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Arctic Indigenous Leaders Urge Cooperation Over Conflict in Far North

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Arctic Council
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Indigenous peoples of the Arctic don’t want international tensions in the region.

“We need to continue to cooperate as one Arctic family, learning from each other and respecting each other,” says Aile Javo, president of the Saami Council, which represents the indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia and northwest Russia.

Javo was among several indigenous-peoples representatives at a recent Arctic Council meeting who urged continued cooperation, despite the chill in diplomatic relations between Russia and the West over fighting in Ukraine.

“In times of geopolitical instability, and changing economics, the indigenous-peoples’ community will be among the first to be negatively affected,” she said.

Since it was formed 20 years ago, the council has managed to prevent such international disputes as the one in Ukraine from disrupting relations between Arctic nations.

Another native representative at the Arctic Council meeting says that’s partly because the organization operates on the kind of cooperation the peoples of the north have used for millennia to help each other survive the harsh climate.

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Credit University of Alaska-Fairbanks
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Evon Peter, Gwich'in Council International board member.

“There’s an interdependence that we have with each that’s just a natural part of the culture for those who live in the north,” says Evon Peter, a board member of the Gwich’in Council International, which advocates for indigenous peoples of northern Canada and Alaska.

“The environment reminds us almost daily that we cannot survive alone, that we are reliant upon one another,” Peter said in a recent interview.

Peter, who’s also a vice chancellor of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, represented the Gwich’in at the Arctic Council’s April meeting in Canada.

He says that cooperative philosophy enabled the Council to adopt important agreements over the past two years on joint oil-spill and search and rescue response.

A representative of the Athabaskan peoples says it’s also what helped the Council draft a plan to reduce black carbon and methane emissions.

“This is the first time that the Arctic nations have formally agreed to work together to mitigate climate change,” says Michael Stickman, an Alaska native and chairman of the Arctic Athabaskan Council.

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Credit Arctic Council
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Michael Stickman, Arctic Athabaskan Council chairman.

Stickman said during the council's April ministerial meeting in Canada that the West’s dispute with Russia has had an impact on the Arctic Council.

“It is important that we speak openly about the tensions between Russia and the West,” he said.

Stickman observed that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov skipped the meeting, and that his counterparts with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North also didn’t attend.

Editor's Note: This story was revised to correct the spelling of Saami Council President Aile Javo's name.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.