How 100,000 Inuit – just a third of a percent of the overall population – redrew the map of Canada, and regained substantial control over their destiny along the way
While half a world away, the Inuit of the chilly Arctic region have much to teach the stateless peoples of the world as they seek to re-empower themselves, whether through formal state sovereignty or enhanced economic, cultural and political rights within a constitutional structure imposed by others on a traditional homeland. For the Shan, who once ruled a vast kingdom but whose homeland now stands divided and occupied by Burmese, Chinese, Thai, Lao and Vietnamese, the Inuit – who are themselves divided by states created by non-Inuit and imposed through colonial expansion and war, with the Americans, Canadians, Danish and Russian occupying their once isolated and equally vast homeland – present some intriguing lessons for restoring rights and regaining greater autonomy and control over their destiny. Numbering only 150,000 worldwide, the Inuit were greatly outnumbered and had to be especially creative (and patient) in their approach to asymmetrical conflict; the Shan, numbering in the tens of millions, have greater demographic power and can thus better defend their sovereignty – but if they choose to expand their rights, freedoms and opportunities as part of Burma (and across the border, Thailand, China, Laos and beyond), and not as an independent state, the Inuit experience offers an intriguing template for cultural liberation without full political sovereignty.
Over the centuries, interest in the Arctic and its commercial and strategic potential has been persistent, but climatic conditions prevented the region’s full potential from being achieved. The region’s isolation dates back to before the dawn of man, and accounts for the Arctic’s distinct fauna, like polar bears and beluga whales, blending into an environment that has been defined by ice and snow for millennia. What defined the region’s biological evolution also shaped its geopolitical stability, and limited mankind’s otherwise heavy footprint – enabling tribal peoples residing in small, isolated villages to survive intact into the present era. But in just a few short years, all this looks to be changing, as a result of the rapid warming of the Arctic climate and the measurably accelerated summer ice melts, catching even the most alarmist of climate scientists off-guard – with the largest recorded ice melt just being measured in August 2012. This put the Arctic region in play strategically for the first time since the Cold War’s end as the renewed promise of finally unlocking the Arctic’s true potential, stimulated interest in the region among numerous stakeholders who had otherwise been content to ignore the Arctic throughout the 1990s.
For the region’s 100,000 Inuit residents, the prospect of a global population of over 6 billion with its increasing hunger for natural resources knocking on the door might at first appear to be quite disconcerting, threatening to overwhelm and to marginalize the indigenous peoples in their own traditional homeland. But for good reason, the Inuit have confronted the enormous changes taking place with confidence. While most of the world long ignored the far north, the Inuit were busy negotiating new constitutional and political structures to protect their culture, language, and traditions, and to secure their claim to much of their traditional homeland. For such a small demographic minority, their achievement is nothing short of extraordinary. A closer look at these achievements presents us with much valuable insight for multicultural societies around the world where demographic, economic and political inequalities remain.
If just 100,000 Inuit can, by force of their determination, patience, and negotiating skills redraw the map of Canada, with its population of 30 million, thereby creating their own autonomous territories and securing land title to millions of acres of traditional lands, there is then much reason to hope that others, too, may find creative solutions to achieve their own distinct articulation of cultural autonomy in the modern world. If there is a single lesson that emerges from their experience, it is the simple power of “never taking no for an answer,” even if that means engaging in negotiations that last sometimes for decades, at high cost in legal fees and much time spent away from home.
The simple power of persistence, a refusal to surrender against what looks like overwhelming odds, can literally change the world. It did for the Inuit. Their determination and success presents us with a rich and illustrative case study for students of negotiation and intercultural conflict management, showing how unequal parties can, with patience, determination, and persistence, come to a mutual understanding, even when greatly unequal in economic, political or demographic terms.
The Inuit Political Odyssey: From Assimilation to Empowerment
During the last half century, tremendous structural innovations have been made by the Inuit to the political economy of the Arctic, stretching from the Bering Sea along the northwest coast of Alaska to Baffin Bay in the east overlooking the high North Atlantic. Across three generations, the Inuit have completed a protracted process of negotiating comprehensive indigenous land treaties to resolve issues of land ownership, and to foster a new and enduring constitutional partnership between the indigenous peoples and the modern state, ingeniously crafting a variety of new institutions, including Inuit regional and community corporations, investment corporations, land administration agencies, tribe-state co-management boards, plus a complex patchwork of newly formed local, regional and territorial governments to give not only a voice, but effective executive and legislative power, to the indigenous people of the high north.
As a result of these historic changes, which I explored in detail in my 2008 volume, Breaking the Ice, the Inuit have become powerful stakeholders in the economic and political systems that govern the Arctic today, and along the way have become the largest private land owners in the high north, with direct control over some ten percent of the territories of the North American Arctic, and indirect influence over the other 90 percent. The broader historical process has been by and large a two-step process. The first step was to address the land question, and to negotiate – across several decades of fitful negotiations with national, state, and provincial governments whose commitment to a just resolution of native claims would greatly ebb and flow with the mood of the electorate. The whole process stretched from well before 1971, when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed, to 2005, with the conclusion of the Labrador Inuit Land Claim. In all over forty years passed by, from the first to the last Inuit land treaty in Arctic North America. In good years, and bad, the Inuit persisted - and when the governments across the table refused to negotiate in good faith, they would turn to the courts, and the press, to further their cause.
In the end, from Alaska all the way to Labrador, the Inuit successfully negotiated comprehensive land claims accords and with these accords gained clarity of land title, helping to identify who owns which lands, and to reconcile the competing interests of tribe and state, and thus open up (or, for sensitive ecosystems and traditional hunting lands, close off) the region to economic development, with various mechanisms of co-management helping to keep native and state interests in balance once the land claims were all settled.
The next step in the process of Inuit empowerment has been the pursuit of new systems of Aboriginal self-governance, taking a wide variety of forms and resulting in the emergence of various governing structures over time, as greater powers became achievable and earlier policies of racial-assimilation were replaced by more contemporary policies promoting cultural diversity and increased indigenous self-governance. This has led to a remarkably diverse kaleidoscope of Inuit governing structures – from the establishment of municipal or borough governments under existing constitutional law as we saw in Alaska in the 1970s; to the creation of newly empowered tribal councils governed by federal Indian laws in both Alaska and the NWT in the 1980s and ‘90s; to the negotiation of entirely new systems of self-governance – with the most far-reaching being Nunavut, with a comprehensive land settlement in 1993 formally tied to the subsequent formation of a new, Inuit-dominated territorial government in 1999, creating a complex but powerful system of self-governance wedding a formally public model to a predominantly indigenous region for de facto indigenous self-rule.
After Nunavut, the evolution toward more distinctly indigenous self-governing structures has continued, as reflected in the Labrador Inuit Land Claim of 2005 with the very first truly Inuit self-governing structure, whose principles were articulated in detail in the 2002 Labrador Inuit Constitution. This continental movement for Inuit empowerment has begun to spread overseas; in November 2008, the far-flung Danish province of Greenland held a referendum on evolving beyond their “home rule” system of autonomy toward formal state sovereignty and independence, which passed decisively – paving the way forward for the eventual emergence of a formally sovereign Arctic state with a majority Inuit population, with both revolutionary and devolutionary implications for the rest of the Inuit homeland, where there is now indication of grander sovereign ambitions.
In the years ahead, we will likely witness further advances in the process of Inuit empowerment toward increasing autonomy and more genuine independence, perhaps leading toward the balkanization of the Arctic region into independent micro-states. Regardless of the jurisdiction, whether in Alaska, Canada, or beyond the shores of North America in Danish-ruled Greenland, the Inuit have shown tremendous ingenuity in their effort to build new systems for self-governance since the land claims movement first took root in the civil rights era of the 1960s, creatively adapting existing institutions and inventing new ones whenever possible, continually lobbying for and negotiating to further advance their powers. As ideas and institutions for reconciling the interests of indigenous northerners and the modern state have evolved, following a west-to-east arc across the North, they’ve become stronger with each new iteration, reversing many of the negative consequences of the colonial experience, and transforming the domestic balance of power to lean heavily in favor of tribal interests as time went by, particularly on social, environmental, and economic matters.
This shift in power has increased the capacity of the indigenous peoples of the North to confront the many social and economic challenges that remain in their communities, providing the tools necessary to face them and to grapple with their next great challenge – the many complex uncertainties associated with rapid climate change, and the very real potential for a complete polar thaw, forever transforming their long-isolated homeland, and connecting it to the world at large through an open and navigable polar sea. The stakes are enormously high, but a solid institutional foundation has been built over many years in anticipation of the many unknown challenges that lie ahead.
Natural Resource Races as a Catalyst for Inuit Empowerment
Social conditions in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic have been described by many as a Fourth World, with Third World conditions exacerbated by climate, isolation, limited infrastructure including a near absence of roads and rail networks – making seasonal ice roads and summer sea lifts an economic lifeline. Communities are generally small, ranging from just a few dozen people to several hundred, with the larger administrative centers being home to just a few thousand people; their populations are predominantly indigenous, with subsistence hunting, fishing and trapping still essential to their nutritional and cultural survival. Fuel costs are high, as are imported foods, making hunting and fishing all the more important. Economic opportunities have been limited, with natural resource development presenting one of the more enduring opportunities, from last century’s Klondike gold rush to the Oil boom of the 1970s, to the Diamond rush of the 1990s, to the more recent rush for all manner of Arctic natural resources. Land claims have helped to ensure that when economic development does take place, local concerns and tribal interests are not overlooked, with indigenous leaders becoming governing partners in assessing environmental risk, mitigating impacts to traditional subsistence, and ensuring economic participation through jobs, training, and resource royalties. This can create deep rifts within the Native community, as tradition and modernity collide. But the new governing structures were designed in part to intermediate this collision, converting thesis and antithesis into a truly northern synthesis. The settlement of land claims and emergence of new structures of self-government have increased the role of indigenous peoples in the decisions made about the Arctic and its future. One dramatic illustration: in the 1970s, when the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry was held by Justice Berger, the struggle was primarily between corporate interests and tribal interests, with the latter excluded from the decision-making of the former. During the more recent Mackenzie Gas Project, the Aboriginal Pipeline Group sat with the oil companies as an Aboriginally-owned equity partner; and the Joint Review Panel examining the environmental and social impacts of the proposed pipeline was empowered by the settled regional land claims, providing an indigenous perspective on both sides of the table – contributing to a slow pace but a unique review process with indigenous inputs at all levels.
ANCSA: Starting the Process
When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (or ANCSA) was enacted, it aimed to quickly bring Alaska Natives into the modern economy, and at the same time to clarify the limits of Aboriginal title, making it possible to fully develop the state’s natural resources and in particular to build the trans-Alaska pipeline. Because its objectives were largely economic, its corporate model became its defining and most transformative characteristic – not without controversy, since the corporate model was viewed with some skepticism by indigenous leaders as a tool of assimilation, and there remains a continuing debate over the appropriateness of the corporate model to the indigenous north. ANCSA formally extinguished Aboriginal rights, title, and claims to traditional lands in the state, while formally transferring fee-simple title to 44 million acres – or some twelve percent of the state’s land base – to Alaska Natives, with $962.5 million in compensation for the lands ceded to the state, $500 million of which was to be derived from future oil royalties (as a result of which over half the “compensation” was to be derived from resources extracted from the Inupiat homeland – an irony not missed by Alaska Natives.)
ANCSA also created 12 regional Native corporations (and later a 13th for non-resident Alaska Natives), and over 200 village corporations to manage these lands and financial resources. These new corporate structures introduced a brand new language and culture, as well as a new system of managing lands and resources that seemed at variance with the traditional cultures of the region and their traditional subsistence economy. The early years of ANCSA were famously described by justice Thomas Berger as dragging Alaska Natives “kicking and screaming” into the twentieth century, and many native corporations approached the brink of bankruptcy, forced to monetize their net operating losses in a last desperate bid to stay in business. A new cottage industry of northern investment, legal, and policy advisors emerged – sometimes to the benefit of their clients, but more often not as they got rich off their sky-high consulting fees of $500 to $1500 per day while Alaska Native remained trapped in a state of poverty that never ended, wondering where all their money had gone.
In addition to the corporatization of village Alaska, ANCSA’s original design also had some structural flaws that also nearly proved fatal to the land claims experience, including a 20-year moratorium in transferring shares in Native corporations to non-Natives, which many feared would inevitably result in the dilution of Native ownership, known as the “1991 Time Bomb,” and which as originally drafted did not guarantee Native newborns equity in Native corporations – creating a wealth gap separating “new” and “old” Natives. While critics of the land claims process are correct to point out these original structural flaws and the assimilating pressures introduced by new corporate structures, the Alaska land claims model has nonetheless proved resilient and adaptive, over time being revised to correct its early structural flaws; and over time, as Native corporations matured and their boards, managers and shareholders found ways to better balance traditional and modern values, learning from their crash course in capitalism as they went – so today the Native corporations represent a huge economic force in the state of Alaska, and the threat once posed by the 1991 Time Bomb has been largely defused.
The Inuvialuit Final Agreement: Evolving the Model
Across the border, the Inuvialuit of the Western Canadian Arctic had a front row seat to ANCSA, and were impressed by all the money that was flowing north, as well as the new corporate structures created, and the sizeable land quantum formally transferred to Alaska Natives. But they also noted continuing threat to indigenous culture, and the lack of adequate protections of subsistence rights, traditional culture, and environmental protection, and were determined to do better. So when they negotiated the 1984 Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA) in the late 1970s, the land claims model became significantly enhanced – in addition to creating new Native corporations, the IFA also made an equal institutional commitment to the preservation of Native culture and traditions, to preserve the land and the wildlife, and to empower not just new corporate interests but also traditional cultural interests as well, by creating new institutions of co-management and more powerful hunters & trappers committees. They also made sure all Inuvialuit became shareholders, and that no non-Inuvialuit ever could, learning from the Alaskan experience. The Inuvialuit thus successfully modified the land claims concept, so that its structure included a natural institutional balancing – not unlike America’s constitutional balance of powers concept – that has enabled a greater commitment to cultural and environmental protections.
The Inuvialuit land claim entitled the 3,000 Inuvialuit living in six communities to 35,000 square miles of land; co-management of land and water use, wildlife, and environmental assessment; wildlife harvesting rights; financial compensation of $45 million in 1978 dollars, inflation-adjusted to $162 million, for lands ceded to Canada; and a share of government royalties for oil, gas, and mineral development on federal land; the formation of new national parks in their settlement area that further protect their land base from development, while allowing subsistence activities unhindered; and a commitment to meaningful economic participation in any development in their settlement area. This model has remained largely in-tact in later comprehensive land claims, showing a 25-year endurance as a model for northern development. But one issue that was not yet on the table in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Inuvialuit chose to pursue their own regional land claim – and thereby gain some control over the intense oil boom in their homeland – was the establishment of new institutions of Aboriginal self-government, something that the Inuit of the central and eastern Arctic – the future Nunavut territory – decided to wait for. The Inuvialuit felt they did not have the luxury of time given the frenetic pace of oil and gas exploration in their lands. But Nunavut remained more isolated, providing more time to re-think, and renegotiate, the land claims model.
Nunavut: Augmenting Land Claims with Political Power
In the years separating the signing of the Inuvialuit land claim in 1984, and the signing of the Nunavut land claim in 1993, much progress was made on the political question, and an increasing respect for Aboriginal rights in Ottawa enabled the establishment of a new concept: reshaping political boundaries to correspond to a land-claims settlement area, and establishing a new government to administer this region, augmenting the land claims with real political power. In 1993, with their signing of their historic accord, the Inuit of Nunavut were awarded $1.1 billion and title to 135,000 square miles of land, including 13,600 with subsurface rights, on top of various co-management boards, clearly defined rights protecting subsistence, and royalty sharing from resource development activities. Nunavut has a population of around 30,000 in 28 communities spread out across over 770,000 square miles, or one fifth of Canada’s land mass, including the High Arctic islands and the central-arctic coastal mainland. While its population is tiny, its jurisdiction is vast and its resource base potentially tremendous, and the sea lanes that cross through the territory include the famed Northwest Passage.
The most striking innovation of the Nunavut claim was the way it was formally linked to the division of the Northwest Territories and the formation of a brand new territory, resulting in the 1999 birth of Nunavut. Nunavut has now been up and running for a decade, gaining valuable but often painful experience in self-governance – and thus showing many strains as it struggles to confront some daunting social and economic challenges in one of the most challenging geophysical environments imaginable. There have also been intergovernmental frictions with Ottawa over implementation, and a growing perception of a crisis in Canada’s youngest territory.
But there is still much reason for hope for the future; the roots of the problems facing Nunavut go deep and are not likely to be quickly overcome, but the solutions developed can now be northern solutions, rooted in a deep understanding of northern social realities. Since its population is predominantly Inuit, a public government can, at least for now, govern in an indigenous style – as the principles of the Nunavut land claim and the governing power of the new territorial government mutually reinforce one another. There is a long-term risk the territory could become more like the Yukon, especially if a major mineral strike results in a new mining center. But for now, a public model in an indigenous context is a creative way to create self-government by other means.
After Nunavut: The Labrador Land Claim and the Dawn of Inuit Governance
Half a decade after Nunavut made headlines around the world, the final Inuit land claim along the North American Arctic and Subarctic coast – the Labrador Inuit (Nunatsiavut) Land Claims Agreement – was settled. It was ratified in December 2004 and came into effect a year later, presenting a new stage in the evolution of Inuit governance, making the two-step process more of a one-step process, further redefining the limits of self-government within a land settlement area – transcending the public model applied by the Inuit of Nunavut and the Inupiat of the North Slope. The agreement created the 28,000 square mile Labrador Inuit Settlement Area with an adjoining 18,800 square mile ocean zone extending as far as Canada’s territorial waters. The settlement area includes 6,100 square miles of Labrador Inuit Lands, five predominantly Inuit communities, and 3,700 square miles set aside for the Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve (following a tradition established by prior Inuit land claims to create vast national parks in which subsistence was protected) – with the Inuit retaining special rights in each of these areas. The Government of Canada will pay the Labrador Inuit $140 million in 1997 dollars in compensation for lands ceded to the Crown.
Just as the formation of the Nunavut territory was the most notable innovation of the Nunavut land claim, the emergence of truly Inuit self-government is the hallmark of the Labrador claim. As described in section 17.2 of the claim, it “exhaustively sets out the law-making authorities and self-government rights of Inuit,” with the newly created Nunatsiavut Government to be governed by the “fundamental law of Inuit” as enunciated by the 159-page 2002 Labrador Inuit Constitution. The constitution, among its many components, included an Inuit charter of human rights, recognized Inuit customary law and its application to “any matter within the jurisdiction and authority of the Nunatsiavut Government,” and embraced laws to protect Inuit culture, language, and traditional knowledge.” The Labrador Inuit Constitution created a blueprint of Inuit values and a pathway to the rapid formation of a truly Inuit system of government in a region that’s adjacent to coastal waters of emergent strategic significance, with active commercial and subsistence fisheries, major strategic mineral deposits such as the Voisey’s Bay project, and the prospect of much future economic potential. It also showed a new path toward Aboriginal self-government, one that did not require a secession like Nunavut, but instead forged a regional sub-government within an existing province, but with unique governing principles.
A Path toward Sovereign Independence: Beyond the Land Claims Model
The Arctic land claims model, with its subsequent modifications, has become an inspiration to many, proof positive of what can be gained through a determined, forward-looking effort to rebalance and modernize the relationship between the indigenous people of the North and the modern state. As with any land reform effort, changes in land tenure can have a profound impact on the domestic balance of power, shifting not just title to land, but the wealth created from that land, resulting in concentrations of economic power in the hands of a small indigenous population numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. In Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, the Inuit have become owners of vast tracts of land, making them a landed elite with control over numerous economic, and increasingly, political levers. While not formally sovereign, they are poised to become increasingly influential stakeholders, partners in the consolidation of state sovereignty, and in the economic development of the northern frontier. A comparable situation exists in the post-Ottoman Middle East, with extended tribal families and clans sitting at a powerful and lucrative nexus of land ownership, natural resource wealth, and political power. While northern Natives in Arctic North America are not in command of the ultimate levers of sovereign state power, such as military forces or national treasuries, they do have in their possession or within reach many tools of regional power, making them dominant regional elites. As the climate warms and the Arctic basin yields more natural resource wealth, the economic resources in their possession will also increase, and with that political influence.
Three years ago in Greenland there was a non-binding referendum on increasing the island’s autonomy and eventually restoring its sovereign independence, which was approved decisively, showing how the desire to be self-governing is universal across the Arctic. Denmark has shown a unique openness to the possibility of Greenland becoming formally independent (in contrast to the other Arctic states which attach great economic, strategic and emotional/ideological significance to their Arctic territories) – and if independence happens, it would mark perhaps the final stage in the process that began with ANCSA nearly half a century ago, with the full restoration of sovereignty to an Arctic nation. Other micro-states are sovereign (even if unable to defend that sovereignty) – from the South Pacific to the city-states of Europe. So why not in the Arctic? What a sovereign Arctic state will look like, how it affirms traditional Native values, and balances modernization with tradition, will be fascinating to observe. The risks are real; Iceland’s economic collapse, Nunavut’s persistent social challenges, the near-collapse of Alaska’s Native corporations, are cautionary tales to consider.
Reasserting Indigenous Sovereignty in the Arctic: The Circumpolar Inuit Declaration of 2009
On April 28, 2009, a delegation of Inuit leaders from Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Russia presented a Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Arctic Sovereignty in Tromsø, Norway, where the Arctic Council was meeting. It represented the Inuit response to their exclusion at Ilulissat, and while it does not directly consider the many details presented in the new U.S. Arctic policy, it nonetheless illustrates that both the Inuit and the modern state are converging in their conceptualization of Arctic sovereignty, with both viewing it to be an increasingly collaborative and mutually reinforcing concept. The declaration emerges from the work of the first Inuit Leaders’ Summit on November 6–7, 2008, in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in Northern Quebec, where they “gathered to address Arctic sovereignty” and “expressed unity in our concerns over Arctic sovereignty deliberations, examined the options for addressing these concerns, and strongly committed to developing a formal declaration on Arctic sovereignty.” There, the Inuit leaders “noted that the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration on Arctic sovereignty by ministers representing the five coastal Arctic states did not go far enough in affirming the rights Inuit have gained through international law, land claims and self-government processes.” In many ways, their declaration was their direct response to the foreign ministers of the Arctic states for their exclusion at Ilulissat, and it constructively redresses this exclusion, and persuasively argues for their central role in determining the fate of the Arctic. As the ICC observed in a press release issued at this start of their effort in November 2008, “Sovereignty is a complex issue. It has a variety of overlapping elements, anchored in international law. But fundamentally it begins with the history and reality of Inuit use and occupation of Arctic lands and waters; that use and occupation is at the heart of any informed discussion of sovereignty in the Arctic. Arctic nation states must respect the rights and roles of Inuit in all international discussions and commitments dealing with the Arctic.”
The April 2009 declaration unveiled at Tromsø updates the Inuit policy on sovereignty in the Arctic, and asserts that “central to our rights as a people is the right to self-determination,” which “is our right to freely determine our political status, freely pursue our economic, social, cultural and linguistic development, and freely dispose of our natural wealth and resources. States are obligated to respect and promote the realization of our right to self-determination.” Section two of the declaration concerns the “Evolving Nature of Sovereignty in the Arctic,” and notes sovereignty “has often been used to refer to the absolute and independent authority of a community or nation both internally and externally” but that it remains a “contested concept, however, and does not have a fixed meaning.”
The declaration further notes, “Old ideas of sovereignty are breaking down as different governance models, such as the European Union, evolve,” where “sovereignties overlap and are frequently divided within federations in creative ways to recognize the right of peoples.” Therefore, for the Inuit, “issues of sovereignty and sovereign rights must be examined and assessed in the context of our long history of struggle to gain recognition and respect as an Arctic indigenous people having the right to exercise self-determination over our lives, territories, cultures and languages.” The Inuit further note that “recognition and respect for our right to self-determination is developing at varying paces and in various forms in the Arctic states in which we live,” and that:
Following a referendum in November 2008, the areas of self-government in Greenland will expand greatly and, among other things, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) will become Greenland’s sole official language. In Canada, four land claims agreements are some of the key building blocks of Inuit rights; while there are conflicts over the implementation of these agreements, they remain of vital relevance to matters of self-determination and of sovereignty and sovereign rights. In Alaska, much work is needed to clarify and implement the rights recognized in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). In particular, subsistence hunting and self-government rights need to be fully respected and accommodated, and issues impeding their enjoyment and implementation need to be addressed and resolved. And in Chukotka, Russia, a very limited number of administrative processes have begun to secure recognition of Inuit rights. These developments will provide a foundation on which to construct future, creative governance arrangements tailored to diverse circumstances in states, regions and communities.
The Circumpolar Inuit declaration observes that in “exercising our right to self-determination in the circumpolar Arctic, we continue to develop innovative and creative jurisdictional arrangements that will appropriately balance our rights and responsibilities as an indigenous people, the rights and responsibilities we share with other peoples who live among us, and the rights and responsibilities of states,” and that in “seeking to exercise our rights in the Arctic, we continue to promote compromise and harmony with and among our neighbours.”
However, even though the Ilulissat Declaration pledged the Arctic rim states to “use international mechanisms and international law to resolve sovereignty disputes,” thus far “in their discussions of Arctic sovereignty” the Arctic rim states “have not referenced existing international instruments that promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples. They have also neglected to include Inuit in Arctic sovereignty discussions in a manner comparable to Arctic Council deliberations.” The Inuit declaration thus reminds us that the “inclusion of Inuit as active partners in all future deliberations on Arctic sovereignty will benefit both the Inuit community and the international community,” and that “extensive involvement of Inuit in global, trans-national and indigenous politics requires the building of new partnerships with states for the protection and promotion of indigenous economies, cultures and traditions.”
These partnerships, the declaration contends, “must acknowledge that industrial development of the natural resource wealth of the Arctic can proceed only insofar as it enhances the economic and social well-being of Inuit and safeguards our environmental security.” Anything less will be rejected by the Inuit, and with their many settled land claims accords, regional and territorial governments, and numerous mechanisms of co-management and environmental regulation, proceeding without the full support of the Inuit might be surprisingly futile.
That’s why the Inuit have drawn this new line in the tundra, and are now so vocally insisting that their exclusion from the table at Ilulissat must be redressed – so that the future development of the Arctic is a truly joint effort, not just between the coastal and non-coastal Arctic states, but between the Arctic states and the Inuit as well.
And so the promise of the Inuit land claims process, of full economic and political participation and increasingly over time full cultural protection as well, would not ultimately be undermined by a re-assertion of state sovereignty at the expense of Inuit rights, a risk that nonetheless remains with us – despite the many structural reforms that have empowered the Inuit and restored so many rights, to land, culture, and economic – a risk that can never truly disappear so long as Inuit rights are pursued within the constitutional frameworks and sovereign forms imposed by non-Inuit people on the Inuit, and not in the form of a truly sovereign and independent Inuit state.
Lessons for Shanland
As the Shan continue to respond to the reform movement sweeping Burma, and compare the risks and benefits of articulating Shan aspirations within a reforming Burmese state versus the challenges of secession and the restoration of an independent and sovereign Shan state, the lessons of the Inuit are at once encouraging as they are cautionary. That 150,000 Inuit have restored so many rights, and gained land title to so much land (and subsurface rights to an impressive portion of this land base), and have gradually expanded their political power in the form of local, regional and territorial level governments, becoming land barons, economic leaders, and political bosses in their traditional homeland, suggests much can be gained by remaining a minority within a multi-ethnic state – so long as that state remains committed ethnic harmony and the restoration of the rights of its minority peoples, and does not reverse course along the way. But even then, it remains a constant struggle to ensure newly restored rights are embraced and not ignored.
The promise of true sovereignty thus remains appealing, but the path toward its achievement is much more difficult, and as the Inuit now realize, the land claims and self-government model they have pursued, for all its tangible gains, leaves them powerless in such areas as diplomacy and defense. They have nonetheless persisted, leveraging the tools they do have (such as control over land use which can inhibit military access to their homeland, and the moral suasion they can bring to Arctic diplomacy). By forming the Inuit Circumpolar Council the Inuit have presented a united voice on the world stage – strengthening the message of the Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia and keeping any infighting behind closed doors. Canadian Inuit leader Mary Simon even achieved the rank of Ambassador within the Canadian ministry of foreign affairs, representing the Arctic region as a whole, representing the potential alignment of Inuit and state interests and evidence that the pursuit of Inuit rights within the Canadian confederation can yield notable gains – and in more recent months, US Secretary of State Clinton has embraced the Inuit perspective in her approach to Arctic diplomacy, a powerful ally for the once stateless people who have accepted the constitutional realities of the post-colonial Arctic, and turned to their former occupiers as a partner in pursuit of greater rights and opportunities. So while not fully sovereign, the Inuit have nonetheless managed to have a determined voice on the world and national stage, something the Shan could do as well if they elect to remain part of Burma – at least until the long-dreamed victory of liberation is at last in reach.
The process is slow – it took over forty years for the Inuit to complete their land claims journey, educating the state along the way and demonstrating a multigenerational commitment to restoring their rights – but even now, many challenges still remain including endemic poverty, continuing widespread social problems in the communities, and the frustrations of sharing power. So patience has been, and continues to be, required – as is a negotiating partner who shows continuing good faith, and a true respect for indigenous rights, culture, and identity. Without this, any reform effort will be stillborn, leaving only one choice for the restoration of rights: sovereignty and independence.