Mark Trahant
Ambassador David Balton speaking at an Arctic Council press conference last week.

A Changing Arctic Presents Incredible Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Peoples

Mark Trahant

A changing Arctic? It’s a region that presents incredible challenges and opportunities for Indigenous People.

One of those unique opportunities involves governance. The Arctic Council is eight nations who work together on complex issues ranging from climate change to a sustainable future. The Arctic Council met last week as the U.S. began a two-year chairmanship of the body.

What makes this international body unique is that it includes indigenous representation as “permanent participants.”

The six permanent participants are:

Aleut International Association (AIA)

Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC)

Gwich’in Council International (GCI)

Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)

Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON)

Saami Council (SC)

US Ambassador David Balton explains: “I am not aware of another international forum that has representatives of Indigenous groups engaged the way the Arctic Council does. They are at the table as, essentially, equal partners.”

Balton said these Indigenous populations “span multiple countries,” except for the Russian organization.

“Officially they don’t participate in decision-making as such,” Balton said, “but the reality is, at least in my experience, the governments will not take decisions opposed by the permanent participants.

Suicide in Indigenous communities was also considered at the Anchorage meetings.

“Political, scientific, and community leaders from across the Arctic have described mental health – especially suicide – as one of the region’s most pressing public health problems,” the Arctic Council reported. “Despite the best efforts and considerable expenditures of our respective governments, the problem of suicide continues to be a barrier to health and development in the North.”

The council has one initiative, The Rising Sun, Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups — Strengths United through Networks, explores cross-boundary suicide prevention efforts. The goal is a “toolkit of common measures … applicable across the Arctic, which could expand Arctic states’ capacity to evaluate the implementation of evidence-based interventions to combat suicide.”

One of the issues that’s of particular interest to me involves climate change and “adaptation.” Most of the debate about climate change involves “mitigation.” That idea is humans are the primary cause of climate change so if we reduce our carbon emissions we can limit the impacts. But the second topic in climate change is “adaptation.” That means doing what’s required to build higher sea walls, protect pipelines from permafrost damage, and, all too often, move villages inland because of eroding shorelines. But it also means figuring out how animals and fish will react to the loss of habitat, when sea ice, and plant life disappear. And, of course, less wildlife and fish too often means less food for Native people.

The Arctic Council includes and incorporates “Indigenous knowledge” into its research. As one recent document states: “Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge and its potential to advise adaptation mechanisms across the Arctic is a common theme. Moreover, scientific, traditional and experience-based knowledge in combination are recognized as key factors for a sustainable Arctic future. Generating grassroots support is the most important condition for sustainability.”

How do we build a sustainable future in the Arctic? That’s the key question as we try and figure out how we and our children will live in this changing environment. An idea that should be important to people who live far beyond the Arctic Circle.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.On Twitter @TrahantReports.

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