The Arctic: the role of indigenous peoples

written by Eleonora Milazzo – ACCEL European Fellow

  1. Who are the indigenous peoples of the Arctic?

    Arctic ladies. Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh - ACCEL North American Fellow
    Arctic ladies. Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh – ACCEL North American Fellow

The Arctic is home to an estimated 4 million people, of which around 10% is thought to be indigenous.[1] Indigenous peoples include the Saami people of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Northwest Russia; Nenets, Khanty, Evenk and Chukchi in Russia; Aleut, Yupik and Iñupiat in Alaska; Inuvialuit in Canada and Kalaallit in Greenland.[2]

These peoples belong to over 40 ethnic groups. Generalizations regarding their identity are not possible, since they represent many separate indigenous peoples with separate customs and values.[3] In fact, they are referred to as “peoples” in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, emphasizing the diversity of indigenous cultures and traditions.[4]

Apart from their cultural differences, these peoples share the Arctic as their ancestral home. Their unique experience and knowledge of the Arctic are the foundation of their life in the circumpolar world, living in harmony with surrounding ecosystems and Arctic wildlife.[5] As a result, shaping the future of their region is of the outmost importance to them.

 

  1. Indigenous traditions and lifestyle

    Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh - ACCEL North American Fellow
    Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh – ACCEL North American Fellow

Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have adapted over centuries to a life on ice. Their lifestyle, traditions, economy, and history are tightly linked to one of the harshest environments in the world.

Native peoples of the Arctic traditionally lived off the land, fishing, hunting, herding, and gathering wild plants. To survive severe weather and snow, they developed and transmitted traditional knowledge of their home from generation to generation. They learned how to make warm clothes and travel, and to hunt on ice. Traditionally, Arctic peoples used to live in small, scattered communities but they lifestyle has been changing profoundly in recent years, with most communities moving to modern and bigger settlements.

Indigenous peoples have a physical, emotional and spiritual connection with the Arctic ecosystems. For example, it has been shown that Inuit women identified with pollution of the land and perceived it as linked to mental health and wellness of the community.[6] Another distinguishing feature of the indigenous livelihood is the importance of family and community ties. In Inuit culture, for example, the word Inuuqatigiittiarniq refers to respecting others, building positive relationships, and caring for others. This is believed to build strength in the community and each member.[7] Indigenous communities also have a strong tradition of oral culture. Storytelling plays a crucial role in identity building and sharing of experiences. Unikkaaqatigiinniq is the Inuit word to describe the stories in Inuit culture.[8]

 

  1. Representation and recognition

    People in the Arctic. Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh - ACCEL North American Fellow
    People in the Arctic. Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh – ACCEL North American Fellow

Representation at the international level is a way that Arctic communities emphasize their goals and seek to have a say in global issues. Numerous indigenous organizations have been awarded the status of Permanent Participants (PPs) within the Arctic Council. As such, they are entitled to participate in all activities of the main high-level forum of the region, including its Working Groups.[9] Within this framework, the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat works to facilitate cooperation between the PPs and the Arctic States.[10]

At present, six Indigenous Peoples Organizations have been appointed PPs:

International law safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples is developing and being further consolidated. The most important step forward in this sense was the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. In addition, an international effort has been undertaken by Nordic countries and Saami people to draft a Nordic Saami Convention. So far, these international efforts have not impacted significantly on domestic legislation of Nordic countries, with some exception for Norway and Denmark. Even the special status of PPs within the Arctic Council has not helped indigenous peoples to have international law defending their rights incorporated and implemented at the national level.[11]

Taking a closer look at the national level, for example, Saami peoples are represented by three Saami parliaments in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Norway recognized the status of the Saami people with a constitutional amendment, while Finland considers the Saami people a linguistic minority rather than a people, despite the size of its population. Russia officially recognizes only 55.000 indigenous persons on its territories, despite the fact that around 250.000 indigenous persons live in Russia at present. Overall, in Russia indigenous peoples still have limited decision-making powers.[12] In Canada’s Northwest Territories, half of the population is indigenous. Land claims and self-government negotiation have led to a recognition of indigenous rights and the emergence of the territory of Nunavut, based on an Inuit land claim.[13]

Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh - ACCEL North American Fellow
Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh – ACCEL North American Fellow

 

  1. Challenges to indigenous livelihood

No matter how different their languages and traditions may be, circumpolar peoples have been facing similar challenges, and they all share the same goals concerning the future of the High North.

Climate change impacts negatively upon indigenous life and traditional economies. Melting ice hampers access to food, harvesting, hunting, herding, and affects communications. Arctic peoples have a strong tie to nature and these changes are likely to turn their livelihoods upside down. Just to mention a few effects of globalization and climate change, there is already an increase in water, food and vector borne diseases among Arctic indigenous communities. Dietary transitions away from traditional foods are causing obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.[14]

Economic development and increased commercial activities are both opportunities and threats to indigenous peoples. The Arctic has attracted growing worldwide attention as a consequence of climate change and new prospects of development. This is increasing global awareness about this remote region of the world, diminishing the perception of a wild and unknown land. The Arctic population is growing as a result of international migration of people seeking jobs in resource extraction sector.[15] The challenge for local communities is preserving their identities and being the protagonist of the social change they are witnessing within their communities.

Opening up of new navigable routes in the circumpolar north would bring new opportunities to local and indigenous communities. Development of new industries would nonetheless necessitate the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to land and sea and their right to free, prior and informed consent in matters that affect their life directly.[16]

 

  1. Development of the Arctic from the indigenous perspective

    Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh - ACCEL North American Fellow
    Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh – ACCEL North American Fellow

Dr. Bernard Funston (Northern Canadian Consulting) underlined in his interview with ACCEL that:

“(…) we often talk about sustainable development in the Arctic and we seem to fail to understand that until very recently indigenous peoples were living sustainably. We don’t have to teach them but learn from them.”

What we need to understand as we approach the topic of Arctic sustainable development is that incorporating local and indigenous knowledge is paramount for the future of the Arctic.[17]

Development and innovation in the Arctic region shall be based on innovation as well as continuity with the indigenous past and the traditions of local communities. Development and foreign capital coming to the region are opportunities for these peoples. Yet, at the same time, their ties to the land must not be seen as obstacles to modernization, but as resources. There is much we can learn from how Arctic communities have lived for centuries, as well as their expertise and knowledge.

Therefore, the economic dimension of sustainable development cannot be separated from the human dimension.[18] To that end, the Arctic is not an inhabited land to colonize and develop from scratch. Our efforts should be focused on moving away from colonialist perspectives on the region towards a truly Northern perspective, pursuing a new and collaborative way of development.

In Inuit language “Piliriqatigiinniq” means “working together in a collaborative way for the common good”. This concept should be taken as a guiding principle for the future of the region.[19]

 

[1] Adam, S., Koivurova, T., Gremsperger, A., and Niemi, H., 2014. Arctic Indigenous Peoples and the Challenge of Climate Change. In Tedsen, E., Cavalieri, S., Kraemer, R. A., eds., 2014. Arctic Marine Governance: Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation. Berlin: Springer.

[2] Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, 2014. Arctic Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved July 1st, 2014 from http://www.arcticcentre.org/InEnglish/SCIENCE-COMMUNICATIONS/Arctic-region/Arctic-Indigenous-Peoples.

[3] United Nations, 2007. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

[4] United Nations, 2007. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

[5] Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), 2009. A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignity in the Arctic. Retrieved July 1st, 2014 from http://www.inuitcircumpolar.com/sovereignty-in-the-arctic.html

[6] Egan, C., 1998. Points of view: Inuit women’s perceptions of pollution. International Journal of Circumpolar Health. Vol. 57.

[7] See Karetak, J., 2013. Conversations of Inuit elders in relation to the Maligait (Inuit laws). Transcripts of conversations with Inuit elders. Nunavut Dept. of Education.

[8] Healey, G. & Tagak, A., 2014. PILIRIQATIGIINNIQ ‘Working in a collaborative way for the common good’: A perspective on the space where health research methodology come together. International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies. Vol.7(1).

[9] Adam, S., Koivurova, T., Gremsperger, A., and Niemi, H., 2014. Arctic Indigenous Peoples and the Challenge of Climate Change. In Tedsen, E., Cavalieri, S., Kraemer, R. A., eds., 2014. Arctic Marine Governance: Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation. Berlin: Springer. P. 76.

[10] Arctic Council, 2012. History of the Arctic Council Permanent Participants. Official Website. Retrieved July 1st, 2014 from http://www.arctic-council.org/index.php/en/environment-and-people/arctic-peoples/indigenous-peoples-today/568-history-of-the-arctic-council-permanent-participants.

[11] Larsen J.N. et al., 2013. Arctic Human Development Report II: Fact Sheets. Regional Processes & Global Linkages.

[12] Ibid.

[13] United Nations Permanenet Forum on Indigenous Issues, 2009. Indigenous peoples, Indigenous voices. Fact sheet.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Larsen J.N. et al., 2013. Arctic Human Development Report II: Fact Sheets. Regional Processes & Global Linkages.

[16] United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 2009. Indigenous peoples, Indigenous voices. Fact sheet.

[17] Larsen J.N. et al., 2013. Arctic Human Development Report II: Fact Sheets. Regional Processes & Global Linkages.

[18] Nordic Council of Ministers, 2010. Arctic Social Indicators – a follow-up to the Arctic Human Development Report. Copenhagen, 2010.

[19] Healey, G. & Tagak, A., 2014. PILIRIQATIGIINNIQ ‘Working in a collaborative way for the common good’: A perspective on the space where health research methodology come together. International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies. Vol.7(1).

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