The Arctic Council: Arctic Indigenous Leaders: We Did Not Shut Down
Anchorage (High North News): Although the Arctic Council's work was put on hold due to the Russian war in Ukraine, the indigenous working groups continued. Now they express concern about the gaps in environmental data from Russia and the welfare of their Russian families.
“Russia is a large part of the Arctic and all data from Russia stopped when the Arctic Council's work was put on hold, and thus contact with our brothers and sisters in Russia," says Gunn-Britt Retter, head of the Arctic and environmental unit at the Saami Council of Norway, who represents Saami people from Finland, Russia, Norway, and Sweden.
The uncertainty is - and has been - monumental.
"We do not know what gaps there will be in the data. We have no idea what has happened to the environment in Russia during the war," said Retter when she attended the Arctic Encounter conference in Anchorage, Alaska under the theme Arctic Council and Indigenous Identity in a changing Arctic.
Nevertheless, the Saami Council kept work going during the war, waiting to make contact with its Russian partners, while focusing on fieldwork.
The Saami Council collaborates with Arctic States, Working Groups, and other Permanent Participants regarding circumpolar relations with regular contributions to Chairship work plans.
That stopped completely.
“We hope this can contribute to the work going on in the Arctic Council. But it is hard to know what that will look like after the war. Still, we are moving forward regardless of the geopolitical situation."
Did not stop
Edward Alexander is the Co-Chair of the US Gwich'in Council International (GCI), which is a permanent participant in the Arctic Council. His organization has kept going as well, not knowing what will be the outcome of their work.
The indigenous Alaskan - a relatively tall man - is proudly wearing a vest adorned with intricate beading that resembles animal footprints, topped off with some impressive bear claws around his neck.
He explains that the GCI also kept the work going through the pause.
“We did not shut down and the projects were not put on hold, except for everything that was interactive between the US and Russia. That stopped completely," Alexander tells High North News.
He says to HNN that the GCI was directing one project like that - a circumpolar fire project - that was stopped.
“But we were still able to do internal work. So we cannot work with Russia, but we are able to work with documents, work with our understanding, do legal analysis, explains Alexander.
“But we still have to bring this work to the working group at some point and ask if it is accurate and if we can move forward together in this direction.”
“So and hopefully we will have a stronger Arctic Council at the end of this. I think everyone has learned their lesson. There is no military solution to the problems in the north. “We want diplomatic solutions. We do not fight with our friends to solve problems. We talk and makes compromises", urges Alexander.
After Norways program announcement last week, he is excited about the upcoming Norwegian Chairship.
“Norway have included indigenous people throughout. That commitment is critical”, says Alexander in praise of the Norwegian Arctic Council Team.
Almost all of us have people in the Russian Arctic.
“The Norwegian team has been very forthcoming about reaching out and talking to us about their priorities, but also listening to us about what is important to us. And that is reflected in the document.”
“I hope that much of the work that has been done during the pandemic and the war will come to light and be finished early during the Norwegian chairmanship, and I hope that the Arctic officials will take a closer look at some of these projects," says the GCI Co-Chair.
Behind the iron curtain
Chief Gary Harrison of the Chickaloon Native Village and the US Arctic Athabaskan Council, is deeply concerned about the indigenous population of Russia, who lives behind the new iron curtain.
“Almost all of us have people in the Russian Arctic. We need to know how they are doing. For example, have we heard that the Russian authorities make indigenous people join the military, and this worries us," says Chief Harrison.
During the war, the Athabaskan Council received mixed messages about the indigenous people in Arctic Russia.
The six Arctic Indigenous organizations that hold Permanent Participant status in the Arctic Council:
- Aleut International Association
- Arctic Athabaskan Council
- Gwich'in International Council
- Inuit Circumpolar Council
- Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North
- Saami Council
“Official channels say that everything is ok, but on the back channels we hear that it is not and we hear about defectors," the Chief says with a worried face.
Last November, two Russian men fled across the Bering Strait from Siberia to avoid being drafted. The men are indigenous to Siberia.
Edward Alexander shares the Chief's concern.
“Our statement a year ago included a concern for indigenous peoples in Russia. We are worried that they are being recruited by the Russian military and exploited in the war. And we are worried about whether or not they are able to speak honestly about the war.”
The militarization of their land is also a source of concern.
“We are really concerned about the war in a broader sense in how it is changing the discussion to Arctic military security rather than building peace and diplomacy. So we want not only the absence of conflict but on building peace as well," states Alexander.
NATO in the mix
Security in the High North is tense. On Thursday, all 30 NATO countries had accepted Finland's NATO application, strengthening the defense alliance in the north.
With the new addition, NATO will have greater influence in the Arctic. That makes the Arctic Council even more important, according to Gunn-Britt Retter in the Saami Council.
Edward Alexander agrees.
“When we think about hard security issues whether it is in NATO or the States or Canada - or in Russia - if it does not include Indigenous people at those tables, it is going to have negative impacts and implications for Indigenous people. So NATO should include us in their discussions," says Alexander.
“NATO should ensure that they have the consent of the indigenous people of the Arctic, so things are done in an ethical way. And also in a way that promotes a better relationship for long-term security. If they are really interested in the people's security, they should talk to the people," states Alexander.
He states that you cannot protect an area without talking to its indigenous habitants.
We need to get back to some of the things that the Arctic Council does best
“Going forward, what is NATO's plan to be inclusive of indigenous people and our security concerns?” wonders Edward Alexander.
After the war
“What does the Council need to focus on when it is back to normal?”
“I do not know about the Arctic Council, but the first thing that I want to do is to speak to our indigenous people over in Russia and hopefully find them in a good way," says Chief Gary Harrison in a quiet voice, looking over his glasses.
“After that, we need to get back to some of the things that the Arctic Council does best, which is to work with the indigenous peoples' knowledge so that we can have a better future for everyone”, concludes the Chickaloon Chief, pointing at the climate crisis that impacts the Arctic as we speak.
Most importantly, to keep the dialogue open.
“When things come back to normal we will be able to continue the work in the Council and maybe make a difference in what is happening in the Arctic. Maybe a dialogue can help us out of this situation”, finishes Chief Gary Harrison.
Still with a worried face.