Good-bye Harpoon, Hello Briefcase - THE PULL - The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future - Laurence C. Smith

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future - Laurence C. Smith (2010)


Chapter 8. Good-bye Harpoon, Hello Briefcase

“The foundation of our culture is on the ice, the cold, the snow.”

—Sheila Watt-Cloutier (1953-)

“Inuvialuit are a proud and adaptable people. We wouldn’t have lasted for so many generations … if we weren’t.”

— Nellie J. Cournoyea (1940-)

“MEIDÄN ELÄMÄ ON AINA VAIHTUNUT,” said my host, rapping the rustic wooden corral fence with gnarled hands for emphasis. I eagerly returned my eyes to my new Finnish translator—perhaps too eagerly. She was gorgeous and something was definitely in the air. I didn’t know it yet, but just six weeks later we would agree to get married.

“She says, ‘We’re always changing.’”

“Hm? Oh, yes. Ask her to elaborate.”

In my defense, I might have been distracted from the interview no matter who was translating. What I was hearing from my subject, a fiftyish Sámi reindeer herder in Lapland, was quickly turning into what I’d already heard in many other interviews around the Northern Rim. It was fast becoming clear to me that the perspective I’d carried into this project would need to be broadened considerably.

I had come up here—I thought—to write a book about climate change. My plan was to document not only the physical realities of thawing ice and soil, but their corresponding impacts upon traditional aboriginal societies. I’d wanted to find the faces and tragedies hiding inside the pixels of my satellite images and climate models. I’d envisioned being welcomed with gratitude, after traveling thousands of miles to record personal accounts of meatless hunts, starving wildlife, and perilously thinning ice. In my year-plus vacation from number crunching, I would become the Anna Politkovskaya of Arctic climate change.

In retrospect it’s a bit embarrassing. Instead of gratitude I got a resigned look and the tired recitation of stories told once too often. Often I was the third, fourth, or tenth outsider interrupting someone’s busy summer, demanding to know how climate change was destroying their life. In airplanes and hotels I bumped into camera crews and book authors, all asking for leads to a stricken hunter to interview, a melting lump of ice to film.

I got all of those stories of woe. My notebooks are overflowing with them. Our Sámi reindeer herder is now spending a bundle on hay, because bizarre winter rains have made her animals unable to scrape through the ice-crusted snow to eat.444 There is no question that climate change is wreaking havoc upon northern peoples, as described in earlier chapters. These problems will only get worse in the future. But to isolate climate change, and portray it as the sole concern facing northern societies is disingenuous. It is but one part of a much bigger story.

Across a vast chunk of Canada’s bitterly frozen extreme north, a place with no permanent roads and too cold even to grow wood, a remarkable political experiment is unfolding.

The new Nunavut Territory—the first redrawing of Canada’s map since 1949—has just celebrated its first decade. With 1.9 million square kilometers, approximately the size of Mexico, Nunavut is geographically large enough to be a good-sized country. But if it were, with barely thirty thousand people it would have the lowest population density on Earth.

Its residents are hard at work changing that. Nunavut has the fastest population growth rate of anywhere in Canada, and it isn’t relying on foreign immigrants to do it. It is birthing twenty-five babies per thousand people versus the national average of eleven. With a median age of just twenty-three years (Canada’s average is forty), Nunavut is extraordinarily youthful. More than a third of its population is under the age of fifteen.445

As of Canada’s last census in 2006, Nunavut’s population had leapt more than 10% in just five years. Iqaluit—its new capital sprouting from the site of an old Cold War U.S. Air Force base—jumped nearly 20%. With vacancy rates near zero, new housing can’t be built fast enough in Iqaluit to keep up with demand. Apartments go for two to three thousand dollars per month, and the city vies with Fort McMurray for the dubious distinction of being the most expensive rental market in Canada.

I first met Elisapee Sheutiapik, Iqaluit’s mayor, in 2007. She bubbles with enthusiasm about Nunavut’s potential. It is a very exciting time for northern aboriginal people, she explains. We are regaining control of our homeland. There are more jobs and new opportunities. The whole world is watching.

She’ll also describe its problems—soaring food prices, the housing shortage, substance abuse, and climate change. Nunavut’s main travel platform—sea ice—is becoming unreliable. Various other problems commence if temperatures go above 21°C in summer. With a contagious laugh she explains that Iqaluit’s new buildings are being built with air-conditioning, something never seen before by the Inuit. Then, getting serious, she’ll talk about plans to convince the Canadian government to build a deepwater port for its newest capital city.446

She just might get one. With two giant military neighbors and virtually no presence in the region, Canada suffers deep insecurities about Arctic sovereignty and knows that her aboriginal settlements are key to shoring it up—even to the point of past abuses like relocating Inuit families to bleak High Arctic outposts in the 1950s. While Canada’s Inuit are a tiny people—only fifty thousand in 2006 (up from forty thousand in 1996), mostly in isolated villages scattered across the Arctic coast—they are the dominant human presence in such a vast empty place. In the Arctic, small numbers of people gain outsized importance. A village of two hundred becomes a major destination, two thousand a metropolis.

From all current appearances Canada’s sovereignty anxiety is sharper than ever. The world is staring hard at the Arctic in general and the Northwest Passage—which actually contains several possible routes—in particular. Like everywhere else Canada’s rural areas are depopulating; her fast population growth is fueled mainly by foreign migrants flocking to southern cities. Canada knows that the remote Inuit towns are her essential outposts, and that without them her entire northern front would be empty. But after decades of ham-fisted treatment, like discouraging native languages and yanking kids off to residency schools to be assimilated, the relationship between Canada’s central government and her northern aboriginal citizens is finally on the mend, an improvement that seems unlikely to reverse course.

One big example is Nunavut. With a population that is 85% Inuit, its creation marks the first time in history that an aboriginal minority has formed a standard governance unit—in this case a territory447—within a modern western country. Imagine creating a new U.S. state seven times bigger than Nevada, with the small aboriginal population of Nevada building its entire new state government from scratch. That is the scope of Nunavut.

It is a process wracked with false starts and growing pains. The Inuit people have milled across this tundra for millennia, but today’s permanent towns and institutions are very new. Nunavut’s evolving government is being invented and used at the same time, rather like assembling a truck while driving it. It is challenged by far-flung settlements unconnected by roads, high suicide rates, not enough educated workers to fill the new jobs, and an increasingly risky winter travel platform. But optimism abounds. A brand-new northern society is being built from scratch, and the Inuit are in charge. They know this is a grand opportunity—not simply to re-create the old ways, but to build the new.

Aboriginal Demographics

The NORCs hold between 6 and 20 million aboriginal people, depending on how the Russian population is counted.448 The Russian Federation probably has about 20 million, but only about 250,000 are legally recognized as such, so officially that’s 0.2% of Russia’s total population (unofficially 14%). The United States has 4.9 million (1.6% of total population), Canada 1.2 million (3.8%), Denmark 50,000 (0.9%), Norway 40,000 (0.9%), Sweden maybe 20,000 (0.2%), and Finland 7,500 (0.1%).449 Iceland, discovered empty by the Vikings in the ninth century A.D., has none.

Clearly, aboriginal population percentages in the NORC countries are small. Why, then, an entire chapter dedicated to their status and trajectories? Because aboriginal people are a key component of our northern future.

First, the national statistics above mask the importance of geographic distribution. In the coldest, most remote territories of the NORC countries—the same places where many of the more extreme phenomena described in this book are happening—aboriginal populations are disproportionately large, capturing large minorities or even a majority of the population. Alaska is 16% aboriginal. In Canada, aboriginal people capture 15% of the populations of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 25% of Yukon Territory, 50% of NWT, and a whopping 85% of Nunavut. In certain northern areas of Sweden, Norway, and Finland, they have 11%, 34%, and 40% population shares, respectively. Denmark’s Greenland is 88% aboriginal. In northern Russia, even the officially recognized population share is 2%—ten times the national average—and that number ignores almost four hundred thousand aboriginal Yakut people comprising one-third of the population in Sakha Republic.450

Second, in North America aboriginal populations are growing very quickly. As of Canada’s last census it had ballooned 45% in just ten years—a growth rate nearly six times faster than the country’s population as a whole. U.S. aboriginals, currently totaling 4.9 million, are projected to rise to 8.6 million by 2050.451

So we see that the fast population growth of Iqaluit is not unusual but simply reflects a much broader demographic trend. Yet, a serious attitude contrast exists between the people of Iqaluit and the far larger numbers of aboriginal groups scattered in hundreds of impoverished reservations throughout southern Canada and the conterminous United States. Why are the people of Iqaluit bustling while those living on reservations are depressed? What are the implications for the future of the Northern Rim? The answers start across the border to the west and invoke a theme that is by now, I hope, familiar.

The state of Alaska was barely eight years old—even younger than Nunavut is now—when the largest oil field in North America was discovered at Prudhoe Bay on its northern coast. What followed was land-grab pandemonium.

It was 1968 and the fledgling state hadn’t even finished negotiating its land transfers from the U.S. federal government yet. Oil companies grasped immediately that the strike was huge but the waters too icy to reach by tanker ship. Instead, a very long pipeline over public lands was needed to decant it to southern markets, either to a year-round port in the Gulf of Alaska, or through Canada. Modern environmentalists, freshly inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, readied themselves for an epic battle.

Meanwhile, another group had also galvanized to win closure of a long-suffering wound: Who owns the land upon which aboriginal people have always lived? Even before the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, aboriginal Alaskans had long asked when and how the tsar had come to acquire title to their homelands.452 But no one seemed to care much about this issue. It had simmered, neglected and out of public consciousness, for over a century.

By the time oil was found in Prudhoe Bay, times had changed. America’s civil rights movement had taught a new generation the power of organized protests and lawsuits. The Alaska Federation of Natives and other groups had been litigating Washington to block transfers of federal land to the new state of Alaska until their ancestral claims were adjudicated. Many of the claims overlapped and, when added up, covered a total land area larger than that of the new state. It was a mess, and in 1966, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall (father of the current senator from New Mexico Tom Udall) declared a “land freeze,” effectively stopping all transfers of land to the new state until the mess was cleaned up. When oil was struck and talk of a pipeline began, the legal implications of the aboriginal claims blew sky-high. Who, exactly, owned this land? Suddenly, Alaska—a place that was about as conspicuous as Nunavut is today—mattered to everyone. No pipeline could be built until the issue was resolved.

State legislators and oil companies began lobbying for quick congressional action on an arcane issue ignored since the Alaska Purchase of 1867. After three years of lively politics on Capitol Hill, the final result was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1971.453

ANCSA’s grand bargain was this: Aboriginal Alaskans would forever relinquish all of their ancestral claims to land within the state of Alaska, as well as their traditional rights to hunt and fish without regulation. Also, their old reservation treaties would be nullified. In return, they won fee simple property title and mineral rights to forty million acres of land—about one-ninth of the state of Alaska—nearly $1 billion in cash, and a business plan.

The U.S. government had just made Alaska Natives (aboriginals) the largest private landowners in the state of Alaska.454 The land was geographically divided among twelve “Regional Corporations” to manage the new property and cash holdings, and oversee further incorporation of more than two hundred village corporations within their boundaries. All of the new companies were then free to pursue whatever profits they could from their new assets, which were then returned as dividends to their shareholders. To become a shareholder, one had to possess one-quarter Alaska Native blood, be a U.S. citizen, and enroll with a regional or village corporation. A special landless corporation was even set up for eligible shareholders living outside of the state.455

ANCSA differed from all previous aboriginal treaties in at least two important ways. First, an enormous amount of land was granted, more than the area of all historical Indian reservations in the United States combined. Some grumbled that even forty million acres was a pittance compared to what had been stolen in the first place, but there is no questioning it was colossal compared with past treaties. Second, ANCSA did not create permanent sanctuaries for an everlasting traditional subsistence life. Instead, it incentivized use of the granted land not simply for hunting and fishing but for capitalist enterprise, with aboriginal-owned companies and shareholders running the show, to spur development and economic growth. ANCSA had blown up the traditional model of Aboriginal Reservation and replaced it with a new one of Aboriginal Business.

Today, Alaska’s aboriginal-owned regional corporations and their subsidiaries are worth billions. They’ve spawned hundreds of companies in construction, oil and gas field support, transportation, engineering, facilities management, land development, telecommunications, and tourism, to name a few. They publish shareholder reports, elect boards, and write five-year management plans. In common with other corporations some have done well and others not. Some have been mismanaged into bankruptcy. Others have squandered their cash endowments, clear-cut their forests, and sold off land or deeded it to their shareholders. But the successful ones, especially in remote areas, have become a dominating force in Alaskan politics and society. They create jobs and attract other businesses by offering logistics services. They pay thousands of dollars per year to their shareholders.

ANCSA was really just the beginning of aboriginal empowerment in Alaska. It also set the stage for home rule governments like the North Slope Borough, an enormous success story, which has built schools, sewer systems, and water treatment facilities, and brought many other quality-of-life improvements to the North Slope by taxing oil field activities. Much of its success can be traced back to the ANCSA model. Not surprisingly, aboriginal Alaskans today are far more supportive of oil and gas exploration, of land development, and of business in general, than any prior generation.

Out of Alaska

What happened in Alaska inspired aboriginal groups around the world and propelled an era of comprehensive modern land claims agreements across Canada. By 1973 the Inuit, Cree, and others also had legal teams pressing their land claims and, following Alaska’s example, thwarting outside natural resource development projects until they were settled.456 Just four years after ANCSA, aboriginal resistance to a series of new hydropower dams led to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Canada’s first modern land claims settlement. In 1974 the Dene, Métis, and Inuit people stunned the world by blocking the Mackenzie Gas Project, a long-planned pipeline to bring Arctic natural gas to southern markets and a cornerstone of Canada’s northern development plan. Their negotiations took even longer, but today, with their land claims agreements and businesses in place, most are now avid supporters of the pipeline.457 Like ANCSA their aboriginal-owned corporations and companies will benefit greatly from the project, which could begin as soon as 2018.458

Canada’s modern land claims agreements have evolved well beyond the simple business corporations of ANCSA. From the outset their aboriginal negotiators insisted that the new agreements affirm not only property rights but political, social, and cultural ones as well. Many settlements also set up political self-governance. They collect royalties from the extraction of subsurface minerals, oil, and natural gas, not only from the granted property but from surrounding public lands.459 Aboriginal corporations and the Canadian government now make joint decisions on development, wildlife management, and environmental protections on these public lands. Outside companies must hire prescribed numbers of aboriginal workers and companies. Numerous protections of native language and culture reverberate throughout these documents. Such complex agreements take years to negotiate, run hundreds of pages long, and often contain provisions for still more negotiations in the future.460

After nearly four decades the era of modern, geographically large land claims agreements in North America is drawing to a close. Over half of Canada is now under jurisdiction of one settlement or another, most recently in 2008 and 2009.461 The final push will be a wave of smaller agreements across Canada over the next decade or two.462 Then it will all be done.

Greenland Rules!

The third place where northern aboriginal people have clawed back political power from distant southern capitals is in Greenland. For almost three centuries this enormous, glacier-buried island just four hundred miles east of Iqaluit was a colony of Denmark, but its population and language—currently around fifty-seven thousand people—is overwhelmingly Greenlandic Inuit (“Greenlanders”) with a fair mixture of Danish blood.

As in Canada, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 did not go unnoticed in this icy Danish province. In the year of its passage Greenlanders voted into their provincial council463 some radical youth, including an unknown twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher, Lars-Emil Johansen (whom I would meet years later as the former prime minister of Greenland), and the young firebrand Moses Olsen. These two began stridently objecting to Denmark’s sovereignty of Greenland, and for the first time in memory, Greenlanders began thinking seriously about disentangling themselves from Copenhagen’s colonial rule.

One year later, Greenlanders heartily rejected Denmark’s referendum to join the European Community (predecessor to today’s EU) with 70% of the vote. Alongside their growing nationalism, natural resources were again a root cause, but this time going the other way: Danish membership in the EC would impose fishing restrictions and a sealskin ban on Greenland, both dear to her small aboriginal economies. The referendum passed anyway, but the vote was a wake-up call to Copenhagen. Within months the Danish Parliament was cooperating with Greenland’s minister and provincial council to explore the possibility of political self-rule. Greenlanders then overwhelmingly passed a public referendum on whether or not to advance the idea. In 1979 the Greenland Home Rule Act was passed, and Greenland became a politically autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. 464 In 1982 she withdrew from the European Community.

Greenland Home Rule wasn’t a “land claim” in the property title sense, as there is no private land in Greenland (while privately owned structures may be built, all land title is held for the public good). But the end result was the same. For the next thirty years Greenlanders controlled the use of their land and set about building up an autonomous government, services, and political apparatus, just as Nunavut is doing today.

This continued for three decades. Then, in 2008, Greenlanders headed back to the polls. A new Greenland referendum was proposing even further divorce proceedings from Denmark. Its sweeping reforms would include taking over the police force, courts, and the coast guard. Greenland’s official language would be changed from Danish to Greenlandic. Revenues from future oil and gas development would be shared between the two countries, so that the Danish subsidies needed for Greenland’s survival could be phased out. Greenland would conduct its own foreign affairs with other countries. The referendum passed overwhelmingly and entered effect in 2009. This island—bursting with offshore gas along both flanks—is now on a political path to full and complete independence.465

The Unfair Geography of Aboriginal Power

The modern land claims agreements in North America, and Home Rule in Greenland, are big deals. Politically, they portend a fundamental shift of power from central to aboriginal governments. Economically, they portend abolishment of a culture of paternalism and welfare in favor of engaging aboriginal people in the modern global economy. These new commitments are here to stay. In Canada, for example, the new land claims agreements are even protected by a constitutional amendment.466 While not perfect, this devolutionary trend is a giant step forward relative to abuses of the past. It signals a profound return of autonomy and dignity to many northern aboriginal peoples.

Notice I said “northern.” Nearly all of this new control lies north of the sixtieth parallel. It is an assemblage of people living way up there—the Alaska Natives, Inuit, Yukon Indians, Dene Nation, Greenlanders, and others—who have most cause to celebrate.

Geography and luck greatly explain this uneven spatial pattern of new aboriginal clout. Many remote northern groups escaped being cajoled into old-fashioned treaties during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries because their homelands were distant and undesired. Permafrost tundra and spruce bogs held little appeal to white homesteaders. While northern aboriginals were infected, harassed, and resettled, they were not forced to sign away their claims to the land. With no historic treaty signed, their ancestral claims to the land were never extinguished.467 Legally, this left them in a strong bargaining position by the time a more progressive interpretation of their legal and civil rights arrived in the 1970s.

Most importantly, their remote geography meant there was actually still something left to negotiate for. In North America, the perfect trifecta of fossil fuels, hydropower, and civil rights converged upon empty federal and Crown lands, controlled only by Washington and Ottawa. Until the new land claims agreements were instituted, virtually none of this land had ever been privatized. These new aboriginal corporations are thus the first and only major private land owners in northernmost North America.

The unfair geography of aboriginal power. Shaded areas indicate lands where aboriginal groups have total or partial control, either through reserves, deeded property, or joint management through modern land claims or home-rule agreements. Alaska boundaries delineate the jurisdictional borders of the twelve Regional Corporations established by ANCSA. Aboriginal control is greatest in the far north and Greenland; in southern Canada and the lower 48 U.S. states it is constrained to much smaller reserves and reservations set by historical treaties. (Map data assembled from multiple sources.468)

The situation is totally different in southern Canada and the lower forty-eight American states. While British colonial law did hold a modicum of respect for aboriginal land rights,469 you know already the centuries-long tale of death and displacement following European colonization of the New World. Between 1492, when Christopher Columbus found Haiti (and misnamed its inhabitants “Indians”), and 1923, when the last Indian Reserve Treaty was signed in Canada, North America was a place where white settlers shot, diseased, and connived aboriginal people off their land. Millions of deaths and four centuries of lopsided treaties later, their descendants are boxed into tiny scattered fragments of land, often enveloped by private property. These treaties, no matter how unfair by today’s standards, extinguished their land claims. They have no hope of another. Reservations can grow, but only by buying out their neighbors, if they’ll sell, at market value. Even if surrounded by public lands, with their claims extinguished they have no legal standing to sue for a new treaty.470

ANCSA deeded about forty million acres of property to Alaska Natives. The modern land claims agreements in Canada ceded joint or total control of just over one billion more,471 with dozens of smaller claims still pending. In contrast, the sum total of all aboriginal reservations in the lower United States is about seventy million acres, which, if you could sweep all the bits together, might add up to the area of Colorado. Reservation populations may be growing, but their borders are not. There will not be another Nunavut.

President Keskitalo’s Argument

I was in Tromsø sitting with Aili Keskitalo, president of the Norwegian Sámi Parliament. She was describing the plight of her Sámi people (Lapps472), the aboriginal occupants of northern Europe. The petite thirty-eight-year-old mother leaned forward in her chair, speaking quietly but blue eyes blazing.

“Our language. Our symbols. Our traditional knowledge. They are threatened. In some areas, to a very large extent. We need to have a say in how the natural resources are exploited!”

I nodded. Once again my climate-change project was going down the tubes. When was she going to talk about crusty snow and starving reindeer? But then, while explaining how her parliament was very busy yet politically toothless, with no vote in Oslo, she unknowingly connected the dots for me.

“The climate change, it makes the oil, the gas, the mineral resources in the North more accessible. So the need to get control over the resource management is even more important, because of the climate change.” She sat back in exasperation. “If you have no representation, how can you have an influence on resource management?”

If there was ever a moment when my perspective suddenly broadened on the future of the northern countries I was traveling, that was probably it. We talked some more, so I could assemble in my own head what was already so obvious in hers. Everything is linked. Shrinking ice, natural resource demand, and political power were all tugging on each other. My scientist’s training had wrongly led me down the path of dissect, isolate, and rank. This works well for a focused problem, but is not always best for gaining a synoptic understanding of the world.

Northern aboriginal people don’t like being portrayed as hapless victims of climate change. Nor are they waiting for their central governments to come in and solve their problems. Quite the opposite. After numerous interviews with aboriginal leaders,473 the resounding message I’ve heard is a desire for more autonomy, more control, more say over what happens or does not happen on these lands. The damages inflicted by climate change—already coming into view—only intensify their sense of urgency. More control affords more resilience, more adaptability, to deal with the consequences. The people I’ve met are not hoping that outside task forces will be dispatched to save them from climate change. They want the power—and yes, the resource revenues—to save themselves.

With this new understanding in view, I could see why president Keskitalo was pissed off. In the three countries discussed thus far—the United States, Canada, and Denmark—northern aboriginal people are becoming politically powerful. In the Nordic countries and Russia, they are not.

The Sámi Situation

Europeans are fascinated by their Sámi. Long after great cities had spread across Germany and France, the Sámi were still living in tents, migrating with their reindeer, living off the land by fishing, trapping, and hunting. Their mystic, highly spiritual culture is permeated with ties to the natural world, expressed in beautiful chanted songs called joiks. Furthermore, they are white. Unlike most northern aboriginals, they have a European rather than Mongol origin. Many Sámi have fair skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. This is partly due to centuries of mingling with Nordics, but genetically, the Sámi are much closer relatives of Basques than of Inuit.

Today, about seventy thousand Sámi live in “Sápmi,” their ancestral homeland stretching across northern Fennoscandia (see map on pp. x-xi). But Sápmi today is chopped up into four bits owned by Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. It is dismembered.

The Sámi population can never form a single collective political unit within a country, as has happened in Canada and Greenland. Traditional reindeer herding, which moved animals all around Sápmi, is difficult or impossible. Also ethnic Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, and Russians have moved in, bringing industrial development, land privatization, and the loss of grazing and hunting grounds. With four different court systems to navigate, the collective ability of the Sámi to mount legal challenges to such encroachment is dissipated and constrained. And unlike what happened in North America and Greenland, none of the four governments are signaling any possibility of a sweeping land claims agreement, or a new Sápmi state, or individual home rules for each fragment.

However, there are differences among the four countries. Since 1989 Norway, Sweden, and Finland have introduced elected Sámi parliaments, whereas Russia has not. These parliaments are politically weak, serving mainly as forums and advisors to their central governments, but they do provide a voice for the Sámi. Norway’s parliament, being the oldest and largest, is most consequential of the three.

Also, when it comes to sticking up for aboriginal rights under international law, Norway is one supportive NORC. It was the first country in the world to ratify International Labour Organization Convention 169, thus committing the Norwegian government to preserving its aboriginal people, cultures, and languages through deliberate action (later, Denmark also ratified this ILO treaty). Norway was also one of five NORCs to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.474 In part to meet its obligations under these laws, Norway passed a sort of pseudo land claims law, called the Finnmark Act, in 2005. While not specific to Sámi people, it did transfer land ownership from the Norwegian government to its largest and northernmost county, where the population is about 34% Sámi.475

While weak by North American standards the Finnmark Act is about as good as it gets in this part of the world. Similar trends are not apparent in Sweden, Finland, or Russia. None of these countries have ratified ILO Convention 169, nor is there any talk of land claims settlements. In Lapland, Sámi complain of imposters stealing their culture, wearing fake clothes, and butchering their language for tourists.476 The Sámi situation is most depressing in Russia, where a small population of two thousand has little to look forward to.

Trapped on the Kola Peninsula—the militarized, industrialized heart of the Russian North—they are mostly unemployed with no parliament. What few reindeer herders remain complain of grazing lands privatized and closed, and horrid environmental pollution from mining, smelting, and leaking radiation from old nuclear reactors. Russian soldiers sometimes shoot their animals to eat or for fun.477 Snared in poverty, lacking land tenure, and with no political voice, they are quickly losing their aboriginal language. Of Sápmi’s four fragmented pieces, Russia’s has the most uncertain future.

The Mi-8 Time Machine

We thudded over the taiga in an orange Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter, crammed against one of its little porthole windows. Below us was an endless plain of mossy lakes, cottongrass sedge, and hunched conifers stretching to infinity. My doctoral student Karen Frey murmured from behind a video camera while I wrote notes and GPS coordinates into a pad. Faint reindeer trails splayed here and there across the tundra, but the landscape was motionless. We’d been at it for over half an hour with no sign of life.

Suddenly the Mi-8’s rotors whined and we were hovering. There were scraping noises up front and men speaking in Russian. The ponderous helicopter slowly eased its bulk onto the ground and a door clanged open. From its cavernous interior white Russian hands produced a burlap sack full of potatoes. From outside, dark, weathered hands reached up to take it.

We had dropped by the campsite of a Nenets family, one of the largest of several aboriginal reindeer peoples of the Russian North. Their chum, a circular tent halfway between a teepee and yurt, was made of lashed wooden poles and reindeer hides. There were corrals and long sleds with curved wooden runners. Grubby, cute kids were peeking at us. Freshly flayed reindeer skins were drying. The whole place hung with smoke from burning smudge fires. Our Mi-8 wasn’t a helicopter, it was a time machine: The Nenets are one of the last people on Earth still following the ancient practice of moving around with their reindeer.

Anthropologists, even Russian ones, have long romanticized Siberian scenes like this. But most of Russia’s northern aboriginal people do not lead nostalgic frontier lives out on the land. Instead, they live in gritty, impoverished, multiethnic villages rife with unemployment, alcoholism, and suicide.478 Life expectancies are low. Aboriginal control over outside resource exploitation is virtually nil, as is the amount of royalty they receive when resources are developed. There is no prospect of winning private land title as has transpired in North America,479 and even if there were, under Russian law all subsurface mineral and energy rights still remain with the state. Vastly outnumbered as they are by ethnic Russians, there is no hope for sizable aboriginal political majorities except in small okruga (regions) and raiony (districts). Exceptions, like a tiny pod of Yukagir people who won self-governance in Sakha Republic,480 are rare. With so little political power, even their wild food is constantly under threat by commercial interests. In one recent case, aboriginals of Kamchatka beseeched President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin to halt auction lease sales of their salmon rivers so they wouldn’t starve.481

Russia’s northern aboriginals don’t have time to debate political governance models or resource revenue-sharing schemes. Their priority is simply retaining access to wildlife and land, and keeping at bay the encroaching industries that would damage them. The Russian anthropologist Aleksandr Pika, who devoted his life to studying northern aboriginals before drowning in a 1995 Bering Sea boat accident, alongside five Eskimos and three Americans, once wrote:

The numerically small [aboriginal] peoples of the North live on lands rich with oil, natural gas, uranium, tin, timber, and other resources. Society has not yet learned to take these resources without damaging nature. Society cannot live, in fact, without touching these resources. The peoples of the North are often guilty simply in that they live on these lands and their very existence poses problems for the state. Indeed, many feel that without these peoples, there would be no such problems, and that the peoples of the North should understand this, and not complain too loudly or too often.482

This does not mean that the Russian government, or Russians more generally, care nothing for their aboriginal people. My student and I were sternly admonished to respect the Nenets family’s privacy by not photographing them, and thirteen of the aforementioned Kamchatka commercial salmon leases were, in fact, retracted to protect traditional aboriginal fishing rights. Under old Soviet law, aboriginals had no legal claim to land or its resources, but that has changed somewhat under the Russian Federation. Its 1993 Constitution now mandates that both be protected “as the basis of life and activities of the peoples” who live on them, and holds central and regional governments responsible for protecting “traditional ways of life.” To flesh out these general constitutional requirements, three meatier federal laws specifically addressing aboriginal land rights were adopted in Moscow by 2001.483 Chief among the new reforms is a revival of obshchiny, small group-owned plots of land to which families, clans, or villages can request exclusive use for traditional subsistence.

It is a well-known adage in Russia that obedience to federal laws is inversely proportional to geographic distance from Moscow. However, these new ones, at least on paper, are a significant advance for aboriginal Russians. While Russia has not yet ratified ILO Convention 169, it is clear that these new laws were written to conform with many of its guidelines. Interestingly, the country’s recent recentralization of power, begun under Vladimir Putin and reviled by the western press, is good news for Russia’s forty-five officially recognized aboriginal groups: If Moscow demands that the far-off regional governments implement and enforce the new federal laws, these people will be better protected.

Imagining 2050

A final and keenly important distinction must be drawn between the emerging new aboriginal policies of North America and Greenland versus those of northern Europe and Russia. While the former do accord value and protections to the traditional cultures of the past, they also seat chairs at the table of the future by devolving political power, land management decisions, and natural resource revenues including oil and gas royalties. But in the Nordic countries and Russia, emerging policies seek to preserve “traditional” cultures and ways of life above all else. Indeed in Russia, demonstrable proof of such activity—raising reindeer, for example, or subsisting by hunting and fishing—is a key requirement for winning aboriginal protections and privileges, including obshchiny. Also, the old Soviet tradition of limiting legal recognition of aboriginal status to populations having fifty thousand or fewer persons has been retained, such that small, scattered aboriginal groups can win these privileges but not large ones. At first blush, such policies sound noble—what’s wrong with trying to protect vanishing ancestral cultures from going extinct? But, as put by the recent Arctic Human Development Report, “one must question the tendency to consider change as a threat to some immemorial ‘tradition’ in discussing indigenous societies, when it is called progress in western societies.”484

Put bluntly, the Nordic and Russian aboriginal policies encourage the mummification of aboriginal people and their historical practices into bits of living folklore. By not going far enough, the new legal protections—well intentioned and keenly desired by their subjects as they may be—lapse into paternalism, pure and simple. Aboriginals win permission to carry on their ancient ways—to the gratitude of village elders and future anthropologists—but are denied forms of empowerment that matter most for the future: political power, a say over land use and development, a say over environmental protection, and the right to receive royalties from all the natural gas, oil, and minerals that will be plucked from beneath their feet. Their cultures are denied the right to evolve. Instead, they are pickled under a glass bell jar.

When I try to imagine the role of NORC aboriginals in 2050, I sense two very different scenes unfolding. In the eastern hemisphere, I see fascinating historical enclaves, where people can still carry out ancestral subsistence traditions on the land. Their lives are not so different from today except they have become living museum displays, beset by anthropologists and a global tourist trade. In the western hemisphere, I imagine unprecedented new societies taking hold. They are a unique blend of the old and the new, choosing some parts of traditional culture to retain and others to abandon. People run their business corporations in the morning and go hunting in the afternoon (the ringed seals and polar bears are now protected but harbor seals and salmon are moving in). Pipelines and ports are spreading, natural gas is flowing south, and royalties are flowing north. In Canada, the first university above the sixtieth parallel has been founded.485 The global fleet bristles offshore but the land belongs to them. I see the original stewards of this land taking it back again.