The Indigenous World 2021: Arctic Council

The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum for promoting cooperation in the Arctic. The Arctic Council is unique in that, in addition to eight Arctic States, six Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ organizations are granted Permanent Participant status and are institutionally important participants in the Council. Permanent Participants represent the Arctic Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic Council and participate at all levels of the Arctic Council’s work.

The founding document of the Arctic Council, the Ottawa Declaration (1996), declares that the Arctic States must “provide active participation and full consultation with the Arctic Indigenous representatives within the Arctic Council”. The Permanent Participants comprise the Aleut International Association (AIA), Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), Gwich’in International Council (GCI), Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and the Saami Council.

The unique role and rights of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples were reaffirmed by the Arctic Council Rovaniemi Ministerial Statements (2019), along with the Arctic States’ commitment to “consult and cooperate in good faith with Arctic indigenous peoples and to support their meaningful engagement in Arctic Council activities”.[1]

The Icelandic Chairmanship

The Arctic Council Chairmanship rotates every two years among the Arctic States. During the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2019 to 2021, Iceland set the agenda to pledge support for sustainable development principles and strengthen cooperation in the Arctic region. With sustainability being an important consideration, the Chairmanship highlighted four significant issues: Arctic Marine Environment, Climate and Green Energy Solutions, People and Communities of the Arctic, and a Stronger Arctic Council.


The coronavirus pandemic has had a severe impact on the lives of people around the globe and exposed the vulnerability of the Arctic region. In spring 2020, 50 experts, including researchers, Permanent Participants, Indigenous representatives, Indigenous knowledge holders and Arctic policymakers, co-created the briefing document for Senior Arctic Officials entitled ‘Overview of the coronavirus pandemic in the circumpolar Arctic’.[2] This comprehensive and collaboratively-produced document examined the status, risks and potential impacts of COVID-19 on the Arctic communities and the work of the Arctic Council itself. The briefing document paid careful attention to the implications of the pandemic on Indigenous Peoples in the circumpolar world.

The document illustrated that Indigenous communities are concerned with many facets of this far-reaching disease. The shared dialogues included how to combat the disease, lessons learned from previous pandemics in the Arctic, and the Indigenous knowledge that has contributed to rising to the current challenges. The pandemic revealed unique risks and challenges for Arctic communities. The remoteness of many Indigenous settlements, their limited health systems, the higher infection rates among the Indigenous population (often due to overcrowded housing and the lack of potable water), and the need for proper technological infrastructure, including the importance of transportation logistics, telehealth development and connectivity requirements, were all themes that emerged from multiple perspectives.

The response of the Arctic communities to the far-reaching and rapid spread of the disease further demonstrated the strengths and resilience of Arctic peoples. The existing oral Indigenous tradition offered continuity with the history of pandemics in the Arctic, which helps communities tackle similar problems. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Saami in Scandinavia managed to avoid smallpox infection due to a correct understanding of the spread of the disease and pragmatic action. Some Indigenous communities referred to the practice of a Nomadic lifestyle to avoid disease hotspots: many still have vivid memories of the Spanish flu pandemic and are therefore still able to implement practices of “living on the land” because the necessary skills and knowledge are being transferred down the generations.

At the June 2020 Senior Arctic Officials’ executive meeting, and with the assistance of Arctic Council Expert Groups on human health and socio, cultural and economic issues, the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) provided an overview of the findings and recommendations on future disease-related work within the Arctic Council.[3] The Council is continuing to work on assessing the pandemic situation in the circumpolar Arctic and has commissioned the SDWG to coordinate the effort.

Response to COVID

The way in which the Arctic Council works has adapted in response to COVID-19. Some initiatives of the Chairmanship were cancelled or rescheduled, e.g., an Ocean Ministers’ Meeting and the International Symposium on Marine Plastic. Similarly, the second round of the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy (ARENA) program was postponed due to the pandemic. This outstanding knowledge-sharing program is being led by the GCI and facilitates knowledge exchange on isolated power systems integration throughout the Arctic. It had planned on welcoming its newest cohort of energy professionals in summer 2020.

Although COVID-19 has hindered the implementation of certain Arctic Council projects, it has not prevented the emergence of new initiatives in areas important for the Icelandic Chairmanship, such as marine cooperation and sustainable energy solutions. With most of the Council’s project activities switched online, the Arctic Council commenced implementation of the Senior Arctic Officials’ (SAO)-based Marine Mechanism (SMM). The SMM was created to provide strategic and policy guidance on Arctic marine issues as well as coordination within the Arctic Council. The SMM was well attended with participation from the Permanent Participants at multiple sessions where they provided their expertise on marine issues to the audience and the SAO. All presentations from these sessions can be found online.[4]

Another new mechanism that crystallized in 2020 was the Arctic Council connectivity coordinator. This position was funded by the United States. The Coordinator took on the work of relevant previous Arctic Council Task Forces and the Arctic Economic Council Connectivity Working Group. Since issues of connectivity are crucial for remote Indigenous communities, the success of the mechanism will rely on the Coordinator’s cooperation with Permanent Participants. Another emerging mechanism addresses general cooperation and coordination between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council in order to pursue and foster an active exchange and cover shared interests in the region, as stated in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council.[5]

Operating through the pandemic has resulted in a variety of novel approaches to Arctic Council work. For example, one of the Chairmanship’s core priorities, the thematic discussion on Climate and Green Energy Solutions, took place in the autumn of 2020, virtually, with short, pre-recorded presentations[6] that were available ahead of the meeting. These recorded presentations on relevant project developments provided background and facilitated a more meaningful discussion between the Working Group Chairs, Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participant Heads of Delegations.

Permanent Participant joint priorities

Joint priorities for all six Permanent Participants include youth engagement, education and the revitalization of Indigenous languages. These priorities have been established and reconfirmed multiple times.

In November 2019, more than 60 Indigenous leaders participated in the 6th Arctic Leaders’ Summit where they established a platform of joint priorities for Permanent Participants. These priorities were summarized at an Arctic Frontiers 2020 side event entitled “Indigenous Leaders’ Vision for the Arctic”. This event was organized by the Permanent Participants and the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat. At the event, the Permanent Participants Panel reconfirmed the joint priorities – Importance of Language Preservation and Revitalization; Preservation of Cultural Identity and Knowledge; Improvements in Mental and Physical Health; Ensuring both environmental and economic stability for generations to come; Involvement of Youth; and Having a valued and respected voice in matters which affect the Arctic and Indigenous Peoples. This was the last time before the pandemic that all of the Permanent Participants were able to meet face-to-face but the work on these important topics has continued.

2020 resulted in a breakthrough for youth engagement in the Arctic Council. At the June 2020 executive meeting, SAOs reaffirmed the need to foster sustainable and meaningful collaboration and engagement between youth and the Arctic Council. The Permanent Participants are at the forefront of Indigenous youth engagement in the Council’s work. In spring 2020, the Permanent Participants’ Youth Network (PP Youth) was established to increase opportunities for the voices of the young generation. During the year, PP Youth held regular online meetings that resulted in an online celebration of the anniversary of the First Arctic Youth Leaders’ Summit. The most prominent event of the PP Youth Network hosted 70 Indigenous youth professionals and experts from around the Arctic and made further steps to amend the Arctic Youth Leaders’ Summit Declaration,[7] which would allow youth to reflect on the up-to-date challenges and recognize the milestones achieved. Another PPs Youth project involves outreach and communication on the Permanent Participants and Arctic Council activities and it is planned for the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Arctic Council to be celebrated in 2021.

The challenges and Arctic Indigenous languages’ revitalization efforts were addressed in “Ságastallamin: Telling the Story”, an exhibition highlighting the efforts to promote, preserve and develop Indigenous languages in the Arctic.[8] In 2020, the exhibition was physically organized in Tromsø (in connection with the Arctic Frontiers Conference 2020), in Kautokeino (at the Saami University of Applied Sciences) and is now also available online.[9] The exhibition has grown into the project called “Arctic Indigenous languages and revitalization: an online educational resource” that will be delivered during the Russian Chairmanship of the Arctic Council 2021-2023.


The Arctic Council is a unique space that allows and encourages the cooperation and input of Indigenous Peoples. It is important to look at these accomplishments and appreciate the way in which Indigenous Peoples, hand-in-hand with the Arctic States, have drawn attention to the knowledge systems and expertise necessary to make holistic policy decisions. As new forms of cooperation emerge every year, this year has highlighted how the Arctic Council continues to provide a cooperation platform where the Traditional Knowledge of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples is being heard and respected along with science-based knowledge systems.

The SAO Marine Mechanism and the PP Youth Network are just two of the many examples. We believe these are two examples of room in which the Arctic Council and Permanent Participants have to grow capacity and continue to engage and cooperate with one another. As we embark on the UN decade of Indigenous languages and as we also learn to connect while being so far away from one another, we look forward to working collaboratively to continue to elevate the work that we are involved in at the Arctic Council.



Anna Degteva, the Executive Secretary of Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat, belongs to the Vepsian Indigenous People and comes from the Republic of Karelia, North-Western Russia. Ms. Degteva holds a Master’s degree in Indigenous Studies from the Arctic University of Norway.

Dr. Liza Mack, the Executive Director of Aleut International Association, is Unangax and was born and raised in King Cove, Alaska, a small village at the end of the Alaska Peninsula. Dr. Mack holds a PhD in Indigenous Studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and lives in Anchorage, Alaska with her son.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here

Notes and references

 [1] Arctic Council. “Rovaniemi Ministerial Statements.” Rovaniemi, Finland, 7 May, 2019.

[2] Arctic Council. “COVID-19 in the Arctic: Briefing Document for Senior Arctic Officials.” Iceland, June, 2020.

[3] Arctic Council. “Circumpolar Collaboration Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic.” 26 June, 2020.

[4] Arctic Council. 2021. Vimeo.

[5] Arctic Council and Arctic Economic Council. “Memorandum of Understanding between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council.” 6 May, 2019.

[7] Arctic Leaders’ Summit (ALS). “VI Arctic Leaders’ Summit Declaration.” Rovaniemi, Finland, 13-15 November, 2019.

[8] AYLS Declaration is a part of ALS6 Declaration.

[9] Arctic Indigenous Languages. “Ságastallamin exhibition.” Culture and Social Sciences Library, 16 September-1 November, 2019.

Tags: Global governance



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