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This article is part of the Arctic in Context series of expert assessments of the Arctic Council at its 20th anniversary.
By James Gamble
In July 1984 a piece of legislation that would have lasting implications for Arctic science and policy passed the United States Congress and was signed into law by President Ronald Regan. The Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984 established the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (ARCUS), which was directed to, among other things, “establish an integrated national Arctic research policy and a program to implement such policy.” The act defined the U.S. Arctic as "all United States and foreign territory north of the Arctic Circle and all United States territory north and west of the boundary formed by the Porcupine, Yukon, and Kuskokwim Rivers; all contiguous seas, including the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi Seas; and the Aleutian chain." The final four words of the newly established definition would have far-reaching consequences for the Aleut people of Alaska and the Russian Federation, as they would allow the Aleutians to be included in Arctic science and policy discussions and activities.
The Aleutian Islands stretch from the western end of the Alaska Peninsula to Attu Island, more than 1,000 miles to the west. The Commander Islands, west of Attu Island and now part of the Russian Federation, are geographically part of the island chain. The archipelago sits at the border between the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, and at this boundary the mixture of nutrient-rich waters results in a diverse and abundant food chain. Without the predominantly northward flow from the Aleutians and Bering Sea into the Arctic Ocean, adding to the heat, salt, and nutrients that flow into the western Arctic, productivity in the Chukchi Sea and, to a lesser extent, the East Siberian and Beaufort Seas, would be much reduced. Understanding these interactions is essential to the science of the Arctic marine environment, and including the Aleutians in the U.S. definition of the Arctic makes the process more natural and streamlined. Human settlement in the region dates back around 10,000 years and a vibrant society fundamentally linked to the sea and coastal zone existed when Russian explorers were the first outsiders to arrive there in 1741. Many tragic events befell the Aleut people after first contact, including war, disease, and forced labor. By 1800 only about 20 percent of the population before Russian contact remained. Both the Russians and the Americans relocated Aleuts to the Commander Islands and Pribilof Islands, respectively, to hunt and process lucrative Northern Fur Seal pelts. World War II brought another forced relocation when the Japanese invaded Attu and took the population back to Japan for internment; only about half survived and Attu was never repopulated. U.S. forces removed the residents of nine villages to hastily established camps in southeast Alaska, where 10 percent died due to poor housing, hygiene, and medical care. Despite these trials, the Aleut people and their culture remain and prosper, linked to the marine environment for both subsistence and economic benefit, and connected to the globe in surprising and interesting ways.
It is sometimes said that the Aleuts are ancient people living in modern times, and despite the isolation of their island homes, they also live on one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The North Pacific Great Circle Route is the course of choice for cargo vessels traveling between the Pacific Northwest of North America and Asia. Ships following the curvature of the earth make about 3,000 westward transits each year, passing within 75 miles of the Aleutian shores, and an equal number of eastward transits passing within 200 miles. This enormous amount of traffic combined with the region’s notoriously bad weather has resulted in numerous accidents and near misses over the years, and one accident in December 2004 resulted in the second-largest oil spill in Alaska history. With the Great Circle Route so deeply integrated with the world economy, the vessels that use it flagged by numerous nations, and the principle of “innocent passage” applied when transiting U.S. waters, how can a small indigenous population like the Aleuts have a say in its operations? The route is governed by far-away entities, yet it has the potential to affect the Aleut people directly—as do other global processes like cross-border pollution, climate change, and globalization. Having access to decision-making bodies that influence these issues could be a key factor in protecting the Aleut culture and way of life.
In 1996 the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), an intergovernmental forum consisting of the eight Arctic states, was reformed to embrace a broader mandate than just environmental protection in the Arctic, and the Arctic Council was born. In the Ottawa Declaration, which formally established the Council, three indigenous organizations that had been observers in the AEPS—the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (later to become the Inuit Circumpolar Council); the Saami Council; and the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation (later to become the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North – RAIPON)—were designated “Permanent Participants,” with seats at the table and full consultative powers, but without actual votes. A provision was also made for the addition of up to three more Permanent Participants to the Council.
Shortly after the establishment of the Arctic Council, a member of the board of directors of the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association, Flore Lekanoff, recognized the potential importance of the newly formed Arctic Council, and the value of having Aleut voices at that table. Lekanoff contacted a Russian Aleut friend, Vladimir Dobrynin, who was a member of the Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North of the Aleut District of the Kamchatka Region of the Russian Federation. Together, they and their respective organizations formed Aleut International Association (AIA) as a non-profit corporation based in Anchorage, Alaska, and submitted an application to the Arctic Council to make the new organization a Permanent Participant representing the Aleut people of the United States and the Russian Federation. Even though AIA met one of the definitions of a Permanent Participant—it represents “a single Indigenous people resident in more than one Arctic State”—at least one Arctic state and one Permanent Participant still opposed its acceptance. Three reasons likely contributed to this opposition: The Aleut people were considered to be from a subarctic region, the Commander Islands were not included in the Russian Federation’s definition of the Arctic, and the addition of more Permanent Participants might dilute the voices of the original three. However, since the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands were included in the U.S. definition of the Arctic, the U.S. government strongly supported AIA’s application. On Sept. 18, 1998, in the Arctic Council’s first Iqaluit Declaration, Article 2 read: “Approve the Aleut International Association as a Permanent Participant in the Arctic Council.” With that AIA became the fourth Permanent Participant, and the fifth and sixth followed shortly when the Barrow Declaration of October 2000 approved the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC) and the Gwich’in Council International (GCI).
The Arctic Council recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, which has led to a great deal of reflection, speculation about the future, and discussions about the body’s effectiveness. These conversations are healthy because there will always be ways that the Council can be improved. To AIA, the vision Flore Lekanoff and Vladimir Dobrynin had for the potential value of Permanent Participant status in the Arctic Council has been exceeded time and again. The unique and powerful benefits manifest in participation in groundbreaking reports and assessments, sitting at the table for policy discussions with the Arctic states, and the opportunity for side conversations where understandings can be reached and collaborations can be formed. The Permanent Participants struggle to find the resources to participate and contribute fully in the Arctic Council, so finding ways to better support them should be prioritized and will serve the interests of everyone involved. The Permanent Participants bring value not only to the communities they represent, but also to the Arctic states and all the entities they encompass, making the Arctic Council a truly unique forum. Taking into account the difficulties of past relationships between the Aleut people, the Russian and U.S. governments, and corporate interests, as well as urgent issues such as shipping safety and climate change adaptation and mitigation, the usefulness of a seat at the Arctic Council table and a voice in its policy shaping and policymaking activities is even more clear. The Arctic Council remains the preeminent forum for Arctic issues, and being included in that forum will provide benefits to the Aleut people far into the future.
James Gamble is executive director of Aleut International Association. He is the current lead for AIA in the Arctic Contaminants Action Program, Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment, and Sustainable Development Working Group, as well as the Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation and the Task Force on Scientific Cooperation in the Arctic.
[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]