The Indigenous World 2022: Arctic Council

Disclaimer: From 3 March 2022 the Arctic Council has been pausing all official meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies until further notice. The pause is in effect at the time of publication of this article in April 2022.

The Arctic Council, established in 1996, is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic among the Arctic States, Arctic Indigenous Peoples and other Arctic inhabitants. The category of Permanent Participants (PP) is a unique feature of the Arctic Council. Six organizations that represent Arctic Indigenous Peoples are designated as Permanent Participants and these include: the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Aleut International Association, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and the Saami Council. The category of PP was declared in the Ottawa Declaration (1996) “On the Establishment of the Arctic Council” and was created to provide a means for active participation and full consultation of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples within the Arctic Council, and to ensure participation in all levels of the Arctic Council, including co-leading projects that affect Arctic inhabitants, and contributing to the Arctic Council's expert work and political proceedings.

To facilitate Permanent Participants’ work in Arctic cooperation, the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat was established in 1994 under the auspices of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), which was the forerunner to the Arctic Council. The Secretariat is an institution recognized in the Ottawa Declaration and its role has been to facilitate PPs’ active participation and full consultation in the Council.           

Indigenous Peoples’ Traditional Knowledge holds significant value in the Arctic Council. The Ottawa Declaration recognized “the traditional knowledge of the [I]ndigenous [P]eoples of the Arctic and their communities” and took note “of its importance and that of Arctic science and research to the collective understanding of the circumpolar Arctic.” The Permanent Participants jointly created the Ottawa Traditional Knowledge Principles (2015) to provide guidance in the use of the Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous Peoples.

Over 500,000 Indigenous people live in the Arctic, which spans three continents and 30 million square kilometres. The Indigenous Peoples represent approximately 10% of the total population of the Arctic.[1] Indigenous Peoples have lived on their Arctic homelands for millennia and adapted and evolved over many centuries, turning specialist knowledge of their lands into a deep appreciation of all living beings within their unique environment. Each of the Arctic Indigenous societies understands the meaning of the land as imbedded with special meaning; and every feature is relished, named and linked to history, lived experience and spiritual lives. Such actions show their deep connection and commitment to the Arctic. The land, the rivers and seas of the Arctic anchor Indigenous societies and provide resources upon which the cultures continue to thrive and change. The diversity of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples is reflected in many ways – in culture, music, dress, and in how each group relates to the land and environment. The cultural groups are very different in terms of political, cultural, institutional and economic backgrounds, and each has legal and constitutional status with political participation in national or regional governance[2] although, arguably, common traditional practices, cultural heritage, value systems and spiritual beliefs are shared. Among these are continued social, economic and spiritual ties to the land and water. Climate change and the increased presence of extractive and new energy industries in the region are among the most pressing challenges for Arctic Indigenous Peoples, significantly affecting Indigenous women and, in recent years,[3] climate change has played a significant role in affecting Indigenous traditional roles. Here, it is appropriate to say that Indigenous women hold essential knowledge regarding climate mitigation and adaptation and yet they continue to be excluded or under-represented in environmental policymaking.[4]

The Arctic Council in 2021: Reykjavik Ministerial meeting, Arctic Council Strategic Plan 2021 - 2030 and the Russian Chairmanship

The Arctic Council adopted its first strategic plan at the Reykjavik Ministerial meeting in 2021. The Strategic Plan 2021 - 2030 lays down a framework for the Council’s work over the next decade and a vision of the Arctic to 2030. It referred to the topic of gender as follows: “4.5. Promote gender equality and non-discrimination in the Arctic with the aim of contributing to sustainability and balanced participation in leadership and decision-making both in the public and private sectors.” The Arctic Council Reykjavik Declaration 2021 emphasizes the importance of gender equality and respect for diversity and sustainable development in the Arctic and encourages the mainstreaming of gender-based analysis into the work of the Arctic Council, calling for further action to advance gender equality in the Arctic.           

The Arctic Council is committed to Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The 2021 Reykjavik Declaration[5] and Strategic Plan[6] both take due note of the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of Indigenous Peoples – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

In 2021, the Russian Federation took over the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2021- 2023) from Iceland. A cross-cutting priority of the Russian Chairmanship in the Arctic Council is “Responsible Governance for a Sustainable Arctic” and promoting collective approaches to sustainable development in a way that takes an environmentally, socially and economically-balanced approach, enhancing synergy, cooperation and coordination with other regional structures while implementing the Council’s Strategic Plan. One of the four priority areas of the Russian chairmanship’s comprehensive program is “People of the Arctic, including Indigenous Peoples.”

Gender and women in the Arctic Council framework

The Arctic Council’s 2002 Inari Declaration recognized the importance of women in developing Arctic communities by urging “the integration of gender equality and women and youth perspectives in all efforts to enhance human living conditions in the Arctic.”[7]

The Arctic Council has hosted two conferences on Arctic gender equality: the first, called the “Taking Wing – Conference on Gender Equality and Women in the Arctic”, was organized in 2002[8] by the Gender Equality Unit of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health of Finland, in collaboration with the Arctic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers, while the second, entitled “Gender Equality in the Arctic: Current Realities - Future Challenges” took place in 2014 in Akureyri, Iceland.[9]

Both conferences invited Indigenous women to attend and addressed specific issues such as political participation, participation in climate change discussions, resilience and access to and control over resources. The recommendations of the Arctic Council’s Taking Wing Conference note the implementation of “…a project to analyse and document the involvement and role of women and Indigenous Peoples in natural resource management in the Arctic”. As a result of this, a project entitled “Women’s Participation in Decision-Making Processes in Arctic Fisheries Resource Management” was established.[10] As a continuation of this project, “Women and Natural Resource Management in the Rural North” was developed, focusing on women and gender equality.[11] Both projects were specifically aimed at analysing women’s participation in fisheries and other natural resource industries. However, a regional study on Arctic Indigenous women conducted by the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI) (2020)[12] claims that these projects lacked an in-depth analysis of the situation of Indigenous women.

The Arctic Human Development Report from 2004[13] has one chapter devoted to gender issues, and the report reflects the impact of social, economic and cultural change on Arctic communities. The second conference on gender equality, held in 2014, laid the foundations for a formal cooperation network of stakeholders focused on gender equality in the Arctic. Gender Equality in the Arctic (GEA) is a Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) project. This project builds on the earlier gender work mentioned above and is further described below.

The Gender Equality in the Arctic report

The Gender Equality in the Arctic (GEA) project highlights the importance of recognizing and appreciating diversity of discourse, gender, Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, governance, education, economies, social realities, sustainability and balanced participation in leadership and decision-making both in the public and private sectors. The purpose and objective of the project is to promote and expand the dialogue on gender equality in the Arctic region. To strengthen social well-being and sustainable development in the Arctic, the SDWG set a goal to make gender equality an integral part of Arctic policy through the GEA project.            

The 2021 GEA report[14] includes six thematic chapters relating to gender equality, from law and governance to security and the environment. According to the report, some issues related to gender equality are felt more strongly in the Arctic, such as mobility and migration in the North, Arctic brain drain, and gendered violence across the Arctic. The GEA report highlights that women outnumber men in terms of out-migration and, in most Arctic regions, there are more men than women. The GEA report also emphasizes that gendered violence continues to be a serious issue across the Arctic. Indigenous women and girls face disproportionate and violent victimization in the context of ongoing settler colonial relations.            

The GEA report includes two main recommendations specifically for the Arctic Council. One of these is related to gender mainstreaming. According to the report, this could be achieved by the Arctic Council systematically engaging with and mainstreaming gender across its work. Another GEA recommendation is to improve gendered and intersectional data, including specific data on Indigenous populations. The collaboration of national agencies on developing indicators to facilitate future research and policy development will be a critical component.

Furthermore, the earlier mentioned FIMI regional study on Indigenous women in the Arctic[15] notes that Indigenous women widely highlight the need for disaggregated data in order to capture socio-economic and cultural inequalities that may affect Indigenous women and to develop effective public policies aimed at Indigenous women. This issue encompasses education, health, economic empowerment, political participation and violence. The report notes that such data is generally lacking with regard to the human rights situation of Indigenous women, which prevents an accurate understanding of their needs and realities and is a barrier to crafting policies and programs to adequately address them. The FIMI study reports that violence is one of the most compelling issues affecting Indigenous women in all states in the Arctic region but that the availability of data on violence varies greatly from one country to another. The report also outlines that comparative studies on issues related to Indigenous women of the Arctic region are very limited and mostly never consider all the states in which Indigenous Peoples live.

Hjalmar Dahl is President of ICC Greenland and Vice Chair of ICC International. Currently he’s also Chair of the Board of the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat. Dahl, from Greenland, has worked in the ICC around 40 years and has specialized on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. He has been directly involved in the creation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and has been part of the negotiation team of the ICC towards the adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007.

Dr. Karla Jessen Williamson is an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Her areas of specialization cover discourses on epistemologies, world views – especially Inuit, gender relations, and Arctic peoples, resilience and governance. She was born and grew up in Maniitsoq, Greenland and uses her culture and language as a platform for conducting and publishing research. She is also an accomplished poet.

Tonje Margrete Winsnes Johansen is the Saami Council’s Head of Delegation to the Arctic Council Sustainable Development Working Group and works at the Saami Council’s Arctic and Environmental Unit. Johansen works closely with socio-economic issues and sustainable community development in the Arctic. She is from a coastal Sámi community in Gussanjárga/Kunes in Lágesvuotna/Laksefjord, Norwegian side of Sápmi, and holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Through her studies she has focused on social development and gender issues.

Rosa-Máren Magga works as advisor at the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat. She holds a Master’s degree in Sámi Cultural Studies from University of Oulu, Finland and has studied Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. She’s from a traditional Sámi reindeer herding family from Eanodat/Enontekiö, Finnish side of Sápmi.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references

[1] FAO. “Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous Peoples’ Fisheries in the Arctic Region. Note on Expert Seminar on Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous Peoples’ Fisheries in the Arctic Region.  Rome: FAO, 2019.

[2] Svensson Eva-Maria. “Gender Equality in the Governance of the Arctic Region.” Nordic Journal on Law and Society 01, no. 01-02 (2017): 16-64.

[3] Kohut, Rachel & Tahnee Prior.. “Overlooking a Regional Crux of Vulnerability: Missing Women in the Arctic.” In Arctic Yearbook 2016, edited by Heininen, Lassi, Heather Exner-Pirot and Joël Plouffe, 297-301. Akureyi, Iceland: Northern Research Fourm, 2016.

[4] Inclusión y Equidad. “Regional Study: The situation of Indigenous Women in the Arctic Region in the Framework of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, 8 April 2020.” International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI).

[5] Arctic Council. “Reykjavík Declaration.” Reykjavik: Arctic Council Secretariat, 2021.

[6] Arctic Council. “Arctic Council Strategic Plan 2021-2030.” Reykjavik: Arctic Council Secretariat, 2021.

[7] Arctic Council.“Inari Declaration on the occasion of the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council.” Inari, Finland, 2002.

[8] Reports of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health 2002:12. “Taking Wing - Conference Report. Conference on Gender Equality and Women in the Arctic, 3 – 6 August 2002, Saariselkä, Inari, Finland.” Helsinki: Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, 2002.

[9] Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Iceland in cooperation with Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network and the Centre For Gender Equality. “Conference Report. Gender Equality in the Arctic / Current Realities- Future Challenges.” Ministry for Foreign Affairs 2015.

[10] Lindis Sloan, Lindis (editor), the Northern Feminist University; Joanna Kafarowski, Canadian Circumpolar Institute; Anna Heilmann, Greenland; Anna Karlsdóttir, University of Iceland; Maria Udén Luleå, University of Technology, Elisabeth Angell Norut, NIBR Finnmark and Mari Moen Erlandsen, Sámediggi. “Women’s Participation in Decision-making Processes in Arctic Fisheries Resource Management. Arctic Council 2002-2004.” Norfold, Norway: Forlaget Nora, Kvinneuniversitetet Nord, 2004.

[11] Sloan, Lindis, (ed), Joanna Kafarowski, Anna Heilmann, Anna Karlsdóttir, Bente Aasjord, Maria Udén, May-Britt Öhman, Nandita Singh and Sanna Ojalammi. “Women and Natural Resource Management in the Rural North. Arctic Council Sustainable Development Working Group 2004-2006.” Norfold, Norway: Forlaget Nora, Kvinneuniversitetet Nord, 2006.

[12] International Indigenous Women’s Forum FIMI. Inclusión y Equidad. “Regional Study: The situation of Indigenous Women in the Arctic Region in the Framework of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action – 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, 8 April 2020.” International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI).

[13] Einarsson, Niels, Joan Nymand Larsen, Annika Nilsson, and Oran R. Young. "Arctic Human Development Report. Akureyri: Stefansson Arctic Institute, 2004

[14] Arctic Council Sustainable Development Working Group. Pan-Arctic Report, Gender Equality in the Arctic, Phase 3. (Reykjavík: Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network, 2021).

[15] Inclusión y Equidad. “Regional Study: The situation of Indigenous Women in the Arctic Region in the Framework of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action – 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, 8 April 2020.” International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI).

Tags: Global governance



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