villages would be flooded, and salmon fishing would be impacted. During the protests, young progressive people would flock to Stilla in Finnmark. The site looked like a festival camp, with live music and hippie aesthetics in combination with civil disobedience. The protestors were also joined by prominent academics, like sociologist Nils Christie and philosopher Arne Næss, who coined the relevant term deep ecology.

The Western and Christian ontology is anthropocentric: mankind is at the center of the universe, and everything in the natural world exists merely in relationship to us. The Sámi, however, have always regarded man as an integrated part of nature, equal to animals, plants, rocks and rivers. Deep ecology criticizes how we consider ourselves separate from the universe. Arne Næss writes “Now is the time to share with all life on our maltreated earth through the deepening identification with life forms and the greater units, the ecosystems, and Gaia, the fabulous, old planet of ours”[2]. This deep ecology permeates Sámi culture and art.

The hunger strike of 1979 brought a lot of attention to the Sámi cause. Artist Synnøve Persen sits to the right. Photo: Erik Thorberg/NTB Scanpix/Stortinget

In 1979, following the demonstrations in Stilla, a group of hunger strikers put up a lavvo – a Sámi tent – in front of the parliament in Oslo to protest the dam. The tent, a powerful visual symbol, was torn down by the police and re-erected by the protesters several times. One of the strikers was artist Synnøve Persen. “What really struck back in the 70s was this huge force that the assimilation policies of the 50s and 60s had induced. There was a built up fury, not only in me, but in a large group of my peers” she says in a TV-documentary about the Alta conflict [3]. The hunger strike received a lot of attention. The Alta controversies became, in fact, a true turning point for the awareness of Sámi culture and rights among Norwegians.

Synnøve Persen’s Sami Flag Project at Tråante 2017. The paintings were also displayed at Documenta. Photo: Arne Skaug Olsen

Today, the sami art scene is more vital than ever. Last year, Synnøve Persen was one of six Sámi artists represented at Documenta – arguably one of the most influential art contemporary art exhibitions in the world. In September of 2018, she received the honorary award of the Arts Council Norway, “for her efforts to lift sami art, language and identity.”[4]

Other events also made 2017 an important milestone for sami art. The Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) had a full year’s program called A year of indigenous art and thought [5]. An art biannual in Northern Norway, the Lofoten international art festival (LIAF), also addressed questions of Sámi identity in its 2017 edition. The curators wanted to assess how forceful integration has affected the sami people [6]. Additionally, an exhibiton of modern Sámi art expressions was held in Trondheim as part of Tråante 2017, the 100th year anniversary of the first Sámi congress.

Máret Ánne Sara’s Pile o’ Sápmi displayed at Neue Neue Gallerie in Kassel during Documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke

One of the artworks in the OCA and Documenta programs was Máret Ánne Sara’s work Pile o’ Sápmi, Sápmi being the cultural region of the Sámi. This artwork is truly in the spirit of both deep ecology and the Alta river protests. Sara’s brother, a reindeer herder, was forced by the state to reduce his flock to 75 animals. Sara collected the heads of forcefully slaughtered reindeer, and arranged them in a morbid curtain. The work was shown in front of the Norwegian parliament in connection to her brother’s court trial, at the exact same spot where Synnøve Persen and six others had their hunger strike 38 years earlier. It is hard to imagine the prominent new position of Sámi art without such a pivotal historical event as the Alta conflict.


[1] Amundsen, Birger. “Svart hånd, hvit snø” in Radiodokumentaren. NRK, 1996.

[2] Næss, Arne. “Self-realization. An Ecological Approach to Bein in the World” in Drengson A. (ed.) The Selected Works of Arne Naess. 2005.

[3] Olsen, Per Kristian. “Vendepunktet - miljøkampen som ble en urfolksak”, tv documentar. NRK, 2011.

[4] Arts Council Norway. “Synnøve Persen tildeles Kulturrådets ærespris 2018”. Published September 25 2018. Read October 12. 2018. https://www.kulturradet.no/aeresprisen/vis-artikkel/-/synnove-persen-tildeles-kulturradets-aerespris-2018

[5] Arne Skaug Olsen. “Den lange harde kalde kampen” in Kunstkritikk.no. Published February 12 2017. Read October 12 2017.

[6] Susanne Christensen. “En ny fremtid” in Rød, Arve and Nergaard, Ketil (eds.) Norsk kunstårbok 2018. Pax Forlag, Oslo, 2018.