News Archive 2009-2018

Indigenous People Seek Greater Role in Arctic Policy Archives

Anne Henshaw

Anne Henshaw

Arctic observer Dr. Anne Henshaw delivered a lecture to the Bowdoin community Thursday, March 31, 2016. She had originally intended to call it “A Place at the Table”: Indigenous representation in international Arctic Policy.” But on reflection she decided to change the title to “We don’t need a seat at the table, it’s our table: Indigenous engagement in international Arctic Policy.”

The revised title, she explained, “reflects the sentiment that the Arctic is not just a frontier to be explored, a wilderness to be protected or laboratory for scientific learning, but for the 400,000 indigenous people who live in the region it is first and foremost a homeland.” And as such, she said, those people should be guaranteed a say in how the region is managed going forward.

Henshaw is program officer specializing in marine conservation, climate justice and Arctic issues with the Oak Foundation, an international group of philanthropic organizations which among things addresses issues of global environmental concern. She’s an anthropologist by training and from 1996 to 2007 was a visiting professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department, where she was also director of the Coastal Studies Center from 2000 to 2007. Henshaw visits the Arctic region about five or six times a year.

The metaphorical “table” referred in the lecture title is the Arctic Council, an international forum set up 20 years ago to foster cooperation and communication between the nation states, the indigenous peoples and other non-state actors in the region, said Henshaw. “In the last few years the Council has morphed from a policy-shaping into a policy-making body, and has signed two binding agreements in the last five years.” One of those agreements concerns how to prevent and deal with marine pollution, the other is about cooperation in maritime search and rescue.

Listen to the interview with Anne Henshaw (audio may take a few seconds to load):

To be clear, Henshaw stressed, the Arctic Council is one of the few international policy forums globally where indigenous people sit along side nation states: “There are eight countries that sit on the Council. Indigenous people from five of those countries are represented: the US, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Norway,” she said “and they have six seats as Permanent Participants on the council.” While the indigenous groups don’t have a formal voting role, Henshaw said the nation-states do listen to their concerns. They also have a lot of valuable knowledge to bring to the table: “They know the region better than anyone on earth, so I think in terms of informing the kind of science that gets done in the Arctic they’re critical. They’re important also in terms of understanding how the environment’s changing  and what it means for people who live there.”

Indigenous groups are not homogeneous however, and often view the impacts of climate change as a development opportunity for the region, as well as an ecological threat: “I think that the regional governments have more of a stake in terms of ensuring that their community infrastructure is well-supported and so they tend to be more on the pro-development side. Whereas some of the smaller indigenous communities are really reliant on natural resources to meet their food security needs and tend to be more precautionary when it comes to development.”

Spring Seal Hunting

Spring seal hunting. Photograph: Anne Henshaw











Despite their representation on the Council, Henshaw said indigenous groups are frustrated because they don’t have the capacity to fully engage: “While they certainly have a “place at the table,” their ability to inform and direct the course of governance and decision-making can not be fully realized until they have the full administrative, outreach and research support they deserve.” One major factor holding back indigenous people, said Henshaw, is the relatively low level of political engagement among younger generations in international policy because they are often dealing with more urgent matters in their home communities. Another is the lack of funding for travel, administrative support and outreach – the kind of support that’s necessary for indigenous groups to work more effectively with each other and among themselves.

Henshaw believes these any many other issues will likely be part of the dialogue the Arctic Council will tackle when it comes to Maine in October 2016 to hold its Senior Arctic Official meeting in Portland. “Why Maine? Well first and foremost, the US is the current Council chair, and wants to raise the profile of America as an Arctic nation outside of Alaska.” While not situated directly in the Arctic region,, Henshaw pointed out that Maine has a rich history of working with communities and conducting research in the region through organizations like Bowdoin College, which has a longstanding connection to the Arctic. “Furthermore,” said Henshaw, “Maine’s commercial link to the Arctic has come alive more recently through its trade partnership with Iceland and the shipping company Eimskip, which established its North American headquarters in Portland three years ago.”

Anne Henshaw’s lecture was sponsored by Bowdoin’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center. It is one in a series that the Center is hosting as a lead up to the time when the Arctic Council will convene in Maine. For more information on upcoming lectures and exhibits featuring the Arctic please click here.