Comparison of Indigenous Peoples Rights along the Arctic Routes

(by Brit Fløistad)


“Facing an unprecedented combination of rapid and stressful changes involving both environmental forces like climate change and socioeconomic pressures associated with globalization,” (Arctic Human Development Report. November 2004) indigenous peoples in the Arctic have felt a need to safeguard their culture and traditional way of life. Indigenous peoples in the Arctic represent a great variety of ethnic groups. In the Russian Federation there are all together twenty-six minority groups with the Nenets, the Chukchi, the Evenks and the Events as the largest. The Sami is found in the Russian Federation, but with the largest group living in the northern part of Norway. In Greenland the major part of the population is Inuit, a group constituting a large part of aboriginal peoples in Canada together with the Natives and the Métis. In Alaska the natives include various groups such as Inupiat, Yupik and Aleut.

Notwithstanding cultural and ethnographic differences, indigenous peoples in the Arctic share a common history of attempts of assimilation into their various mother states and a lack of recognition of rights on traditionally occupied territories. On this background these peoples have united in working steadfastly towards self-determination. Their primary objective has been to safeguard that development and activity on traditional lands and waters takes into consideration indigenous peoples traditional way of life, as well as their fair share of the economic benefits of development on these territories. 

Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have played an important role in establishing two international documents dealing with indigenous peoples right to self-determination. These are the ILO Convention no 169 of 1989, which in the Arctic has been ratified only by Norway and Denmark, stating that national governments have a duty to implement measures recognizing indigenous peoples right to ownership and possession over lands they traditionally occupy, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007, which goes far in stating indigenous peoples’ right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use.

It goes without saying that these international documents have no bearing on individual shipping companies, obliged only by state jurisdiction in the waters they sail or by own Flag states regulations. As the international standing and support of these documents is widespread and strong, they can be said to express “good governance” in regard to indigenous peoples and thus to have a bearing as such.

Indigenous peoples second strategy has been to work towards their respective national governments, and rights acquired by indigenous peoples in the various Arctic states, laid down in national legislation or in land claims agreements and settlements form the legal and political framework within which other activities and actors, such as the shipping industry, will have to operate.

The Northeast Passage

Along the NEP indigenous peoples are found in local communities along the coast of Norway and of the Russian Federation. As indicated, of the Sami, the majority is living along the coast of Norway, but most of the indigenous peoples along this sea route are of course what is often defined as minority groups of the Russian North, living in Russian Arctic and Sub-Arctic.

As for the Sami in Norway the Norwegian Government had initially argued that Sami use of land and resources did not establish any formal rights. This was, however, later modified, not least due to the ILO-Convention 169, which Norway was the first to ratify. Today the Finnmark Act of 2005 forms a legal and organisational framework for the managing of natural resources in Finnmark, taking into consideration the particular rights acquired by the Sami as an indigenous people in this area. The Sami Parliament has thus been given a rather significant role in the Finnmark Estate, the owner of approximately 95 % of Finnmark’s territories. Further investigations are now being conducted in order to clarify ownership to lands in Finnmark by virtue of historic title by Sami or other inhabitants of Finnmark. Even though applying to all inhabitants this is assumed to relate primarily to the Sami population.

Sami are found also in the Russian Federation, constituting a minor indigenous group. There are, however, as indicated initially, an additional twenty-five minority groups in the Russian North. Indigenous peoples in this part of Russia have been subject to different forms of governance. While the first years after the Russian revolution was characterized by autonomy, the late 1920s saw the beginning of a change towards forced integration into the Soviet society, destroying the former historical and ecologically balanced settlements.  Adding to this transformation was that the development of natural resources stimulated newcomers soon to outnumber the indigenous population.  The democratization of Russia from the late 1980s saw a development of self-consciousness among indigenous peoples of the North and the situation in the last decade of the 20th century has been described as “demonstrating a willingness to correct the mistakes of the previous assimilation policy”. Russia’s Constitution of 1993 has been amended so as “to guarantee the rights of the indigenous small peoples”. Also other laws and regulations regarding indigenous rights and territories were passed in late 1990ies beginning 2000, but as hardly any is translated, it is not possible to get the full picture of self-determination for indigenous peoples in Russia. According to indigenous peoples themselves the support by the Russian Government at the end of the 1980ies gave way to opposition towards indigenous self-government. It was maintained that “in many regions strong opposition by the authorities is manifested in complete disregard for indigenous peoples and violation of their lawful rights and interests,” and also that Government representatives have been “trying to continue policies of paternalism toward and control over indigenous peoples.

It may seem that the policy towards the northern regions of Russia is still not fully settled. Power and legal authority has no doubt been shifted to the regional level in the form of autonomous governments, but this does not necessarily mean increased self-determination for the indigenous peoples. In some instances they may have ended up being a minority within the new governments and thus with little say in control of management of lands and waters. It may be that the conclusion of a study of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, namely that despite legal guarantees, the indigenous people seem to have no opportunity to change major politically approved decisions, goes for other minority groups in the Russian Federation as well.

The Northwest Passage      

Sailing in the NWP, means passing through waters of the three Arctic states Greenland, Canada and USA, particularly characterized by the many islands and inlets constituting the Archipelago of the Canadian waters. In these waters indigenous peoples thus to a large extent depend on the sea and sea ice for their traditional hunting and fishing as well as for their supply of fuel and other materials.    

Of these peoples the Inuit, constituting the major population in Greenland, is in a rather unique position as a new Act on Greenland Self-Government largely extends the fields over which the Greenlanders themselves may decide to resume legislative and administrative power. As Greenland still depends on a major economic subsidy from the Danish Government, the ultimate objective of the Self-Government authorities is to gain economic self-sustainability. As the main industry of today, fishery, does not constitute a sufficient source of income, the Self-Government has to find new sources of income. One such source is marine mineral resources. Licences have been issued for explorations and exploitation in the waters outside South-western Greenland. The areas considered most promising is outside East Greenland where conditions are much more challenging, but some prospecting licenses have been issued in these waters as well. Another source of income is mining, and there are today issued more than seventy licenses, mostly to foreign companies, for exploration and exploitation of various minerals in Greenland, and another thirteen licenses for prospecting.

It goes without saying that these are industries which creates a need for shipping, both in bringing relevant equipment to Greenland and not least in the exporting of the products. It is perhaps particularly interesting in regard to shipping to note that precisely such expanding economies as China and India, have expressed an interest for minerals found in Greenland. Also related to shipping is of course the third means of extended income, namely the goal of furthering tourism in Greenland which will imply more sailings to and from the island.

Having also a focus on Greenland’s traditional culture and way of life, it seems that the challenge for the Self-Government will be to balance the goal of economic self-sustainability with the preserving of its culture and traditions. Of importance is that the decision is in the hands of the Inuit themselves.

The Inuit in Canada constituting the largest aboriginal group in the country’s North, and having lived in these areas for thousands of years, have described their entire culture and identity as being based on free movement on sea and sea-ice for hunting and fishing. Challenging this free movement is defined as the thinning of ice and shipping. Concern in regard to ship traffic relates to marine pollution, but also to hunting on ice when ships passing through are “wrecking the area.” Shipping in open water is seen as a threat to hunters in small boats. Scepticism has also been expressed in regard to tourist ships, especially when arriving in large quantities. Ship traffic is, however, also seen in a positive context, acknowledging that shipping offers many benefits for local communities such as a more effective distribution of goods and material and also by creating more jobs in construction and ports activities.

When it comes to the Inuit’s self-determination and thus a say on lands and waters they traditionally occupy, the majority of aboriginal peoples in northern Canada are signatories to Land Claims and Self-Government Agreements. Each agreement reflects local and regional circumstances, but usually have in common that they provide ownership to 10 to 30 % of the settlement area, cash compensation, economic development opportunities, a share of royalties from development of Crown land and natural resources as well as management participation of land, water and wildlife. Included are also means to support self-government.  These agreements have been said to make aboriginal governments in the territories “key players in local and regional economies.” There are, however, problems when it comes to fulfilling obligations laid down in these agreements, not least when it comes to achieving objectives that require cooperation between aboriginal peoples and the Federation of Canada. It seems what is needed is a formal land claims agreement implementation policy on the part of the Canadian Government.

Aboriginal peoples are, however, described as gradually bettering their position when it comes to having a share in the resource revenues from development on their traditional lands. Challenges pointed to in respect to economic development are, however, limited infrastructure, high transportation costs and remoteness from primary markets which are all aspects related to shipping.

It was not until 1915 that legislation was passed making native peoples of Alaska citizens of the United States, the condition being that they had “severed all tribal relationship and adopted the habits of civilized life”. This line of assimilation was later rejected, and the natives were urged to adopt constitutions for self-government under the so-called Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). About 70 so-called IRA villages were set up, and still exist as one type of natives authority recognized by the Federal Government. Urged by discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was reached in 1971, whereby Alaska natives received 44 million acres of land, representing approximately one ninth of the original claim, and was paid $962 million in cash, and transforming native land claims in Alaska into a system of more than two-hundred villages and twelve Alaska Natives Regional Corporations. The Settlement implied that while the native’s earlier use and occupancy of land had made them co-owners of shared lands, they had now become shareholders in corporate-owned land.

The Passages in Comparison

A common denominator for indigenous peoples living along the NEP as well as the NWP is that climate change, making the Arctic more accessible, implies changes inflicting on their traditional way of life. Also sharing a common history of attempts of assimilation into their various mother states and a lack of recognition of rights on traditionally occupied territories, indigenous peoples of the Arctic have united in working steadfastly towards self-determination. Their primary objective has been to safeguard that development and activity on traditional lands and waters takes into consideration indigenous peoples traditional way of life, as well as their fair share of the economic benefits of this development. Today such rights have been acquired in all the Arctic states in national legislation, and in land claims agreements and settlements. There are thus important similarities between indigenous peoples along the two passages. 

What differs is in what form, to what extent and at what pace these rights have been acquired. In general one might say that what dominates the Northeast Passage are various minority groups in the Russian Federation with rights guaranteed in Russian legislation, but where it is hard to get the full picture of the extent of such rights. As for the Northwest Passage it is dominated by the aboriginal peoples of Canada having entered into rather far-reaching land claims agreement, but where the implementation of these agreements is not without problems. .   

As for shipping, ship traffic may on the one hand inflict on indigenous peoples traditional way of life, when going through areas used for hunting and fishing or causing cultural disturbances. On the other hand, shipping is no doubt an integrated part of the economic development in the Arctic, welcomed also by indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have worked steadfastly towards self-determination, the objective being to preserve own culture and way of life as well as having a share in the resource development on territories traditionally occupied.  In such development ship traffic may on the one hand inflict on indigenous peoples traditional way of life, when going through areas used for hunting and fishing or causing cultural disturbances. On the other hand, shipping is no doubt an integrated part of the economic development in the Arctic, welcomed also by indigenous peoples.


    Brit Fløistad, 2010, Comparison of Indigenous Peoples Rights along the Arctic Routes, CHNL.©