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The voices of Indigenous people and leaders are more present in discussions about the future of the Arctic than in any other international conversation.

At last week’s Arctic Circle forum in Reykjavik, Iceland, the prime minister of Greenland, Kim Kielsen, spoke in kalaallisut. And Indigenous leaders were prominently on stage, addressing the hundreds of leaders from governments, businesses, and nonprofits from some 50 countries who attended the annual event.

The conference ended with Inuit Night, a celebration of performers ranging from throat singing to Yupik rap. As Arctic Circle Chairman Rolafur Ragnar Grimsson tweeted Saturday: “The atmosphere was exciting. The performances fantastic.”

Yet there could be so much more. Participants were standing room only in the conference hall when famous speakers represented current discourse, ranging from those calling for stronger action on global warming to those wanting energy development and increased shipping lanes because of global warming. That range of discussion is a good thing. 

But when the panels were on Indigenous knowledge, youth, or governance, suddenly there were plenty of empty seats. The opening plenary included the wisdom of Inuit Circumpolar Chair Dalee Sambo Dorough so late in the rotation that her prepared remarks had to be trimmed in order to keep to the schedule.

Perhaps as a metaphor the best example of that dissonance was the Arctic Circle’s award to former Secretary of State John Kerry for his leadership on climate change. As Arctic scholar Heather Exner-Pirot tweeted: “With all due respect, President Grimsson definitely has an affinity for famous global political leaders, no matter their views or positions.”

Indigenous knowledge and governance is essential because it's where more than a third of the earth and over 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity are located

“We hold a very strong and proud Sami identity in my community,” said Aili Keaskitalo, president of the Sami Parliament. United Nations estimates that lands occupied or governed by Indigenous people cover approximately 35 percent of formal protected areas and some 35 percent of all remaining terrestrial areas with little human impact.

She makes the case that the strengthening of Indigenous rights is essential. “We can be strategic partners, partners with governments supporting the collective action of Indigenous peoples and securing our rights to land, territories and resources,” she said as a strategy to “make rapid progress in reversing by diversity loss.”

Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson, Yupik, said Native people want what every other family wants for their children. “We want our children and our families to be healthy. We want them to be safe, we want them to be well educated and that's universal. We all want that. And we all serve that for our children and our families.”

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However “because of where we live and because of the resources we do and most often don't have, we have to do things in a different way.”

She said the goals are simple. Sustaining, healthy communities. “When we're not healthy, we can't fish, we can't hunt, we can't work,” Davidson said. “ And we can't contribute positively to our economies and to our families. And the ability to be able to participate fully in our cultures completely and fully immersed in the most critical aspects of our culture, our language, our dance, our traditions.”

What happens in the Arctic will define the future for the planet.

“The Arctic is critical to the entire globe,” said Inuit Chair Sambo Dorough. Science shows this with ocean currents, atmospheric currents, many other elements. “But there is a connection (and) but it also is important to recognize, as I said, in relation to human rights, that they're interrelated, interdependent and invisible.

“This is also the way that we see the environment that we depend upon. And in particular, the Arctic Ocean. So in terms of this objective of the global architect mission, I think that it is critical from an Intuit perspective to ensure that our knowledge, Indigenous knowledge and especially the knowledge of the individuals out here,” she said, is included in the decision framework.

Dorough said Inuits occupy 40 percent of the Arctic both in terms of land and the marine environment. “So whenever we talk about this dynamic of the Arctic and against the backdrop of the global geopolitical dimensions, we have to have a seat at the table. We have to have a role.”

And that she said will benefit the global community. “Whether it's on the basis of Indigenous knowledge or we have an extraordinary and growing cadre of academics and others that can Intuit academics and others that can make important contributions as well,” she said. “The potential for co-production of knowledge in an ethical fashion that does respect and recognize the rights and the status of Intuit as Arctic indigenous peoples should be central.”

Or as one Arctic Circle panel stated flatly: “Nothing about us without us.”

Lt. Gov. Davidson said that idea is about intentions. She said global governments cannot help without Indigenous participation. “You cannot do that without us. And for folks who are nervous about how to do that, ask for help, there's no shame in asking for help. There are lots of people who will help you get there … It’s never too late to do the right thing. So let's not miss the opportunity to be as effective as possible.”

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Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports