Lead Authors:  Tero Mustonen and Violet Ford

Photo: Indigenous Peoples’ SecretariatPhoto: Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat

The late Yukaghir-Chukchi reindeer herder Grigorii Velvin was a well-known storyteller and keeper of his people’s culture. He lived in the Lower Kolyma region of Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Russia. In 2005 he related the following oral history regarding the Yukaghir relationship with bears:

About relatives, about my family. Mother of my grandmother, grandmother of my mother. They were Yukaghir. There used to be people from Alai. Especially from my mother’s side, they were Yukaghir from Alai. They were considered to be ‘proper’ Yukaghir. Mother of my grandmother told the story that our ancestor is the bear. One of the ladies got married… She got lost and met a bear. The bear took her as his bride. When the bear would leave its den,it would close the opening with a big rock so that the woman would not leave the den. Once however she managed to escape. She ran to her relatives and said: “He will come after me for sure, please butcher and sacrifice a white reindeer as an offering.” Her people followed her orders, made the offering at a campsite and went away themselves. It is told that the bear took the reindeer and left the area. In a way they made a bargain. And thus she was able to escape. She gave birth to a child and that is how our family got started. This family has this oral history. Therefore the Yukaghir here, our tundra Yukaghir, do not touch the bear. It is our ancestor. This is a legend that the mother of my grandmother told. I have heard it. My grandmother told it to my mother and my mother passed it on to me (Mustonen 2009).

This story indicates the deep and multifaceted relationships that the Arctic’s Indigenous peoples have with northern ecosystems and species. The Arctic is a homeland for the many nations that have existed there for millennia. Arctic biodiversity supports Arctic Indigenous peoples as they maintain and develop their societies, cultures and ways of life. An example illustrating the way in which people renew their connection to the sea can be seen in the ritual of the Nuataaqmiut Inupiaq hunters of Northwest Alaska. When they have caught a beluga whale they place a piece of its skin on a pole by the sea shore to indicate to other belugas swimming by that the hunters are treating the body of their dead relative properly and are enabling its spirit to return to the sea (Burch 1998).

Indigenous peoples’ perceptions of biodiversity and the challenges it faces globally are based on their dependence on the environment, their values and their belief systems. Varied as these values and belief systems are, the special relevance of Indigenous peoples’ views on the protection of biodiversity have been recognized by the international community and clearly set forth in diverse instruments, most prominently, perhaps, in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The CBD, in Article 8 on ‘In-situ Conservation’, specifies the duty of the national parties to the convention to:

respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices

To the degree that stipulations such as this are implemented, they greatly facilitate Arctic’s Indigenous peoples’ contributions to the protection of Arctic biodiversity and will provide more opportunities for traditional knowledge to inform the policy making process.

When discussing Arctic biodiversity and Indigenous peoples, we need to appreciate that Indigenous environmental governance regimes have existed and to certain extent still exist in the Arctic. The Saami siida family and clan territories (Mustonen & Mustonen 2011, Mustonen 2012), the North-west Alaskan Inupiaq territoriality (Burch 1998) and the regional governance based on seasonal cycles of the Yukaghir peoples in the Kolyma region of Siberian Russia (Mustonen 2009) are examples of such regimes.

These are spiritual-cultural systems of reciprocity, with the characteristics of the surrounding ecosystems dictating the way the relationship between an animal and a hunter is be ing understood across the community and the region. There is a social dimension to hunting, a spiritual dimension and a direct relationship with the land. What Arctic Indigenous peoples bring to this relationship is associated with their wellbeing, culture and spirituality. Moreover, customary laws were, and to some extent still are, understood and applied with reference to beliefs and values concerned with managing and sustaining biodiversity. These laws prescribe how and when to utilize Arctic ecosystem services.

According to traditional beliefs of the Amitturmiut Inuit in Nunavut, if a camp is occupied for too long, the land becomes hot and dangerous. People have to move away to other areas to give the land a chance to cool (Bennet & Rowley 2004):

A land could only be occupied for three years. No one canlive on this land beyond the three years. … That was the way they lived, always moving to another [place], never occupying one land beyond three winters. … The land itself was prevented from’rotting’ by this. Should one choose to occupy the land beyond three years, then they are bound to face peril, which might include dearth, therefore they had to follow this rule.

These are no perfect systems of sustainability. They are vulnerable and fragile and dependent upon the conditions of the surrounding environment. It is important to highlight that although cases of overharvest are known, these systems usually operate within the carrying capacity of a particular ecosystem. However one should be careful not to uncritically impose an explanation from the outside as to why overhar vest has happened, and instead carefully examine a range of features of and reasons for a particular event, especially through utilizing the oral histories of the people themselves (Burch 1998).

Another important realization is that the cultural notions of cosmology, time, space and scale of Indigenous peoples in many cases differ markedly from the linear concepts typically applied to time and space by mainstream society. Having their own knowledge and terminologies, Indigenous peoples conceive ecosystems and species altogether differently.

In short, Arctic biodiversity has been and continues to be managed and sustained by Arctic Indigenous peoples through their traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge is used to observe, evaluate and form views about a particular situation on the land. This knowledge reflects perceptions and wisdom that has been passed on to new generations right up to the present day. How ever, steps need to be taken to ensure that traditional knowledge is renewed and passed on to the generations to come. The imposition of ‘western’ ways of living, introduced diseases and health regimes, formalized school-based education, Christianity, and the criss-crossing of traditional homelands by modern infrastructure have reduced the capacity of Arctic Indigenous communities to maintain their customary ways of understanding and interacting with their environment. The past century has seen the rise of modern conservation practices in tandem with increasing industrial uses of the land, often with no appreciation for traditional modes of life in the region.

The past teaches that it is essential to maintain and support Indigenous management regimes to revitalize language and knowledge systems that organize sustainable practices such as nomadic reindeer herding in Siberia, and to explore best practices of co-management in order to sustain Indigenous ways of life and the biodiversity with which they have long co-existed. Indigenous peoples’ views are now recognized as part of the formal environmental decision-making process. Therefore, it is time to initiate a respectful and all-encompassing dialogue between mainstream societies and Indigenous peoples on how to manage and preserve the Arctic for future generations.

However, the time has also come to recognize that rights to full consultation and the principle of free, prior and informed consent so often invoked as pivotal Indigenous rights actually are meaningless in themselves. The right to consultation and the consent principle make sense only as related to fundamental human rights of Indige nous peoples: the right to self-determination, to culture, to property and to use of land and waters, to name a few. Although not directly a part of this assessment, the question of these fundamental rights still needs to be addressed in order to determine the role of Indigenous peoples with regards to the future of Arctic biodiversity.

The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment is an important step in the right direction. Now, humankind needs to continue towards regional and local implementation of the messages contained in this report to make sure we act together, with due diligence, for the good of the Arctic today and tomorrow.


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