Arctic Council - Indigenous Peoples' Involvement


[Reprinted with permission from Northern Notes, IV:21-32 (December, 1996)]

Monica Tennberg

The question of indigenous peoples' participation has been a continuously discussed theme in arctic environmental cooperation since 1989. Arctic environmental cooperation is cooperation between eight arctic states: Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, and the United States of America. Indigenous peoples' organizations, however, have also been involved in the negotiations almost from the beginning. Three organizations - the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Sami Council and the Russian Association of Northern Minorities - bring the "northern voice" to the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) represents Inuits living in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. In 1992 the Inuit living in Russia became members of the ICC. The Sami Council represents Sami living in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Since 1992 the Sami living in the Kola Peninsula of Russia also have participated in the work of the Sami Council. An association to represent the "small peoples" of the Russian Federation was established in 1990. It represents northern minorities living in Russian North, Siberia and the Far East.

The Arctic Council, which was established in September 1996, will take over the activities of the AEPS. The final AEPS ministerial meeting will be held next summer in Norway. During the negotiations to establish the Council the rules of participation developed under AEPS were renegotiated and the role of indigenous peoples' organizations in the cooperation was discussed. Olav Schram Stokke described the proposal to establish the Arctic Council as "an institutional knot tying together the various-level cooperative processes in the Arctic. The proposal aims to merge two parallel processes in the Arctic: internationalization and transnationalization."1 These transnational processes include cooperation between scientists (International Arctic Science Committee, IASC), among indigenous peoples (Arctic Leaders Summit) and within the organization of local and regional governments in the Circumpolar North (the Northern Forum). Institutions such as the Arctic Council are interesting because of the constitutive rules that are created through institutionalization. Michel Foucault situated institutions within "the thin but entangling web of power relations." Power is a name that is given to the complex strategic situation in a society. At some particular time, power relations may be crystallized into a certain institution. Institutions are "the most readily definable macro-objects, grosser instruments for the finer, more elemental workings of power." Thus, it is a question of analyzing institutions from the standpoint of power and not from a standpoint of institutions.2 I will focus on the relationship of power, knowledge, and institution-building and the problem of indigenous involvement.


The issue of indigenous involvement was touched upon at the first consultative meeting of the eight arctic states in Rovaniemi, in 1989. There was no resolution of this issue at that point, but the report of the meeting concluded that "different situations in the arctic countries may call for different ways of achieving this." It was considered, however, that "indigenous peoples should be involved in future work, since they bear the burdens of environmental degradation directly."3 This idea was realized in the Yellowknife preparatory meeting of 1990, at which the ICC and some Sami representatives (as members of Scandinavian delegations) were present. The ICC considered it important that "direct participation of indigenous peoples at all stages of an Arctic sustainable and equitable development strategy" would be ensured, "so that indigenous perspectives, values and practices can be fully accommodated."4 In the Rovaniemi declaration signed by the ministers of the environment in 1991, the states recognized "the special relationship of the indigenous peoples and local populations to the Arctic and their unique contribution to the protection of the arctic environment." The states committed themselves to "continue to promote cooperation with the arctic indigenous peoples and to invite their organizations to future meetings as observers."5

The indigenous peoples considered the Rovaniemi ministerial meeting "historic" since it was the first time that indigenous peoples of the area also participated in the preparatory process of making of an international declaration. According to an interview with Aggaluk Lynge, the head of ICC's delegation, "this was a great step for us."6 For indigenous peoples, the AEPS was "a long-awaited step in a mutually beneficial direction." Lynge considered the participation of indigenous peoples important, since "where the indigenous peoples have been displaced or otherwise lost control of their lands, we see that environmental destruction quickly follows."7 The Sami Council represented by Leif Halonen described the contribution of indigenous peoples in the following way: "we the Sami are able to agree and cooperate with the Arctic governments in order to combat pollution." Halonen stressed, however, that "the restrictions which may be put through in future legislation would give us the opportunity to live in the Circumpolar Arctic utilizing the natural resources, our land, water and territories with our traditional technology."8 The representative of Greenlandic Home Rule in the Danish delegation noted that the involvement of the indigenous peoples in the process has shown "an absolute positive attitude towards the arctic indigenous peoples, not only by establishing our position through the principles and objectives, but also by incorporating our organizations in the preparatory work and by securing our continuing participation in the future work."9 However, the indigenous peoples were unsatisfied because the documents did not acknowledge "adequate right to the use of natural resources of the area."10 At the Arctic Leaders Summit taking place shortly after the first ministerial meeting in 1991, participants noted that "indigenous peoples and governments must continue to work together to ensure the successful implementation of such agreements. At the same time, we must also explore new and innovative forums for dealing with arctic issues."11

For indigenous peoples, the participation became not only an issue of representation, but also contributed to the process itself. This led to the development of ideas of using "indigenous knowledge" in the development of the AEPS and its programs. It was the ICC that pushed for the use of indigenous knowledge in the process. At the meeting of AEPS' working group on the Conservation of the Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) in 1992, the representatives from ICC with help of the Dene Nation and the Metis Association of the Northwest Territories took the responsibility to begin to develop a program for the use of indigenous knowledge. According to ICC, which prepared a report on indigenous knowledge for the 1993 ministerial meeting in Nuuk, indigenous knowledge is understood to be comprised of "information and concepts about the environment and ecology that are known but usually not formally recorded by individuals who belong to a particular cultural group that has occupied an identifiable territory over a long period of time." It includes "facts, concepts and theories about the characteristics which describe the objects, events, behaviors and interconnections that comprise both the animate and inanimate environments of indigenous peoples." This information has been developed "through the person's observations of, experience with, and explanations about the physical environment and living resources that characterize the territory in which they live." The content and extent of knowledge "varies from individual to individual and there can be a specialization in expertise." From the indigenous point of view, "indigenous knowledge is a body of knowledge in its own right and a means of communication and decision-making that reflects who indigenous peoples are and the world view that they hold." The ICC's proposal for the Nuuk ministerial meeting included a research project on the collection, processing and application of indigenous environment and ecological knowledge.12

Two decisions were made in connection with the Nuuk ministerial meeting in 1993 to enhance the participation and contribution of indigenous peoples. First, the government of Iceland offered to host a seminar on indigenous knowledge, and second, Denmark offered to support financially the establishment of the Indigenous Peoples' secretariat in Copenhagen. The AEPS seminar in 1994 in Reykjavik aimed to clarify how indigenous knowledge is applicable to the AEPS and its programs, identify strategies and pragmatic proposals of the integration of indigenous knowledge into the AEPS and its programs, and identify the contribution that indigenous knowledge can make to sustainable development.13 In the AEPS seminar the role of indigenous knowledge was seen as "relevant" to the different AEPS activities. Indigenous knowledge can help identify important research areas, expand understanding of the natural world, and bring useful insights into natural processes, including the role of humans in the environment.14 In practice, for example, indigenous involvement in the work of AMAP (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program) has resulted in indigenous peoples being responsible for writing a chapter on indigenous ways of living and traditional diet for an assessment report on the state of the arctic environment. In the CAFF program, there are several projects under the Indigenous Knowledge agenda item: collecting indigenous knowledge on Beluga whales in Alaska, creating an Indigenous Peoples' Knowledge database, a study on ice edge ecosystem and indigenous knowledge, and developing ethical principles for research with cooperation with IASC. Within the Task Force on Sustainable Development (TFSDU), there are a couple of research projects reflecting the concerns of the indigenous peoples such as a retrospective seal market collapse study and a study on trade barriers.

Finally, the working group on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) is starting to identify the role of the local and indigenous peoples in emergency situations in the Arctic.15 There is a general consensus among the participants that indigenous involvement in the AEPS has made the process "a different product" than the strategy would have been without their participation. Their participation gives "real life examples." This would not have been possible without the indigenous peoples' commitment to the AEPS and support from the governments to ensure the participation of indigenous peoples. Rosemarie Kuptana, president of the ICC, noted that "language surrounding our involvement in the AEPS is often couched in phrases such as, the governments have finally involved the indigenous peoples in the important environmental work." She stresses that "our participation is based on our interest. It is simply natural that we are involved. We have a strong commitment to this work because it is carried out in our homelands and because it is within us."16 The participation of indigenous peoples has been supported especially by Canada and Denmark. Canada made possible the participation of ICC in the preparatory meeting in 1990 in Yellowknife. In Canada, former president of the ICC Mary Simon was appointed arctic ambassador, and she has had an important role in the Arctic council negotiations.17 Denmark's economic and political support made it possible to establish the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat in Copenhagen to assist the indigenous peoples organization in AEPS activities and to coordinate cooperation between indigenous peoples' organizations.

In the current situation within the AEPS, the institutional aspect of knowledge is dominant.18 The institutional dimension means that representatives of indigenous peoples' organizations are considered experts whose knowledge and expertise can and will be used in the AEPS. By claiming the knowledge is "indigenous," the basis for using this knowledge is political. For Henry Huntington, "the benefit of indigenous peoples' knowledge is to make a real contribution." The current situation, according to Huntington, is best describes as "a means to an end ... to get more influence and control."19 According to the indigenous peoples, the use of traditional environmental knowledge is an issue of self-determination. Indigenous knowledge is inseparable from the people themselves: it requires the direct participation of indigenous experts. As Huntington notes, "knowledge is in people."20 The question of indigenous knowledge concerns power: demanding the use of indigenous knowledge is a demand that the power base be shared. Indigenous knowledge is considered to be dependent on the existence of indigenous peoples and their way of life. There is "an inseparable relationship between the utilization of living resources, and the continuing vitality and utility of indigenous knowledge."21
Among the indigenous peoples themselves, there are some concerns where the idea and use of indigenous peoples' knowledge is leading to. Ritva Torikka from the Sami Council mentions, "the concern that indigenous peoples' knowledge is used as a political weapon, because there are not enough possibilities to participate in the cooperation effectively for indigenous peoples." She stresses, however, that with the help of indigenous peoples' knowledge, there is a good opportunity to develop, for example, a deeper understanding of the problems related to overgrazing of reindeer in northern Finland.22

However, the use of indigenous knowledge can be "a nice, interesting new thing to attract funding" and "a feel good project."23 Knowledge is always about power, whether it is indigenous or scientific: it makes subjects into objects of knowledge. When a human subject is put into a position of an object, he or she is put into a complex network of power relations. There is a price to pay in becoming and in being an expert. For example, Mary Simon notes that indigenous peoples' knowledge gets "a lot of lip service."24 She stressed in the Reykjavik meeting of 1994, that it would have been "taking a step backwards if we fell into the debate again of what indigenous knowledge is and does it or does it not have value." The challenge within the AEPS is "to devise a means by which the necessary human and financial resources can be devoted to recognizing and working with the link between cultural diversity, differing knowledge systems and a more profound understanding of environmental issues and ecological processes in the Arctic."25


In an early proposal by the Canadian federal government regarding the structure and organization of the Arctic Council in 1992, it was suggested that "in addition to the representatives of the governments of the eight arctic countries, there should be present, as participants, representatives of international arctic based indigenous organizations." The Canadian proposal included three categories of membership: 1) the representatives of the governments of the eight arctic countries; 2) a role and status for the representatives of international arctic-based indigenous organizations; and 3) representatives of non-governmental organizations, non-arctic national and sub-national governments as observers.26 At the moment, the three "major indigenous organizations" (or "IPOS" as a new term for indigenous peoples organizations has emerged in the AEPS language) are defined as "permanent participants" separated from the category of observers. However, in the Arctic there are several indigenous organizations that are not represented in the Council by this arrangement. For example, the Athabaskans and Aleuts of Alaska have presented their wishes to become permanent participants in the council. Flore Lekanof from the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association described the present situation as "hardly representative," since the Aleutians "don't have a voice" in the Council.27 Joint representation is not a solution to this problem. He explains that, for example, "Aleuts is not a land-based culture as the Athabaskans are, therefore, the interests of the groups are different and joint representation could be difficult." For Randy Mayo from the Council of Athabaskan Tribal Governments, participation in the Council is important: "We wanted to get included because of this unsustainable resource use that is having an impact on us." To be a member in the U.S. delegation is not enough for Mayo, since the Athabaskans do not agree with the agenda of the U.S. delegation. They want to "stand on their own."28

The idea of expanding indigenous representation is a delicate issue for both Canada and Russia. Canada considers the issue to have been solved already by 1991. According to the Canadian view, indigenous peoples should give their input as members of national delegations. Russia has pointed out that in their country there are several indigenous groups, which if the participation category were opened, would want to become permanent participants in the Council. Opening this category could mean that 40 groups would apply for accreditation.29 Also there have been some concerns stated by the indigenous peoples themselves that opening the category might "dilute the voice of the indigenous peoples." The problem is that "national groups do not have members representing indigenous peoples in their delegations." Several people interviewed saw the U.S. initiative in this matter as obstructive of the whole process to establish the Council. The U.S. initiative does not deal with the practical matters related to expanding indigenous participation. Participation in the Council, especially in terms of contributing to the work, requires organization and funds, for example, to travel to and participate in the different meetings of the AEPS working groups. At some point, it seemed that the responsibility of finding a solution to the problem was left to the indigenous peoples themselves, in terms both of finding a mechanism for joint representation for different groups, and of organizing the practicalities related to participation.

One may ask, what is the point in this discussion on indigenous peoples' participation in the Arctic Council? In my mind, by this rather long and difficult discussion on the categories of participation and representation, the states have aimed to create hierarchical rules for participation. These rules constitute the spheres of influence.30 They contain ideas of who has the rights to speech, from which institutional places the speech can take place, and what kind of positions the objects of the discourse can have. By creating the different categories of participation and limiting the participation by criteria such as the "substantial contribution," the access of different interested actors in the arctic is restricted. The rule of participation in the Arctic Council is based on its own "theory of indigenousness." "Indigenous" in political terms is "a statement of power that acknowledges the special status of the original occupants of a territory and aims at restoring rights and entitlements that flow from recognition of this special unique relationship with the state." Indigenousness provides the "theory" for redefining indigenous peoples-state relations.31 In the Arctic Council declaration, ICC, the Sami Council and the Russian Association will be permanent participants in the Arctic Council. However, this category is left open for additional groups to become permanent participants. The rule is that permanent participation "is equally open to other arctic organizations of indigenous peoples with a majority of arctic indigenous constituency representing a) a single indigenous people resident in more than one arctic state; or b) more than one arctic indigenous peoples resident in a single arctic state."32

The number of permanent participants should at any time be less than the number of member states. The number of permanent participants cannot be more than the number of states, whether there would be joint seats or separate representation. "Having representation at the tribal [level] is something that the governments will not accept" since there cannot be more indigenous peoples' organizations than governments in the council. Of course, the solution to the problem of participation affects the content of the future work of the Council.
There was a great deal of symbolic activity within the negotiations to establish the Arctic Council. The establishment of the Council does not secure funding for the different activities nor does it bring more funding for the work of the Council. The establishment of the Council does not include a permanent secretariat, which would really make a difference in the possibilities to advance cooperation in practice. This phenomenon was seen also in the discussion of indigenous peoples' participation; there did not seem to be very many parties in the negotiations who were concerned about how to ensure "meaningful" participation, that is making a contribution to the process itself. The establishment of the Council continues to be an exercise in the use of power, one element of which is defining the relationship between states and indigenous peoples at the international level in the Arctic.


1. O.S. Stokke, "Arctic Environmental Cooperation after Rovaniemi-What Now?," in L. Lyck, ed., Nordic Arctic Research on Contemporary Arctic Problems. Proceedings from Nordic Arctic Research Forum Symposium 1992 (Aalborg: Aalborg University Press, 1992), pp. 230-231. Look for a good description of the current status of AEPS in D. Scrivener, Environmental Cooperation in the Arctic: From Strategy to Council, Security Policy Library No.1/1996 (Oslo: The Norwegian Atlantic Committee, 1996).
2. Foucault is discussed in J. Caputto and M. Yount, Institutions, Normalization and Power (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993).
3. Consultative Meeting on the Protection of the Arctic Environment. Rovaniemi, September 20-26, 1989. Report and Annex I:1 (Helsinki: 1989), p. 6.
4. M. Simon, "Proposed Objectives for an Arctic Sustainable and Equitable Development Strategy," in Protecting the Arctic Environment. Report on the Yellowknife Preparatory Meeting. Yellowknife NWT, Canada, April 18-23, 1990. Annex II:15 (Ottawa: 1990), p. 183.
5. Declaration on the Protection of the Arctic Environment. Ministerial Meeting (Rovaniemi, Finland, 13-14 June 1991).
6. Pohjolan Sanomat (12.6.1991).
7. A. Lynge, Statement. Ministerial Meeting (Rovaniemi, Finland, 13-14 June 1991).
8. L. Halonen, Statement. Ministerial Meeting, (Rovaniemi, Finland, 13-14 June 1991).
9. O.R. Olsen, Speech by the Greenland Home Rule Minister for Health and Environment. Ministerial Meeting (Rovaniemi, Finland, 13-14 June 1991).
10. Uusi Suomi (12.6.1991).
11. M. Faegteborg, "Towards an International Indigenous Arctic Policy" (Arctic Leaders Summit) (Copenhagen: Arctic Information's Forlag, 1993), p. 7.
12. L.F. Brooke, "The Participation of Indigenous Peoples and the Application of Their Environmental and Ecological Knowledge in the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy" (Ottawa: ICC, 1993), pp. 36-37.
13. Look at A. Kalland, "Indigenous Knowledge-Local Knowledge: Prospects and Limitations," in B.V. Hansen, ed., AEPS and Indigenous Peoples Knowledge-Report on Seminar on Integration of Indigenous Peoples' Knowledge. Reykjavik, September 20-23, 1994 (Copenhagen: AEPS, 1994); and B.V. Hansen (1994), p. 15.
14. Ibid. p. 16
15. Report of the Third Ministerial Conference on the Protection of the Arctic Environment. March 20-21 (Inuvik, Canada, 1996).
16. R. Kuptana, Opening Remarks. Third Ministerial Conference of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, 20 (Inuvik, Canada, March 1996).
17. New York Times (22.2.1995).
18. See note 13, Kalland.
19. H. Huntington, ICC's Environmental Coordinator. Interview (February 1996).
20. Ibid.
21. B.V. Hansen, ed., AEPS and Indigenous Peoples Knowledge-Report on Seminar on Integration of Indigenous Peoples' Knowledge, Reykjavik, September 20-23, 1994 (Copenhagen: AEPS, 1994), p. 16.
22. R. Torikka, Sami representative to CAFF. Interview (April 1996).
23. See note 19.
24. M. Simon, Arctic Ambassador. Interview (February 1996).
25. M. Simon, "Indigenous Knowledge, Sustainable Development and Sustainable Utilization: The Need to Move from Rhetoric to Practice," in B.V. Hansen, ed., AEPS and Indigenous Peoples Knowledge-Report on Seminar on Integration of Indigenous Peoples Knowledge. Reykjavik, September 20-23, 1994 (AEPS, Copenhagen, 1994).
26. J. Hannigan, "The Proposal for an Arctic Council: What Position Should the Government of the North West Territories Take?" Circumpolar and Scientific Affairs, Publication Series 92-11 (Canada: Indian and Northern Affairs, 1992), p. 42.
27. F. Lekanof, Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association, Environmental Program Coordinator. Interview (February 1996).
28. R. Mayo, The Council of Athabaskan Tribal Governments. Interview (February 1996).
29. R. Senseney, U.S. State Department, Senior Arctic Official. Interview (February 1996).
30. See N.G. Onuf, World of Our Making. Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1989).
31. A. Fleras and J.L. Elliott, The "Nations Within": Aboriginal-State Relationship in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand (Ottawa: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 29-30.
32. Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council. Final Draft (August 6, 1996).