Skip to main content

The need for an equitable table at Week of the Arctic, Fairbanks, Alaska

May 25, 2017


Katie Aspen Gavenus

Indigenous Knowledge Roundtable
Dr. Rane Willerslev (University of Aarhus, Denmark), Ms. Asa Larsson Bind (Saami Council), Dr. Svein Disch Mathiesen (International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry), Karen Pletnikoff (Aleut International Association), Carolina Behe (Inuit Circumpolar Council) and Dr. Henry Huntington (Huntington Consulting) discuss the importance and meaning of other ways of knowing in the Indigenous Knowledge Roundtable hosted by the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat on May 10, 2017. Moderator Evon Peters invited all panelists to join him to share conversation at his "hunting camp," an example of creating spaces for Indigenous values, worldviews, and practice on the international stage.
Feature Series

Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

“Our Elders are telling me we have a short time left to make the right actions and we have to bring along our younger brothers (that means white people) and we have to do it with compassion and understanding and heart.”

– Ilarion Merculieff, Unangan (Aleut) leader, Pribilof Islands

At the Week of the Arctic, Indigenous leaders such as Ilarion Merculieff advocated for listening to other ways of knowing and being that exist outside the dominant Western paradigm. This call was echoed across all levels of governance, from Permanent Participants to tiny village councils, and was amplified by researchers, health workers, and other non-Indigenous people who work for and with these communities.

As one attendee, with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, explained, “Science can’t do it alone, Traditional Knowledge can’t do it alone, local knowledge can’t do it alone, in part because of the rapid rate of change. I’m eager to find ways to pull together all these bits of information into a bigger picture that we can operationalize and take action on.”

Bringing these knowledges together has proven difficult for the Arctic Council. Some, including myself, have expressed frustration and disappointment at the seemingly glacial pace at which the organization is moving towards fulfilling its promise to incorporate Indigenous Knowledge. Similar exasperation has been noted where Indigenous peoples attempt to bring their knowledge and needs into national, state, and local policy.

As Carolina Behe of the Inuit Circumpolar Council explained during the Traditional Knowledge Roundtable moderated by Evon Peters and organized by the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat, it is not enough to simply make space at the table for Indigenous peoples: “We need equitable tables … The same work has not been done to support Indigenous Knowledge. The wealth of Indigenous Knowledge is inaccessible right now.”

One component of this inequity is that, despite the significant efforts of Indigenous leaders, Arctic Indigenous organizations at the international level have to work within a Western system that is often antithetical to Indigenous governance processes. Western government frameworks have a number of limitations that may constrain thinking; this is particularly problematic where relying on Western paradigms has led to negative environmental, social, cultural, and economic outcomes. As Dr. Rane Willerslev from the University of Aarhus stated during the Traditional Knowledge Roundtable, we must “take seriously Indigenous Knowledge and concepts and enlarge our view of reality, question assumptions in the mainstream view of reality.”

Indigenous scholars and activists such as Rauna Kuokkanen and Glen Coulthard have noted that the structure of participation in international and national institutions can undermine Indigenous identity and efforts towards self-determination. By conforming to these international institutions and national governments, Indigenous peoples often must turn away from their unique, effective governance structures developed over millennia. Most gains made by Indigenous peoples on international and national stages are tempered by this sacrifice.

It is therefore critical to decolonize the institutional spaces where Indigenous peoples and states are striving to work together. These efforts, which consider Indigenous values and ways of being alongside Indigenous knowledge, will not only protect the rights of Indigenous peoples but also provide opportunities to envision a better future for all of us.

As this work progresses slowly at international and national levels of governance, exciting collaborations are being created on a more local scale. I witnessed this possibility firsthand while attending the One Health Concerns in a Changing Arctic workshop. That morning, most media and Arctic scholars were focused on the handing off of the Arctic Council Chairmanship and the accompanying statements by Arctic states and Permanent Participants. These statements offered distinct perspectives on human interactions with each other and the environment.  Simultaneously, a few dozen people congregated in a nearby building to consider such diverse perspectives on the confluence of human, animal, and environmental health in the Arctic.

I was seated at a table with a veterinary student, an official from the Center for Disease Control, a university researcher, and Mike Williams, an Elder and mental health advocate from Akiak, Alaska. We all had different approaches to understanding health in Arctic communities, and at times there was confusion, frustration, and tension as the direction of the discussion shifted between Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives and priorities. Bringing such diverse needs, thinking, and ways of knowing together is no simple task!

But as our circuitous conversation unfolded, two themes emerged. The first was concern over the mental health of young people, especially men, in Arctic communities. Mike Williams reminded us of the devastating legacies of colonization, forced assimilation, and boarding schools, and continued pressure of environmental change and harvest regulation. He suggested that young people likely have a sense of disconnect and lost purpose because traditional practices and intergenerational teachings have been interrupted.

We also considered the issue of stray dogs in Alaskan villages, and the risks to human, dog, and wildlife well-being that this poses. Mike recalled that dogs once were well cared for and played important roles in these communities. Those traditions, like most others in the communities, had been disrupted both intentionally and indirectly in the wake of colonization.

At first our group struggled to choose a focus. Soon, though, our thinking changed in an incredible way. Rather than seeing two problems competing for limited resources, we realized their relatedness. What if these problems, brought together in a meaningful way, could be each other’s solutions?

Perhaps a program through communities and schools could empower young people to care for and train dogs. Students would learn science, math, history, and culture as they administered vaccines, prepared food, and built dogsleds. They would be immersed in Indigenous values of respect for nature and others, responsibility to community, and hard work. The dogs’ well-being and purpose would be restored alongside the people’s.

Though our group only took a tentative first step towards considering and addressing these problems, in the hour allotted and with limited guidance, we five strangers were able to begin the process of learning from each other’s knowledge and building on each other’s strengths. Admittedly far from perfect, our experience provides a tiny illustration of the possibilities when people come together “with understanding and compassion and heart” to find the “right actions,” to borrow the words of Unangan (Aleut) leader Ilarion Merculieff.

So while the declarations of the Arctic Council and decisions of senior Arctic officials are indeed important, we should not overlook how connections forged in the forum have served to create networks for Indigenous peoples and communities. In both collaboration and consternation, the Arctic Council has become a catalyst for Indigenous dialogue. It is a space at the edge of which Indigenous peoples and communities and advocates can come together to support and learn from each other’s efforts. The workshops, meetings, and conversations may seem mundane, but these are the spaces where different endeavors and ways of knowing can connect. These are the places where real change is likely to be envisioned and enacted, supported by the arduous work being done by Indigenous leaders and advocates in the Arctic Council.

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.