The Arctic’s Human Voice

Troms County, Norway, July 2014: At the foot of the Bassečohka Mountain, thousands of reindeer lumber in tandem. In a sea of antlers, fur, and hooves, they seem indistinguishable. But closer inspection reveals several patterns notched gently and painlessly on the skin of their ears.

Those patterns belong to various families of the Saami, an Arctic aboriginal group. After weeks of arduous herding, another annual earmarking begins.

The reindeer funnel into a series of fenced enclosures. Anders Oskal, a Saami man and experienced herder, scours the pack for his insignia. Finding a match on a mother reindeer’s ear, he lassoes her unmarked calf away. The younglings return to their mothers marked with the pattern that will bond them to Oskal for life. They have become part of his herd.

“We follow the reindeer,” Oskal said in a conversation with the HPR. “While we try to guide them, the reindeer itself knows where to go.”

Reindeer husbandry in Saami culture dates back beyond the reach of ancestral memory. But today, development threatens this time-honored practice. According to a United Nations Environment Program report, human development has damaged 25 percent of grazing land in northern Norway. At this rate, 78 percent of pastures will be “strongly disturbed” by 2050. The Saami, unsurprisingly, resist development diligently. “Every extended family [member] we have has a few court cases going on from time to time,” Oskal explained.

For his part, Oskal works with a non-profit to advocate the preservation of reindeer pastures. In 2000, he found an international platform for his work. “We’ve done several projects for the Arctic Council.”

An Inclusive Consensus

The Arctic Council is a consensus-based intergovernmental forum that recommends research topics and facilitates best practice sharing between the eight Arctic nations: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States. Senior Arctic Officials convene at least biannually to discuss climate change, marine shipping, search and rescue, and other regional issues. During biennial ministerial meetings, diplomats assess the Council’s progress and explore new strategies for success. The Council’s objective is dialogue, not binding international policy.

The Ottawa Declaration of 1996 established the Arctic Council and partitioned its representation into three categories: member states, observers, and Permanent Participants. The third extends an invitation to any aboriginal group that represents “a single indigenous people in more than one Arctic State” or “more than one Arctic indigenous people resident in a single Arctic State.” Today, six indigenous groups serve as Permanent Participants: the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Aleut International Association, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council.

Renowned for its incorporation of indigenous voice, the Arctic Council is an anomaly amongst international political organizations. Research utilizes traditional knowledge. Reindeer husbandry and climate change are discussed concurrently. The Saami have speaking preference over China, Spain, and India.

The Permanent Participants hail from across the circumpolar north. Not all of their constituencies live traditional lives, but some do. Nationality, history, and geography—particularly whether communities live in coastal regions—underlie their diverse perspectives.

On the Council, however, they share a concern for the environmental and cultural preservation of the Arctic. In an interview with the HPR, Duane Smith, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada, explained that “for the most part we [the indigenous groups] always agree because the Permanent Participants are the ones providing the human perspective.”

Across the Arctic, native communities experience the brunt of environmental catastrophe. In 1987, researchers at Laval University found that as a result of water pollution, Inuit breast milk contained the highest concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the world. PCBs are linked to a variety of health problems, including skin conditions, birth defects, and some forms of cancer. In 2004, Aleuts watched as the ship M/V Selendang Ayu spilled over 350,000 gallons of oil into the waters off of the Aleutian Islands.

Environmental shifts go hand in hand with cultural endangerment. Climate change alters temperature and migratory patterns, impeding elders’ gauge on the thickness of the ice and which game to hunt. “Subsistence is cultural: how it’s caught, stored, served, eaten, shared,” Jim Gamble, executive director of Aleut International Association, explained to the HPR. “When something happens to prevent that, it’s impossible to state how significant that is.” The broken attunement with nature jeopardizes traditional practice and cultural values.

So despite their varied backgrounds, the Permanent Participants find themselves united by a common plight. Yet although they represent key stakeholders in the future of the Arctic, indigenous organizations often receive insufficient support from member states, which hinders their ability to protect their communities’ cultures and homeland.

The Money Problem

It is said that money makes the world go around, and the Permanent Participants can attest. There remains a severe lack of funding opportunities for circumpolar activities, raising financial challenges for indigenous organizations. Inadequate aid from member states, which provide limited assistance to communities in their respective domains, hardly helps overcome monetary barriers.

Permanent Participants may have the funding to attend conferences and ministerial meetings, but Cindy Dickson, executive director of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, told the HPR, “Getting involved in working groups is another thing.” The Arctic Council includes six working groups and several task forces that perform their duties in the interim between regular Council meetings. Some of the Council’s most meaningful work occurs in these subsidiary bodies. According to Dickson, indigenous organizations struggle to “find the resources to participate, whether it’s for travel or for input.”

An Inuit family braves an Alaskan winter.

An Inuit family braves an Alaskan winter.

Even at regular meetings, Permanent Participants struggle to convince member states to fund their projects. Take the language issue. Many native languages, such as Gwich’in and Saami, are on the brink of extinction. “When you lose a language, you’re losing knowledge, you’re losing a whole perspective on the world,” Susan Kaplan, professor of anthropology at Bowdoin College, affirmed in an interview with the HPR. In response, the Inuit Circumpolar Council spearheaded an initiative to put together a compendium of best practices to preserve native speech. The primary obstacle: money. “We’re not funded according to what priorities we want to see,” Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, said in an interview with the HPR. “We’re funded according to what governments’ priorities are.” Now, the project is on hiatus.

Some Permanent Participants see member states as intentionally providing minimal support to prevent the Permanent Participants from accumulating power. “I can’t help thinking it is a way to restrict that we don’t get too influential,” Gunn-Britt Retter, Head of Arctic and Environmental Unit at the Saami Council, offered in an interview with the HPR. Smith concurs, describing what he sees as a “controlling mechanism.”

Financial leverage represents an unfortunate regression. While many laud the Council for its innovation, the control and dominance over indigenous groups recall a long history of oppression.

Power to the People

Yet in other respects, the Council has begun to elevate and empower the role of indigenous voice in its work to a degree not seen before. The incorporation of traditional knowledge into research and discussion represents a turning point in the relationship between Permanent Participants and member states. For the Council’s purposes, “traditional knowledge” refers to indigenous communities’ profound connection to the Arctic, which stems from generations of knowledge and practice.

The Arctic Council has long extolled the value of traditional knowledge, at least nominally. Every ministerial meeting produces a declaration. Nearly every declaration contains a holistic affirmation of traditional knowledge. Although some of those validations engendered progress, many initially failed to advance the role of traditional knowledge in the Council’s work. Some Permanent Participants view these declarations as vacuous words bereft of any follow-through. “It’s repetitive,” Retter stated. “It’s been on the table since the foundation.”

The Aleut International Association echoed those sentiments at the 2015 ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, Canada.

[Our founders] might be frustrated that issues identified in the earliest declarations of the Council—things like the support of the Permanent Participants and the use of traditional knowledge in the work of the Council—are still being discussed.”

Yet despite the persistent frustration, the Council’s words seem finally to be evolving into action. Many Permanent Participants view the past two years, during which Canada has taken its turn as chair, as a period of progress. Canadian officials ran two sets of workshops upon assuming leadership. The first focused on strategies to use traditional knowledge in the Council. The second discussed how to better support the Permanent Participants as well as develop a project support fund.

The Sustainable Development Working Group has finalized its Recommendations for the Integration of Traditional and Local Knowledge into the Work of the Arctic Council. If the Council accepts these recommendations, all future working group projects will be required to explain how they plan to use traditional knowledge in their proposal templates. The final report to the Senior Arctic Officials would have to readdress the matter and further articulate how traditional knowledge could best be used based on the working group’s experience. “The Arctic Council articulating that as a goal: that, I would say, is a clear indication of the impact of increasing due deference to traditional knowledge,” Fran Ulmer, Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State on Arctic Science and Policy, stated in an interview with the HPR.

A group of Aleut hunters during the late 19th century.

A group of Aleut hunters during the late 19th century.

On the ground as well, traditional knowledge is being increasingly incorporated into working group activity. At the 2015 ministerial meeting, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna working group released a progress report detailing the success of its “Community Based Monitoring Strategy,” wherein indigenous groups help monitor Arctic biodiversity. The Permanent Participants compiled a compendium of best practices titled “Keeping Our Traditions Alive.” Along with its accompanying video, the publication catalogues several practices that help sustain native culture, from an Aleut “culture camp” to Foundation Protect Sápmi, a Saami organization that provides professional expertise in disputes over traditional practice.

Permanent Participants even lead some of the working group projects, putting them in prime positions to ensure the use of traditional knowledge. “In the earliest stages of the Council, that was never being done,” Smith noted. With the Council’s revitalized commitment to traditional knowledge, the Permanent Participants see a more promising future. “We’re going to try to keep that going,” affirmed Gamble.

Twenty Years a Teenager

What is the role of the Arctic Council? How should Permanent Participants fit in with its objectives? To what extent should the Council directly support their work?

Not even the Senior Arctic Officials know the answers with certainty. Smith describes the Council as a “teenager.” On top of more concrete challenges, Permanent Participants must also navigate a dynamic political landscape as, nineteen years since its establishment, the Arctic Council strives to find its identity. Even after weathering a storm of obstacles, the indigenous organizations mostly see the Council as a success tempered by its shortcomings, not vice-versa. “If we really want to protect what’s here, I think that we really need to strengthen the work under the Arctic Council,” Dickson said.

The Arctic Council is going on 20-years-old. But in the lifespan of intergovernmental partnerships, it will stay a teenager. Rich with ambiguity, the teenage years and their unpredictability entail added challenges for the Permanent Participants. But even in the face of such adversity, these organizations have mobilized in a collective attempt to ensure that the Arctic’s human voice remains a central fixture in the conversation. If the Arctic Council is indeed a teenager, then the Permanent Participants are its seasoned sages.

Image source: Wikimedia // Granbergs Nya Aktiebolag // Ansgar Walk // Benedykt Dybowski

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