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The Global South in the Arctic North: Indigenous nations struggle for sovereignty

Indigenous nations fight for sovereignty in the Arctic regions of North America and Europe. Connecting their struggle to Palestine, they are resisting NATO militarization — as the US Army pledges to “regain Arctic dominance”.

Inuit protest Nunavut Canada free Palestine

In January, three months into Israel’s attack on Gaza, a group people in the Inuit city of Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, rallied and called for a ceasefire.

One demonstrator said, “I think Palestinian rights are Indigenous rights to those lands, and we’re on Indigenous land here, and if we’re fighting for the rights of Indigenous people in Canada, in Nunavut, we should be doing the same worldwide.”

Bigger rallies took place in the more populated cities of Whitehorse, Yukon, and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

More than 200 people gathered at the Whitehorse waterfront, some of them descendants of Palestinian refugees from the Nakba of 1948.

In Norway, the Sami indigenous group saw their cause similar to that of Gaza. “There is an instant urge to stand up for people who are being displaced from their homes,” said a protester.

The Sami community launched a series of regular demonstrations in Oslo against the war in Gaza, and those rallies continue to take place.

In the same spirit, the Sami Council, an NGO representing the Sami indigenous people in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, issued a statement for a Free Palestine. It demands “that Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank and dismantles its settlement policy, which involves an unlawful annexation of occupied territories.”

In addition, the Sami Council calls for an international boycott of trade and investments from the occupied territories, and for a UN investigation of allegations of war crimes and violations of international law. It concludes with a specific reference to “the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly the Bedouins, who are often overlooked in these conflicts,”

What brought the war in Gaza, so far away, to the attention of peoples of the Arctic North? What triggered them to express solidarity with Palestinians? Certainly social media have enabled knowledge and solidarity across the globe, but what has been the motivation to participate?

Climate change and neocolonialism: a deadly mix

Two relatively recent processes have led to this. One is the fact that climate change has made the Arctic a major extractivist region, which is reviving neocolonial behavior long resisted by the indigenous inhabitants. The other is the new Cold War of the U.S. and Europe versus Russia and China, or of the imperialist West versus the previously colonized Global South.

Competition for resources newly uncovered by the melting ice has exacerbated political tensions in the Arctic and indigenous peoples are affected by new depredations on their lands and by growing militarization of the region.

Increasingly assertive, their solidarity with Palestinians indicates a strengthened international dimension.

Global warming in the Arctic is four times higher than in the rest of the world. Rising waters from the melting ice threatens the very existence of coast dwellers.

In the Arctic itself, melting ice has made accessible huge reserves of undersea oil and gas, most of it in Russian territory. But it has also revealed the presence of important minerals needed for modern technology.

This new extraction frontier not only damages the local environment, but it challenges the fragile land claims of Indigenous people, won over the years through hard legal contestation.

Even environmental technologies, such as wind farms and hydropower dams, have threatened the traditional livelihood of some indigenous peoples by impeding the routes of hunting or reindeer herding. Thus, climate change is endangering them both directly and indirectly even by environmental projects intended to mitigate it.

Indigenous peoples of the Arctic also suffer from old and continuing grievances incurred by their ruling states. Importantly, they suffer food insecurity, having lost traditional ways of living and not earning enough to buy imported food, which is high priced because lack of roads require it to be flown in.

Health professionals have noted the deleterious effect of poor and insufficient food.

Potentially genocidal has been forced assimilation through residential schools for indigenous children, where they were exposed to physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition, disease and premature death. Another genocidal practice was reproductive control through coerced and even secretive practices like fitting women with intrauterine contraceptive devices.

Decades of complaint, followed by promises of reform, have changed little on the ground. A deep reservoir of resentment has found new voices. Rising to a clamor, they are making demands for human rights and self-determination in the name of anti-colonialism.

The ruling Arctic states, for their part, maintain a tone of respect and promised improvement, presumably to retain the loyalty of their indigenous population, whose cooperation they require in the growing tensions in the region.

But a dark overtone of threat has appeared as well.

Arctic region map

Legacies of colonialism

A little history can illuminate the changes.

The indigenous peoples of the Arctic – such as the Inuit in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, which is a colony of Denmark; and the Sami in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia – resisted colonization from the beginning, when the invading states cut up their freely roaming circumpolar existence and confined them as minorities within borders.

A surge of renewed resistance took place in the global anticolonial movements of the 1960s and 1970s. These won them representative associations and some legislation protecting minority rights at least rhetorically. But many old problems remain unsolved and new ones exacerbate them.

In the face of governments’ continued inertia and resistance to significant change, the voices of the afflicted have become strident.

In Inuit territories, a silent sound is that of departure by young people in search of a better future. Those who remain are taking a strong radical position, recently expressed at a meeting in Iceland for emerging leaders from across the circumpolar North:

“The Arctic is facing colonization, oppression of language and culture, exploitation of natural resources and depopulation. These issues are largely the result of decisions made outside the Arctic without our participation or consent. This must change and we, the young leaders and Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic, must own our own future.”

One of their demands is for education to include an Arctic lens that recognizes local experts and knowledge keepers as deserving credentials equal to traditional academic ones.

Now more than ever, in case of war, the Arctic states acknowledge the importance of local people’s knowledge of Arctic conditions. Hence forward-looking youth demand validation for it through equal certification.

Another demand is for genuine participation in the decision-making of industries regarding the territories and resources to be affected. That means being included on boards and regulatory bodies to prevent exploitive practices and to ensure ownership in their areas of the results of research and development.

To correct the sometimes abysmal health care, they propose long-term funds determined by and for each community to create regional or community centers.

Finally, as inheritors of the planet, these young indigenous people demand representation in international and national policy-making on environmental matters.

Self-determination in Nunavut

Even more radical than stronger demands for inclusion is the idea of self-determination short of separatism. This is indigenous peoples’ assertion of a national identity and self-rule distinct from the states that colonized them.

For the circumpolar Inuit or Sami, national unity could surmount the divisions created by the colonizing states and overcome the subservience of pleading for improved minority rights within states.

Two examples of such relative autonomy are Nunavut, an Inuit self-governing region in Canada’s Northwest Territories; and Greenland, a former colony of Denmark, still tied to it for foreign policy.

For the Inuit, World War II, the Cold War, and the Korean War profoundly affected daily life. Military bases accelerated Inuit integration into the cash economy. Mines, schools, government offices, and nursing stations brought Inuit together from all across the Arctic.

This enabled a unified resistant to the Canadian government when it increased its assimilation policies.

In 1973, the first circumpolar conference of Indigenous peoples took place. It permanently linked domestic and international concerns, such as consultation about oil and gas exploration on indigenous land.

After further pressure, the Canadian government acceded to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement that created a new territory with its own Legislative Assembly and public government, separate from the rest of the Northwest Territories.

Now in 2024, Nunavut has finally gained decision-making power over the use of its land and resources.

A new agreement with the Canadian government gives its indigenous people final authority over the extraction of minerals, oil and gas on its public land.

This new authority has a lot on its plate: a growing class structure and divide with poverty and high rates of suicide. The Canadian government has expressed fear of “subversive ideas.”

And indeed, the larger Inuit Circumpolar Council joined the Sami Council of indigenous people of the European states in showing some starch against the state-run Arctic Council when it “paused” its activities in order to shut Russia out.

Proclaiming, “We did not shut down”, they insisted on maintaining contact through the working groups that include Russian Arctic indigenous people.

Greenland: Toward independence?

Similarly, Greenland is cautiously considering its political situation. Its largely Inuit population won autonomy from colonizer Denmark in 1979, but the limits of that status appeared in 2017 when the government of Greenland agreed to let China open a mine and a port, but Denmark revoked the deal for “security concerns” voiced by the U.S.

In view of its obvious vulnerability, Greenland’s parliament developed a very careful strategy that defines a fine line between defense and diplomacy. With an emphasis on sovereignty, it invites tactful discussion about potential conscription.

The approach assures alignment with the West, but also asserts a pacifist ideal as part of Greenland’s (Inuit) cultural tradition. This strategy advises Denmark, which controls Greenland’s foreign policy, that any possible military engagement should be limited to surveillance.

More assertively, two-thirds of Greenland’s population, resentful of being treated as second-class citizens, supports the independence party, with one of its members declaring, “We are trying to break from the colonial chains.”

Independence would allow Greenland to use its strategic location and resource riches to bargain for better conditions, investment and financial support. However, the presence of Danish and American military forces would prevent any major shift in allegiance with independence.

U.S.-NATO militarization

U.S. military strategizing makes this clear. A West Point document proposes the establishment of a permanent Arctic Special Operations Force that would engage indigenous peoples for their useful knowledge of Arctic terrain and conditions.

Referencing the history of Special Forces partnering with the Montagnards and Nungs in Vietnam and the Kurds in Iraq, the strategy notes the importance of a military presence on the ground.

The Sami, too, in the European states, see themselves in an international context, because national attempts at self-determination have had at best limited results or have outright failed.

For example, in 1993, while assuring the Sami Parliaments of their rights, Sweden nevertheless stripped Sami villages of their exclusive hunting and fishing rights.

One reaction to this high-handed state nullification of one group of Sami, was the formation of a pan-Nordic council in 1996. It is this Sami Council that penned the letter supporting Palestinians in the current conflict.

The Sami have restored notions of their pre-colonial unity in order to overcome their fragmentation into minorities within colonizing states.

They have also referred back to pre-colonial ways of living that organized land use differently. Subgroups variously had hunted, fished, foraged, and herded reindeer, all of which required a flexibly negotiated use of territory, rather than exclusive ownership.

Although most Sami now work in the wage economy, the idea of sharing national space equitably with the European settlers through state-moderated negotiation between equals has resurfaced. Not surprisingly, the states resist this idea.

As a result of the colonizing states’ continued domination, the Sami, like the Inuit, have turned to international institutions and solidarity movements to press their case for self-determination in clear political language.

In 2019, Aili Keskitalo, the first female president of the Sami Parliament of Norway, firmly stated “We share a history of colonialism, suppression of language, loss of culture and lands.”

As a Sami representative in the European Union, she fiercely protested the establishment of wind farms in Norway that interfere with the livelihood of reindeer herders, charging that “our voices are not represented through our national states in the EU system.”

To correct this, she proposed an examination of the power structures behind climate change by demanding an indigenous peoples’ policy of the European Union focused on indigenous peoples’ rights to land within the political framework of the European Green Deal.”

How might this new restiveness play out in increasingly tense atmosphere of great power hostility manifesting itself as militarization in the Arctic?

From March 3 to March 15, NATO played its biggest war games, Nordic Response, in the Arctic. It involved more than 20,000 soldiers from 13 countries, a majority Americans, with 50 naval vessels and at least 100 aircraft.

The operation took place close to Russia, the assumed enemy, which was informed and stayed watchful.

However, the Sami people suffered incursion on their lands with the establishment of permanent bases. Their resistance as rights holders was met with armed force and an increased military presence by Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

To prove NATO unity, exercise Immediate Response, from April 21 to May 31, includes allied training in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Czechia, and Poland, with more than 24,000 troops, of which 10,000 are from the US Army.

This saber-rattling does not lose sight of indigenous people.

In 2021, the U.S. Army formulated a policy, “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” which emphasized the partnership with the indigenous population, acknowledging the importance of their knowledge of environment and terrain.

But the consultation may suffer when militarization imposes bases that require supply facilities, specialized infrastructure, and storage and disposal of hazardous materials.

In the past, this has resulted in the occupation, removal, or outright confiscation of Indigenous land and resources.

Furthermore, concerns over insurgency may lead to counter-insurgency activity and border control, not only for reasons of state, but also for the protection of transnational corporations that extract natural resources.

US Army regaining Arctic dominance

Indigenous internationalism

What role can the indigenous people play when their colonizers – as members of NATO – confront Russia, which is aligned with China, which is itself aligned with the anti-colonial Global South?

To what degree would they collaborate with their states, willingly or not, and to what extent might they negotiate those opposing forces to gain their demands? Can they project the voice of their local institutions beyond the Arctic region onto the world stage?

The Sami Parliaments of Finland, Sweden and Norway are elected bodies with consultative but not legislative powers. However, like the Inuit Circumpolar Council, they have become more politically vociferous and politically unified around a shared global colonial legacy.

Today, there are now platforms for just such endeavors, thanks to the decolonization movements of the 20th century.

The global stage has become increasingly important for the ancient scattered indigenous communities encased in contemporary nation states due to colonization. The notion of decolonization has evolved into a broader challenge to the idea of an absolutely sovereign nation state as the sole structure of politics.

Indigenous internationalism has focused on the concept of self-determination, the maintenance of a separate identity within a nation-state, based on its resistance to assimilation imposed by the colonizing entity.

A new arena of struggle includes both the old degradation of the Arctic environment caused by coal and oil extraction, as well as the attempt to halt or roll it back by green technologies.

The precolonial largely nomadic indigenous people who had been sensible custodians of the circumpolar land they inhabited have suffered the most from displacement by extractive industries. Now, attempting to rectify the ecological harm with modern technologies of “green” industry, corporations look to extract the rare earths and minerals in the Arctic exposed by the retreating ice.

One result is the further displacement of indigenous peoples and further harm to their remaining traditional livelihoods such as reindeer herding and fishing.

In principle, they have a right to provide or withhold consent to projects impacting their territories. However, too often this right has been ignored in the violence of expropriation underpinning contemporary Arctic geopolitics, itself increasingly militarized.

The presence of the NATO phalanx that now includes all the Arctic nations except for Russia, thus confronted on its northern border on the Arctic Ocean, exacerbates tension and pushes indigenous core questions such as food security, health, energy and jobs, further to the margins.

Resistance is growing. When the Arctic Council “paused” its activities, in order to break off working with Russia, indigenous groups objected that they had not been consulted.

At the Munich Security Council of 2023, Sara Olsvig, the Inuit representative, insisted that collaboration with Russia must resume. She also stated:

“A variety of security issues continue to change our livelihoods affecting, including our food security and food sovereignty. The global geopolitical development is serious and adds pressure to our people. We must continue to raise our voices as peoples of the Arctic. Our collaboration and constant push for all Arctic governments to pursue a peaceful, low-tension, and prosperous Arctic must continue.”

In a different venue, Inuit representative Natan Oped passionately called out the cause of the problem of ongoing food insecurity affecting three fourths of Canadian indigenous peoples: “colonialism, systemic racism, and structural inequity, these all contribute to food insecurity.”

Growing Sami militancy comes also from the refusal of the European states to enlarge Sami legal power over land use which could affect mining and wind power projects.

In Finland, a bill redefining electoral eligibility for Sami that would dilute their ethnicity as they define it and which they consider a form of forced assimilation was debated over five legislative terms and was postponed again in 2024 on a technicality.

Sami Parliament President Pirita Näkkäläjärvi, speaking before the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, heatedly defied the ruling: “Luckily the world is watching. … We are not going to give up. We owe it to the Sámi people and all the Indigenous Peoples in the world to continue defending our right to self-determination as an Indigenous People.”

The spirit of that declaration of resilience and resistance is supported graphically in street graffiti: “Facing Life Or Death!”

In Sweden, resistance to a green transition that would once again intrude on Sami land rights has taken the form of neo-colonial awareness.

“Let’s put it straight: they stole our land,” said a Sámi politician from the Swedish Green Party.

Europe’s largest iron and copper mines that provide most of Sweden’s hydropower are on Sami lands, and the government plans to triple their number. In response, the Sami Parliament demanded a moratorium in the name of Sami rights to ownership of all the resources.

Artificial colonial borders

Another form of struggle against historic Arctic colonialism is the renewed demand for free movement by circumpolar peoples between the territorial boundaries of the Arctic nation-states.

Aslak Holmberg, vice president of the Sami Council, lives on the border between Finland and Norway. He is clear about the ongoing exploitation of the division:

“Countless Indigenous Peoples have been divided by imposed State borders, their communities and relatives separated by artificial lines, their migration patterns, sacred rituals, fishing and hunting ways altered. We must reverse the impacts of colonization, decades of neoliberal policies, and the current operations of extractive industries, agro companies, and monocropping that have impoverished Indigenous communities. We must respect, protect, and fulfill Indigenous rights.”

Inuit representative Natan Obed was equally forceful, stating, “Inuit in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland are divided by artificial borders that serve as barriers to co-operation, trade, and economic development and mobility. . . . Our human rights are not second-class rights.”

The new rhetorical starch of the Arctic indigenous leaders has alarmed the states that claim jurisdiction over them.

North America fearmongers about “China’s Arctic reach”

In 2023, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned Inuit leaders that foreign adversaries could gain a foothold in Canada by offering to fill infrastructure gaps in the North, probably having China in mind. But Natan Obed responded by demanding that the spy agency share classified intelligence about the risks, rather than just warning.

The chief risk is not Russia, which would not want outside interference with its own indigenous population, which includes about 2000 Sami among 40 “small nations” of the Russian Federation.

Rather, the “foreign adversary” feared for possibly seducing indigenous populations with infrastructure is obviously China.

A RAND study of 2022, nervously titled “China’s Arctic Reach”, noted the establishment of Confucius Institutes in the region, with waitlists for local residents to attend classes and events.

The greater fear is of China’s investment interest in mines for gold and rare earths. Two years earlier, Canada had blocked such an investment in Inuit lands legally considered autonomous.

How grounded are such suspicions? China has not viewed the Arctic as part of its security strategy, but rather as a region of economic opportunity.

Beijing has a non-voting presence as an “observer” in the Arctic Council, along with forty other non-Arctic states such as India, Japan, and South Korea, as well as non-voting participants of Inuit and Sami organizations.

In that role, China cooperates with Russia for commercial use of the northern sea route on Russia’s border, while anticipating that further ice melt will allow ships to navigate the Arctic Ocean itself as an even shorter route for trade with Europe. China also participates in ongoing scientific research about green energy.

China’s 14th Five Year plan (2021-2025), refers to the Arctic only briefly, stressing mainly issues of maritime governance and marine resources.

Contemporary Chinese policy of non-interference in the internal politics of other states makes it unlikely to champion colonized people of the north in the way it has supported opposition to neocolonialism in the Global South. The plan’s only official mention of indigenous people is under the rubric of tourism, enjoining respect for the traditions and cultures of the indigenous peoples and their unique lifestyles and values.

The Inuit under U.S., Canadian, and Danish control, and the Sami under Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish control, are not potential traitors. They are a colonized people reconnecting with the militancy of their earlier resistance and with that of newly militant neo-colonized people elsewhere.

The Global South in the Arctic North is a coming political frontier.

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