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Q&A: Inuit Priorities and Indigenous Knowledge

The Inuit Circumpolar Council represents the interests of Inuit people from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. Jimmy Stotts, the president of ICC-Alaska, talks with Arctic Deeply about Inuit priorities and how indigenous knowledge can be included in the work of the Arctic Council.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

In June 1977, against the backdrop of growing pressure to develop Arctic resources, Inuit from Greenland, Canada and Alaska formed the Inuit Circumpolar Conference to protect the rights of the indigenous people living there and their culture. The group later reorganized as the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC).

Jimmy Stotts attended that first ICC meeting in Barrow, Alaska. Today, Stotts is the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska and a vice chair of the ICC, one of the six permanent participant organizations that meet with senior officials of the Arctic Council to have a hand in its various projects, task forces and working groups.

Indigenous peoples’ groups have had a say in the discussions that take place in the Arctic Council since its founding. While this is a notable arrangement in international affairs, it is not without its challenges. Stotts recently spoke with Arctic Deeply about Inuit priorities and the effort to get indigenous knowledge built into the foundation of Arctic Council activities.

Part of Stotts’ drive has been to focus on Inuit food security – and the ability to keep hunting, fishing and whaling. But he’s also concerned with the high rates of suicide in many Inuit communities.

Arctic Deeply: What issues are important to the Inuit Circumpolar Council right now?

Jimmy Stotts: There are a number of issues that we’ve been trying to elevate for a while. One is something that the original 1996 Ottawa Declaration called for at the beginning of the Arctic Council, to use indigenous knowledge – or what some call traditional knowledge – in the work of the various projects and the various subunits of the Arctic Council. It has been a real hard slog for us, despite having very kind words of support from the ministers, to actually carry it down to the working group level.

Arctic Deeply: What’s behind the delay?

Jimmy Stotts: Well, a number of things. I don’t think scientists or science understands the value of indigenous knowledge. Just to be a little anecdotal here, I’m from Barrow and when I grew up it was at a time when the U.S. Naval Arctic Research Laboratory was in Barrow. We used to always joke that we made a lot of Ph.D.s because we worked with all these scientists. There was a very good relationship between the community and the scientists of that generation.

That has changed. We feel that science and scientists today are dismissive of the value of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is actually based in indigenous culture and that has its own worldview and its own way of looking at what’s important.

For example, when you talk about biodiversity, the perspective from the outside world is very often focused on protection and conservation. We believe in protecting and conserving the biodiversity so we can use it. We utilize these animals for food and so on and so forth. If you’re aware of Inuit culture, you know that we’re a coastal hunting people – that’s our existence. When we talk about biodiversity, we’re a part of that environment and we are part of that ecosystem. We have a relationship with these animals, but we are not there to protect them from everybody. That is a cultural difference that sometimes is hard to get beyond.

But we finally came to the conclusion that the way to start to do it is to incorporate it in a routine. At the beginning of a project or of a task force or any body of the Arctic Council, the question is asked: Is this a project that could benefit from indigenous knowledge? If yes, then they start the process to make sure it is included. If no, then why?

Arctic Deeply: But hadn’t there been a push within scientific circles to incorporate indigenous knowledge into scientific studies?

Jimmy Stotts: From my perspective, there really are three Arctics. There is North America, there is Scandinavia and there is Russia. Clearly in North America in the United States, Canada – and also Greenland – there is a very long history and understanding of working with indigenous knowledge. It is part of the United States’ Arctic policy to consult and use traditional indigenous knowledge. When you go to Scandinavia, this is kind of an alien concept. When you go to Russia, it’s not a concept at all.

Arctic Deeply: Where has indigenous knowledge already been incorporated?

Jimmy Stotts: There have already been discussions in assuring that ships are traveling slower or avoiding areas where there are marine animals migrating through the Bering Strait. There was also a conflict avoidance agreement between the whaling villages on the North Slope and Shell when they were up there in the Chukchi Sea. They came to an agreement where Shell would avoid the whales as they are migrating by during the hunting season.

Arctic Deeply: Where else could indigenous knowledge be added to an Arctic Council project?

Jimmy Stotts: We would like to see a project on food security. Basically, the project would look at the food resources Inuit are using, in a holistic way, to better understand how it all fits together. This is not only about nutritional survival, but cultural survival. Outsiders would rather look at how many seals there are than how the seal are used and other, more social aspects, of the use of resources.

There are some social issues that are of great importance to us, in particular, the issue of suicide. In our communities, there is a very high level of suicide, particularly among young men. We’re trying to get to the cause of it, but also to come up with some solutions, so that these young people have options in a way to feel good about living. This might be maybe too bold a statement – but it seems a lot of it just stems from culture clash.

Change is happening so fast now in the Arctic, whole communities are getting rooted up, some are falling in the sea, kids are not going to school, there are alcohol problems, there are all kinds of issues and when you put it all together, some of the young ones, especially young men, are getting lost in that transition. They have no feeling of self-worth or identity.

There is an initiative called RISING-SUN (Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups – Strengths United Through Networks) that is being undertaken in the U.S. chairmanship. The ICC is a co-lead on that work. There were a number of workshops on the issue during the Canadian chairmanship, which just ended in the spring.

We’re finding the underlying causes are things that are very hard to tackle. It can be everything from loss of language, alienation with your own culture, drugs and alcohol, crowded housing – there are all kinds of things that combine to become a factor.

There is a lack of understanding about us and who we are. We are quite a modern people, rooted in an ancient culture, and there are parts of that culture we tend to hold onto because it is beautiful stuff and we love it. We want to be part of the modern world. It is no different from anyone else. But there are some things that we hold very dear, and we’ll hold onto that as hard as we can.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska recently released two comprehensive reports on food security: Food Security Technical Report and Food Security Summary and Recommendations.

Top image: The many different forms of food security – from hunting and fishing, to language and the social activities that accompany the sharing of food – are among the priorities of the Inuit. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

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