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Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

President Joe Biden has reactivated a critical agency of Indigenous leaders that will help to guide federal policies affecting Alaska Native peoples and territories.

The Arctic Executive Steering Committee will be led by Director Ambassador David Balton and Deputy Director Raychelle Aluaq Daniel, Yup’ik, who grew up in Tuntutuliak, Alaska.

Daniel served with the Interior department working to advance tribal climate policies in coordination with federal agencies. She will be the leading voice in connecting Indigenous voices within the committee.

On Sept. 24, the Biden-Harris administration detailed the steps taken in a White House news release:

Today, the Biden-Harris administration took major actions toward protecting and advancing the United States’ interests in the Arctic region by reactivating a critical steering committee and adding a slate of dedicated Arctic experts to its team. These actions will strengthen the Administration’s science-based approach to tackling climate change, enhancing the United States’ national and economic security, and fostering coordination – particularly with Indigenous Peoples – in the Arctic region.

The administration cited they will be incorporating three main actions to include:

  • Reactivating the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC),
  • Hiring Ambassador David Balton as AESC executive director and Raychelle Aluaq Daniel as AESC deputy director, and
  • Appointing six highly qualified, diverse commissioners to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission

In addition to reactivating the AESC, the White House also appointed the following people to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission:

Elizabeth “Liz” Qaulluq Cravalho, from Kotzebue, Alaska, currently serves as vice president of lands for NANA, a for-profit Alaska Native corporation located in northwest Alaska. She has served as a member of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission that advises the Alaska Legislature, and brings an industry perspective.

David Kennedy, the previous commission chair and a national expert in the field of emergency pollution response and development of innovative technology, brings over 50 years of experience and leadership in science, government, environmental management, and development of legislation and national initiatives.

Mark Myers brings additional industry expertise through his considerable experience as a North Slope sedimentary and petroleum geologist for the oil and gas industry, the U.S. government, the State of Alaska, and the University of Alaska. He previously served as the director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Jacqueline “Jackie” Richter-Menge, is a former senior research civil engineer from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory, an expert in ocean and sea-ice science and innovative uses of technology in the Arctic Observing Network and the Submarine Arctic Science Program.

Mike Sfraga is a researcher focused on the social, economic, environmental, and security impacts of a changing Arctic geography, the inaugural co-lead of the State Department’s Fulbright Arctic Initiative, and director of the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He will serve as the new chair of the Commission.

Deborah Vo, from St. Mary’s on the Lower Yukon River, brings experience as a city manager, tribal administrator, executive director of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, manager of rural energy planning for the state, and a program officer for the Rasmuson Foundation. She brings Indigenous perspectives to the commission as well as expertise on tribal governance, health care, and community development.

“The Biden-Harris administration understands that sound Arctic policy must be shaped by input from Indigenous Peoples and the communities facing the impacts of climate change,” said Daniel in the release. “I’m proud to join a team that takes seriously its commitment to inclusive, equitable leadership and will do all I can to help advance policy that preserves the Arctic for generations to come.”

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In an interview with Indian Country Today, Daniel said the inclusion of the Indigenous voice when affecting federal policy is a critical effort.

“As an Indigenous person who is working in this administration, voices from Indigenous people — specifically people living in communities — are able to be part of these conversations and are able to inform policies moving forward. A crucial part of this process will be that relationship building, and I am hoping for these better relationships that will allow for these conversations to happen,” said Daniel.

“The U.S. government is committed to achieving Arctic priorities in partnership with Indigenous peoples, and I think the administration further recognizes the rights and needs and knowledge of Indigenous peoples.

“Changes in the Arctic, while they appear distant, impact our national security, climate security, and availability of resources essential to our wellbeing,” said National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt in the release. “I am very pleased that the White House and OSTP are taking these important steps to develop the best science-based policy for the Arctic incorporating Indigenous knowledge and international cooperation."

Daniel told Indian Country Today that she saw herself as bridge between the Biden-Harris administration and efforts benefitting Indigenous peoples in the Arctic.

“I see myself as a bridge, building a space for bringing people together — Indigenous knowledge holders and scientists – to plan for and protect our food security in the future.”

Biden’s actions are setting a new direction from the previous administration’s. President Donald Trump banned use of the term “climate change” in federal documents. His administration loosened more than a hundred rules, regulations and policies on pollution or emissions. Those changes are particularly harmful to Native Americans because of environmental inequalities.

The Trump administration pushed to have climate change denial incorporated into the work of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic nations. The United States demanded changes to council reports and agreements with other nations, sometimes undoing the results of years of negotiations. It raised tension over access to valuable minerals, and issued permits for oil and gas development in Arctic wilderness areas.

President Trump also set off ripples of consternation by offering to buy Greenland. While Americans took it as something of a joke, Greenland and Denmark didn’t see the humor.

(Related: At stake: Greenland’s right to self determination )

(Related: Alaska Natives divided on Arctic Refuge drilling)

The United States occupied Greenland for a few years during World War II and maintains a military presence there. As sea melts, making access to subsurface and underwater resources more accessible, developers are scoping out possible opportunities in Greenland. The island nation’s strategic location between Europe and North America is also becoming more prominent.

Greenland, which is predominantly Inuit, has been under Denmark governance since the 1800s and was granted greater autonomy only in 2008. Indigenous sovereignty in Greenland is too new for jokes.

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Indian Country Today National Correspondent Joaqlin Estus contributed to this story

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