The Arctic represents vastly different things to different people. I was repeatedly reminded of this at the Arctic Futures 2050 Conference in Washington, DC, which I had the privilege of attending this past September as a member of the Students on Ice Alumni Delegation.
To most Americans in the lower 48, and to most Canadians, 90% of whom live within 100 miles of the southern U.S. border, the Arctic evokes images of faraway icy landscapes. A climate scientist, on the other hand, will see the data associated with melting sea ice; the mining executive will see an untapped reserve of mineral wealth and exploration opportunities; the military strategist will see the geopolitical implications of new waterways opening throughout the Northwest passage; the social care worker will consider the health and social resources available to northern inhabitants; and lastly, an inhabitant of the North will not see the Arctic as an abstraction, but rather an integral and irreducible part of who they are and where they come from.
All of these perspectives and more were presented at Arctic Futures 2050, all of which produced many different conversations about policy development in the Arctic. While there were many conversations, there was one, to my mind, that stood above the rest: how does policy development meaningfully honour and cooperate with Arctic indigenous communities, their knowledge, and ways of life?
This conversation was on full display in panels such as “Indigenous Peoples and Arctic Environmental Change” and “Urgency of Collaborating to Inform Arctic Policy.” As an attendee, I was informed about the many ways in which the knowledge held by northern indigenous peoples and communities is critical to creating policies that will effectively meet the challenges and opportunities facing the Arctic. From international cooperation, to emergency response protocols, to resource development, to melting sea ice, to thawing permafrost, to changing migration patterns of animals, northern indigenous communities are at the centre of an Arctic that is in the midst of transformation.
While indigenous communities in the Arctic are at the centre of these changes, it remains to be seen whether their voices will be at the centre of the policy decisions that will shape the Arctic in the decades to come. Put another way, I felt that there was a profound disconnect between the Washington DC-based policymakers and the Arctic indigenous voices at the conference.
This disconnect at the conference reminded me of philosopher Robert McDermott’s notions of the two competing and polarized dimensions of American culture. On the one hand, America has bestowed substantial gifts to the world, from a global criteria for human rights, to legal protections, to unprecedented freedoms—psychological, economic, political, sexual and religious.
On the other hand, the American project has materialized on the back of a genocidal impact on indigenous peoples, the slavery of Africans and African Americans, and the oppression of women—all of which reveal the darker aspect of America and its cultural legacy.
From my vantage point, both dimensions of American society were on display at Arctic Futures 2050. The apparent disconnect between Washington DC-based policymakers and northern indigenous communities revealed the wounds that lie at the heart of American culture. It was sad and frustrating to witness these relational disconnects and shortcomings, which made me further reflect on the possibility that America’s cultural wounds need to be fully and honestly recognized in order to move forward as a society. In the case of policy development in the Arctic, this would translate to needing a full and honest recognition of America’s enormous wrongdoings committed against indigenous peoples, as well as a collective sense of responsibility to fully heal and transform these wrongs.
Perhaps by healing these wounds while also drawing upon the profoundly positive political and religious rights and freedoms bestowed by the American project, the conversation between Arctic indigenous peoples and policymakers can begin to move in a more productive direction. The positive dimension of American culture, with its deep commitment to an individualism grounded in an expansive pluralism of values, ways of life, and communities, lays the groundwork for unprecedented political and cultural partnerships in the Arctic—partnerships that meaningfully honour and cooperate with Arctic indigenous communities, their knowledge, and ways of life.
Despite the challenges facing policy development in the Arctic, it was also encouraging to meet so many individuals and groups at Arctic Futures 2050 committed to building these cooperative and collaborative partnerships in the Arctic. I’d like to thank Students on Ice for providing this incredible opportunity and for leading by example on how to build these lasting and constructive partnerships.