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Missing Indigenous voices

May 22, 2017


Valerie Cleland

North by North
Feature Series

Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

Amidst the hum of ideas among the myriad of Arctic citizens who gave ten-minute TED-style talks on innovation in the North, I couldn’t help but notice that something was missing at North by North’s event, Innovate Arctic. Gone were the suits of politicians and stark differences in status; at the Anchorage Museum, we were treated as equals. While listening to the many small, halting conversations of the guests before the event, the excitement was palpable. I looked forward to hearing from a diverse range of Arctic people on how they were bringing new ideas and approaches to the North. Upon reflection on these talks, I noticed a distinct absence of Indigenous perspectives, although there were many nods to the importance of Indigenous voices.

The mayor of Anchorage started off the event with a powerful speech, informing that audience, “You are not just an Alaskan or an American. You are a citizen of the Arctic.” This event invited us to be risk takers by sharing our ideas and collaborating in future endeavors. With a strong sense of state pride in being self-reliant and working hard, various people of the North boldly shared what they were doing in the name of innovation.

A Norwegian man, Morten Brugard, defined innovation as doing “what you’re doing in a smarter way,” emphasizing that we didn’t always need the disruptive technology that is commonly associated with the word innovate. He argued that the North is full of economic opportunity and that companies across the North have a chance to work together. In the same vein of collaboration seen on the Arctic Council, there is space for the private sector to work in parallel. With the simple idea of the trickle-down economy – where money from the North trickles down to the South – Brugard touched on the economic issues of the Arctic. He stressed that cooperation is essential, and that the combined voices of North do have power. However, if we are truly to come together to amplify our causes, we need Indigenous people at the table.

Andreas Tziolas, from Icarus Interstellar, focused on the similarities between starships and the Arctic. He too emphasized that ideas can come from anyone – scientists and citizens alike. He stood on stage with his young son, a not-so-subtle reminder that what we’re talking about will affect the next generation. With his son at his side like a shadow, he spoke about how Indigenous technology often surpasses Western space technology. The sod huts used by some Arctic peoples are the basis for housing designs used for future space travel. I wish I could have heard from an Indigenous person on the innovation of traditional housing in cold environments.

Mark Stock of the Anchorage School District focused on the need to innovate the American education system. Mark spoke on how hope is a stronger indicator of success than any standardized test. Hearing this, I thought perhaps our focus should be helping communities in the Arctic identify areas of hope and then give them the tools to harness that energy into something lasting. Projects from the Arctic Council, such as Rising Sun initiative, which focuses on mental health, are a start, but we can do more.

In a change of pace, Cameron Willingham spoke about how the Arctic imports most of its food. His team at Vertical Harvest is building small farms inside old shipping containers to bring fresh greens at a lower price to Arctic communities. In the Yu’pik culture, he explained, it is important to be able to feed yourself and your family. With the vertical harvest, they claim to be using new technology to support the subsistence lifestyle, which is an exciting idea. Emerging technology and Indigenous ways of life do not need to be at odds with each other, so Cameron suggested. Again, I wanted to hear an Indigenous voice reflect on these issues of technology and tradition. I, and many others, firmly believe that Indigenous people know best what their communities need.

With genuine enthusiasm, a young woman named Tamsen Peeples, representing the company Blue Evolution captivated the audience in a talk about farming seaweed. The idea behind Blue Evolution is to create a new market for seaweed, and give fishermen another way to use their boats and make money when it is no longer the fishing season in Alaska. The next speaker, Stephen Mooney from the Yukon Research Center, spoke on Arctic housing and echoed the theme that Indigenous wisdom is needed and that we must continue to respect and learn from the people who have called this land home for thousands of years. So why were we not hearing from Indigenous people about what is needed? It is one thing to acknowledge the need for Indigenous knowledge. It is another to take actions to incorporate it. While Mooney recognized this, stating, “We are the enablers, the communities are the drivers,” the event would have been greatly enriched by hearing from the drivers themselves.

More presenters spoke on the need to develop broadband capacity and extend fiber optic cables to the North. It is hard to participate in the modern economy with slow internet. Focusing briefly on the energy needs of the North, Gwen Holdman, a 2015–16 Fulbright Arctic Initiative scholar, talked about micro grids of energy in Alaska and how a micro grid is its own form of resilience. Micro grids are community-driven and give smaller communities the opportunity to bring electricity to their homes without being connected to a major city like Fairbanks or Anchorage. While she showed images of Indigenous peoples working on their micro grids, she just touched the surface of what resilience in the Arctic looks like.

As the applause ended and we funneled out of the auditorium, I was filled with more hope for the Arctic than I’ve ever had. At the same time, I was uncomfortable with the lack of Indigenous participants. While almost every speaker emphasized the importance of Indigenous knowledge and inclusion, we needed to hear what the Indigenous people of North thought of these innovative approaches to change. To have any effective policy, involvement and buy-in from the local people is essential. To have an event focused on innovation in the Arctic and not have the participation of the Indigenous population is truly a missed opportunity. Given the long history of their marginalization, I would hope that there is a concrete effort to bring Indigenous people to the table to talk about the issues facing their homes. The Arctic Council includes the six Permanent Participants, involving Indigenous voices. I would hope to see the same type of involvement, if not more, in the private sector. Here at North by North, we felt encouraged to dare to dream about the future of the Arctic. I only wish that more Indigenous people from the Arctic could have been there to dream with us.

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.