Currently constituting about 10 percent of the overall local population, indigenous peoples have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years.
Most circumpolar indigenous people live in small, scattered communities, constituting a majority of the populations of Greenland (a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark), the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, and Nunavik – the northern third of the Canadian province of Quebec. By contrast, indigenous communities constitute a minority of the populations of Russia’s Murmansk Oblast, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, and Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, all of which were generously populated by Slavic migrants coming to work in mining and industry.
Amongst indigenous peoples are the Sámi of the Sápmi region – a cultural region spread across circumpolar areas in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Northwest Russia – the Chukchi, Evenk, Nenets, and Khanty in Russia, the Aleut, Iñupiat (Inuit) and Yupik in Alaska, the Inuvialuit (Inuit) in Canada, the Kalaallit (Inuit) in Greenland, and many more.
The political organisation of indigenous peoples has been instrumental for the international recognition of indigenous rights, both human and political, including rights to land and natural resources. The most important step towards cementing these rights in international law was the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
All decisions of the Arctic Council are based on consensus between the eight member states and six Permanent Participants – organisations representing the Arctic’s indigenous communities. These organisations include the Aleut International Association (AIA), the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), Gwic’in Council International (GGI), the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), and the Saami Council (SC).
Created to address environmental and cultural matters, the AIA is a not-for-profit corporation representing the 2,200 Aleut people and 15,350 people of Aleut descent living in the United States and Russia. Known as the Unangan in the Aleut language, the Aleut historically lived on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and Russia’s Kamchatka region and subsisted on a diet of fish, sea lions, and seals from the Bering Sea.
The AAC represents the 45,000 Athabaskan people in North America. Spread across Alaska (where they constitute about two percent of the local population) and the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and the northern sections of Canada’s provinces (where they make up one third of the local population), the Athabaskan have 32 distinct languages in the Arctic alone. Originally semi-nomadic hunters surviving on a diet of beaver, caribous, moose, rabbit, and fish, today’s Athabaskans maintain largely traditional practices and dietary habits. Like the AIA, the AAC looks at how climate change affects traditional activities.
The GGI represents the approximately 9,000 Gwich’in people living in the taiga (boreal forest) of Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, focusing on the environment, development, education, and tradition, amongst other domains. While the Gwich’in are part of the Athabaskan people, they have a distinct culture and language. Caribou, moose, and whitefish are cornerstones of the Gwich’in diet and the Gwich’in culture and economy are hunting, fishing, and trapping oriented. The Gwich’in are actively involved in protecting the Porcupine Caribou herd – their main source of food, tools, and clothing.
The ICC represents the 180,000 Inuits living in Alaska (the Inupiat or Iсupiat, the Yupik, and the Cupik), Canada, Russia’s Chukotka, and Greenland (where they make up 90 percent of the population). In Canada, 72.8 percent of all Inuits live in one of the four settlement regions – Inuvialuit, Nunatsiavut, Nunavik and Nunavut. Fishing and hunting animals such as beluga and bowhead whales, caribou, seals, and walruses are cornerstones of the traditional Inuit lifestyle. The ICC focuses on safeguarding the Arctic environment, promoting Inuit rights and interests, and developing circumpolar regions.
RAIPON represents over 250,000 indigenous people from 40 distinct groups in Russia’s north and Far East. The organisation focuses on protecting human rights and the right to self-governance and solving environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural issues.
The Saami Council represents the Sámi people, who, as mentioned previously, live in the Sápmi cultural region. The majority of the world’s estimated 100,000 Sámi people live in Norway, where they have an elected assembly – the Sámediggi – which was founded in 1989. The Sámi’s traditional lifestyle is based on reindeer herding and animal husbandry, fishing, and hunting. The Sámi people speak a total of nine languages. The Saami Council promotes Sámi rights, environmental protection, and sustainable development.