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Eight countries and Arctic Indigenous organizations discuss Arctic affairs amidst demonstrations

May 26, 2017


Marwa Maziad

Protester at the Defend the Sacred march, Fairbanks, Alaska.
Protester at the Defend the Sacred march, Fairbanks, Alaska. (Photo Credit: Evan Anderson)
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Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

Fairbanks, Alaska – The Foreign Ministers of the eight Arctic states – the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland – together with the six heads of the Indigenous peoples organizations who serve as Permanent Participants on the Arctic Council, met to address Arctic issues and to report on the achievements of the U.S. Chairmanship of the Council over the last two years.

The current Secretary-of-State, Rex Tillerson, will pass on the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Finland for the next two years.

But on the eve of the ministerial meeting on Wednesday, May 10th, hundreds of Alaska residents gathered for a “Defend the Sacred” march to voice their community concerns, particularly those related to climate change. This issue directly influences their lives in the Arctic. Melting ice directly affects the entire food chain, including the survival of polar fauna and flora, upon which Indigenous peoples have lived for thousands of years.

In the city center, environmental activists gathered, chanting slogans against the U.S. Secretary of State, former the CEO of ExxonMobil, who holds controversial positions on climate change. “When your only home is being washed away into the sea, you’ve got a fire in your belly to address the issues currently being discussed before the Arctic Council,” said Esau Sinnok, of Shishmaref, Alaska. “As an Arctic Youth Ambassador, I was invited to speak with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but instead of meeting with him, I chose to be here with you guys reminding him climate change is real.”

Among other slogans, marchers chanted, “What do we want? Environmental justice! When do we want it? Now!”

The demonstration moved from the Golden Heart Plaza in the city center of Fairbanks to a cultural center about 500 meters away, where Tillerson was dining with the foreign ministers of the Arctic states as well as the official representatives for Indigenous peoples. As the demonstrators confronted the delegates inside the building, they chanted, “We will resist until we melt” and “Open the doors.” Delegates for the Ministerial Meetings were visible from behind the windows as they watched the demonstrators and took photographs with their phones, despite the layers of glass, and police guards, and secret service agents.

There were no clashes, however. The organizers emphasized that they have expressed their position against the revocation of environmental protection laws, which had been approved by President Obama, and which President Trump has recently not renewed. And since they registered their take on the issue, it was time to leave peacefully.

The demonstrators ended their peaceful march by circling around the building, returning to the city center, and drumming and prayers for the safety of their environment and their communities from environmental dangers that would affect the whole world.  As Dr. Nadine Fabbi, Managing Director of the Canadian Studies Center and Arctic and International Relations in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, says, “The Arctic is the natural air-conditioner of the entire world.” Every human being on Earth should be concerned with the health of this air conditioner, because without it the temperature of Earth will rise. And when that happens places we are familiar with will become unbearable to live in as a result of melting of ice in far away places in the North. In other words, thinking about the erosion of the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, as a result of floods begins by thinking about the Arctic.

Given the tension over Russian affairs, some here in Alaska fear that attention will be drawn towards the meeting of U.S. Secretary of State and his Russian counterpart, which would divert from attention given to key issues of climate change, the environmental consequences of oil projects, as well as social and health problems that threaten the cultures of Indigenous peoples. These issues include alcoholism and suicide among the youth, among many. Suicide affects people of all ages due to changing livelihoods and impoverishment, as cultural protective factors that have linked the Indigenous peoples to their land and cold climate erode.

Translated from the original article published by Marwa Maziad in Arabic in Almasry Alyoum, May 9, 2017,

This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.