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Indigenous influence on the Arctic Council: Learning through role playing

September 1, 2017


Michael Brown

2017 students meet Arctic Council
The role players for the Permanent Participants on the Arctic Council with Ed Alexander, Vice Chair of the Gwich'in Council International. From left to right: Judith Savoie, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Leehi Yona, Yale; Michael Brown, International Policy Institute, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington; Ed Alexander; Denae Nae Benson, University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Carolyn Swertka, Dartmouth College.
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Having been accepted into the Model Arctic Council hosted by Dartmouth University, I opened a spreadsheet titled “Role Assignments” and saw that I would be role-playing as RAIPON (the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North). Interesting, I thought. My inner role-playing-game-loving self was excited. I had qualms about role-playing as an Indigenous organization and, even in simulation, speaking on their behalf. But there was an added layer of difficulty there: RAIPON has been co-opted by the Russian federal government and thus has little ability to speak for its real interests. I worried that my role would boil down to parroting the Russian government and having little influence over the proceedings. Throughout the week at Dartmouth, however, I learned just what influence Indigenous voices could have when elevated to a stage like the Arctic Council, as well as what fundamental limitations remain.

For background: the Arctic Council is a forum of sorts dedicated to Arctic issues. Each of the Arctic nation-states is represented: Canada, the United States, Denmark (Greenland), Russia, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Also represented are six Indigenous associations, called Permanent Participants (PPs), representing Inuit, Gwich’in, Athabaskans, Sami, Aleut, and forty Russian indigenous groups’ interests. The fundamental power dynamic rotates around the nation-states and their ability to reach consensus. Around these planetary bodies rotate the PPs and various other organizational hangers on. The Model Arctic Council is a recent initiative to bolster the ranks of Arctic professionals with younger talent, and so students from Canada, the United States, and Germany were invited to come to Dartmouth to simulate the proceedings. We were given a couple of days of training with actual practicing Arctic diplomats and then sent off to make some deals and reach consensus on a declaration articulating the principles that the Arctic Council would work under moving forward.

In Arctic scholarship, the model that the Arctic Council works on is widely celebrated both for its emphasis on inclusion, which is not seen in many other places, and for how collaboratively the work is conducted. Until going through the Model Arctic Council, I admit that I thought that the PPs were kept around mostly for the PR benefit to the nation-states. However, as the week progressed and I worked with the other PP players and our mentor, Ed Alexander from Gwich’in Council International, I saw what kind of influence the PPs could wield behind the scenes. For one, since the PPs’ interests often overlap, it was easy to congregate, determine marching orders, and then work on the nation-states separately. It was an ironic inverse of the divide and rule that national governments tend to use on Indigenous peoples, especially in Russia.

During the conference, our natural allies emerged from the nation-states. Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland were willing to speak for Indigenous issues that might have been seen as rather crude had the PPs themselves brought them up. For instance, RAIPON’s primary obstacle to positive action on Arctic issues is a predatory federal government. I, partially to see what reaction I would get, included this very phrase in my opening statement, and was later told just how stupid that was. Ed Alexander told me that I wouldn’t have “made it through the night” but didn’t elaborate exactly what that meant. I gladly let the Scandinavians bring it up after that. Later, I told Pavel Sulyandzega, who was elected to lead RAIPON but, as a critical voice, was exiled instead, what I had said and he just laughed.

So the PPs have some real influence, point taken. They can go behind the scenes, talk to nation-states, and try and get their way. But the exchange with Sulyandzega and some of the arguments over the language in the final declaration went to show that, ultimately, that influence has limits. In our final declaration, we, the PPs, wanted to include language that affirmed the importance of the PPs to the process. We argued back and forth with Denmark over this point for a good half an hour, but they put their foot down, and that was that. When the nation-states aren’t in the mood to be argued with, that’s the end of it. The PPs can nibble around the edges, but are limited to the long game, that patient accretion of diplomatic territory, and they have to stay under the shadow of nation-states at all times.

Another issue at the conference was even more telling about the actual, real-world limits for the PPs: Indigenous participation was almost non-existent. We had some Alaskans, and one person with an Indigenous background, but that was it. To her credit, she was highly effective, but if the point of the Model Arctic Council is to groom future Arctic international leadership, then it’s worrying to see an overwhelming sea of white faces. The Arctic Council may give Indigenous groups a relatively high seat, and they use it well, but there’s a serious capacity issue that undermines its utility.

There is real wisdom in the structure of the Arctic Council, both real and model. Bringing together people from such disparate backgrounds to participate openly in regional-level work is revolutionary and is perhaps the reason that the Arctic feels like such a sane zone of governance, despite increasing global turmoil and climatic challenges. The idea behind the Model Arctic Council is a really sound one that will no doubt bear fruit. The mood at the end was almost universally jubilant and empowering. Students who had orbited the outskirts of Arctic policy felt invested in the work of the Arctic Council and many expressed a desire to go deeper. The one thing I would recommend is to live up to the inclusiveness of the Arctic Council and invite more local Arctic participation. Arctic constituents, Indigenous and otherwise, need a pipeline like this to help mitigate the limitations of the Arctic Council.

This post is part of the International Policy Institute Arctic blog series, IPI Arctic Fellows travel to Dartmouth and Busan. To overview the series, read the introduction

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.