Onaman Collective Puts Art Into Resistance

Three First Nations artists have created the Onaman Collective to combine art, activism and Ojibwe traditional knowledge.

“Oh yeah, I did some of those doodles and people freaked out,” said Isaac Murdoch in a typical display of understatement.

His doodles, as he calls them, have become synonymous with indigenous resistance to corporate environmental degradation. His distinct images, simple yet elegant, are known all over the globe and are universally recognized as the language of resistance most famously used by water protectors at the camps near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Murdoch is from the Serpent River First Nation Band of Ojibway in Ontario, Canada, where he still lives and works as a community organizer and storyteller.


Murdoch is one-third of the Onaman Collective, a group of three First Nations artists including Christi Belcourt, Michif, from Manitow Sakahihan, and Erin Konsmo, Métis/Cree from Onoway/Lac St. Anne, Alberta. Their mission, according to their website, is the creation of grassroots social change. But make no mistake, their art is nothing short of guerrilla artistic revolution designed to create both reaction and a sense of empowered unity among indigenous folks that they can, indeed, change the world.

The group’s name onaman refers to the red ochre paint, cooked and combined with other ingredients, used by the Anishinabek for thousands of years. In the Ojibway language, onaman refers to the action of combining and thickening something, especially for use as medicine.

Murdoch’s home of Serpent River was featured in the book This is My Homeland: Stories of the Effects of Nuclear Industries by the People of Serpent rive and the North Shore of Lake Huron (Serpent River First Nation, 2003) by Lorraine Redmans, Keith Lewis and Anabel Dwyer that described the fallout from the dozen uranium mines located near Serpent River and Elliot Lake in Ontario that operated for 40 years before shutting down in 1996. According to the watchdog website Beyond Nuclear, 145.3 million tons of radioactive tailings were dumped into the Serpent River watershed that flows into Lake Huron at Georgian Bay. To this day, Serpent River must still use bottled water for cooking and drinking despite the Canadian government’s efforts to build a working water treatment plant in 2016.

One-third of First Nations communities in Canada have unsafe drinking water, The Globe and Mailreported in 2016.

“For me, our land and our water has always been an issue,” Murdoch said. “My three-year-old daughter has never known the water tap as a safe thing. Our water will be undrinkable forever.”

Murdoch, 42, recalled hearing about the cancers that flourished in the community during the 1970s after a dam broke, creating an enormous uranium spillage. He recalled later seeing the tumors in the bodies of moose and other animals he killed to feed his family. He decided that he needed to take action.

“Now I travel the Earth at the invitation of indigenous communities and talk about what they can do to take action to protect their water and environment,” Murdoch said. “I encourage folks to get active. Suddenly the doodles got really popular, and people began to use them to take action and promote clean water.”

After he teamed up with the Onaman Collective, Belcourt encouraged him to pursue his art and brought him art supplies.

Belcourt, herself a well-known artist who creates paintings featuring traditional style woodland floral designs, also organized the Walking With Our Sisters project, a commemorative art installation for the missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada and the U.S.

“He says he’s not an artist, yet he produces these incredible images that go viral,” Belcourt said with a laugh.

Thunderbird Woman is a recurring motif in the Onaman Collective banners for water protectors.

Thunderbird Woman is a recurring motif in the Onaman Collective banners for water protectors.

One of the most captivating images that seems to perfectly sum up the message of the importance of protecting water has been the Thunderbird woman, a simple black outline of a winged woman in a traditional Native ribbon skirt.

“There is something really powerful about seeing hundreds of the Thunderbird woman images on the front lines of actions promoting water,” Murdoch said.

The real reason, however, behind the seemingly universal appeal of Murdoch’s images is rooted in Ojibway tradition and ceremony. The images are clearly influenced by ancient Ojibway spirit writing, a form of pictography that medicine people used to record and share information. According to Winona LaDuke, who wrote about the art form in 2000 for the National Museum of the American Indian, the pictographs or mnemonic system depicted oral histories, creation stories, songs, ceremonies and migration records, and were most commonly etched into birch-bark scrolls, some of which have survived for centuries.

LaDuke quotes artist Mishibinijima (Silver Shield Man) of Manitoulin Island in Ontario, who paints canvases inspired by the spirit writing.

“The teachings and legends depicted on my canvasses have been handed down by the elders,” Mishibinijima said, according to LaDuke. “They bring new light to the relations of the Anishinabeg to Mother Earth. Man must understand Mother Earth. He must look at animals, plant and fish to find answers. He forgets he is only part of this chain of living things.”

“I don’t think there is a separation between art and ceremony,” Murdoch said of his work. “Those old pictographs are art and ceremony. The ceremony has simply continued.”

Murdoch and his fellow artists at Onaman Collective teamed up with Clayton Thomas-Muller, a longtime advocate for climate and energy justice; arts activist and organizer David Solnit, and 350.org, the group founded by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. Together they coordinate and organize actions that link global climate change activists.

Solnit and volunteers coordinated an art build at the water protector camps at Standing Rock in which they created thousands of signs and banners, emblazoned with Murdoch and Belcourt’s work, to be carried during actions.

“Our images are all available for download on the Onaman Collective website,” Murdoch said. “We don’t copy write them we just ask that they be used for water and land protector actions. They are for non-profit, non-commercial use only.”

People can also purchase t-shirts and sweatshirts printed with images from the Collective.

“Some people have advised us against making the images so freely available, but in this over-commodified world, there has to be a point where people can have free access to the things that can make their world better,” Belcourt said.

Water protector banner with art by Christi Belcourt, part of the Onaman Collective.

Water protector banner with art by Christi Belcourt, part of the Onaman Collective.

The Thunderbird woman image is actually a collaboration between Murdoch and Belcourt. Belcourt also created the buffalo image as well as the image of a pregnant woman that are available for download on the Onaman Collective website.

The goal of the Onaman Collective, according to Belcourt, is to return to a sane place where our ancestors had a sense of decency that transcended even the notion of nationhood.

“This movement for healthy water and earth is not just an indigenous movement; it has to involve everybody,” she said.

The Onaman Collective philosophy is also decidedly grassroots.

“Most of the real change in the world happens on the ground, “ Murdoch said.

The Collective coordinates a whole host of indigenous activities, including language-immersion camps, and projects that bring elders and youth together for activities such as learning traditional arts and crafts, attending culture camps, and exploring traditional governance in which elders are restored to a seat of power.

“We’ve done gatherings in which we explored the traditional use of ocher, or onaman, for face painting,” Belcourt said, alluding to the origin of the organization’s name.

All Onaman projects are paid for by sale of the artists’ work or crowdfunding efforts, according to Belcourt.

“We don’t accept government funding,” Belcourt said. “It’s a matter of principal and pride; we’re not going to a government that oppressed us with our hands out. They stole our land, took away our languages and forced our children into boarding schools and continue to place them in the welfare system. We have to rebuild ourselves. If we have to make do with less, than that’s the way it is.”

Onaman Collective banner for water protectors.

Onaman Collective banner for water protectors.

Currently the Collective is fundraising to create permanent structures to house a “forever culture camp” near Elliot Lake, according to Belcourt and Murdoch.

“We want to stay off the grid and create a place where people can garden, create art, learn traditional ways and revitalize traditional governance,” Murdoch said.

Upcoming projects for the Onaman Collective include an art build opposing nuclear waste as well as a build in Edmonton calling attention to the high rates of indigenous children taken into government care in Canada. Murdoch, of course, has created a new unique doodle to raise awareness about the children.

The Collective is also planning an indigenous tattoo gathering on September 29 and 30 “in the bush” on the North Shore of Lake Huron. They are fundraising now to bring ten indigenous traditional tattoo artists to the gathering.

“The hope of the planet lies with the Indigenous Peoples leading the charge against fossil fuels in order to reduce climate change,” Belcourt said.

Belcourt admitted that she and her fellow artists are a bit scattered in getting the word out about their work. She suggested checking their respective Facebook pages, as well as the Onaman Collective website, for information.

“I don’t think we can afford to slow down or be idle,” Murdoch said. “We need to rise and do everything in our power to create a better world for our future generations.”