Despite their diversity Arctic indigenous communities share important cultural characteristics, such as a sense of connection to the land that they inhabit and traditional livelihoods such as animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, etc.
A cornerstone of indigenous culture is a phenomenon referred to as Indigenous knowledge (IK). Defined as ancestral ways of knowing, IK is passed down, often orally, from generation to generation and reflects the specific traditions, experiences, and cultural relationships and expressions of a community towards its land. IK includes everything from traditional technologies of subsistence to celestial navigation and is often expressed in rituals, folklore, dance, etc. Amongst the most prominent aspects of circumpolar indigenous knowledge are reindeer herding, hunting, fishing, harvesting, family and community ties, and oral traditions.
Reindeer, whether tundra, mountain, or forest reindeer, play an essential role in the cultures of about 24 distinct indigenous reindeer-herding peoples, most of whom live in Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Fennoscandia – a geographical region comprising the Scandinavian Peninsula, the Kola Peninsula, mainland Finland, and Karelia. Practised in much the same way for centuries, reindeer herding is identical almost everywhere (it involves the use of sledges and sometimes riding) and lends itself to a nomadic lifestyle to give reindeer herders, of whom there are approximately 100,000 in the Arctic, the necessary flexibility to follow reindeer migration routes. Reindeer are an important source of both food and economic security and play a role in other livelihoods such as fishing, hunting, and craftsmanship.
While sustainable hunting, fishing, and harvesting are also important socioeconomic activities for indigenous peoples, their cultural value exceeds that of mere livelihood, because indigenous communities feel profound spiritual and emotional connections to circumpolar ecosystems and their constituent parts, from fauna to flora, with some even perceiving links between the wellness of a community and the wellness of the land.
Interpersonal relationships and family ties are also a distinguishing feature of indigenous lifestyles. Showing respect and care to others and building positive relationships is considered crucial for both community and individual wellbeing. Community bonding is strengthened through shared experiences and identity building activities, such as storytelling and other expressions of the oral tradition.
The Arctic Council’s Project # P114 on the “Assessment of Cultural Heritage Monuments and Sites in the Arctic” was aimed at identifying 20-30 internationally significant cultural heritage sites from across the Arctic (from Norway to Greenland to Canada to Alaska to Sámpi to Russia to Finland), i.e. sites whose importance transcends national boundaries, for inclusion in the Arctic Council database. Amongst these were indigenous hunting and whaling grounds with preserved artefacts, ancient sacred sites, sites with petroglyphs (rock drawings), and other archaeological wonders.