Indigenous people: the original ecologists?

Indigenous peoples are commonly thought to be a window into Man’s authentic and natural stages unspoiled by westernisation, industrialisation and environmental destruction. BY Frank Sejersen

Inuit of the Arctic and other indigenous peoples of the world are often pointed out as living in harmony with the land and resources. Their traditional cultures are supposed to hold the key to sustainable use of nature. This has made some argue that Inuit are original ecologists. They may thus offer the needed alternatives to contemporary living and use of nature. Some Inuit support this view.

One way to get insight into their intrinsic sustainable worldview and way of life has been through the collection of traditional knowledge. Hundreds of projects on traditional knowledge have been pursued throughout the world, not least in the Arctic. These projects are often supported by Inuit as it is a way to break their marginalised position and to have their knowledge recognised as important.

However, a narrow focus on traditional knowledge in discussions about sustainability may in fact marginalise indigenous peoples even further. They become reduced to peoples with a long history and a short vision. This is an image fuelled by the understanding of them as peoples living from hand to mouth. In such an image traditional knowledge has value but political visions are not always welcome. This happens when political fora do not give proper attention to the indigenous peoples’ contemporary visions and strategies for sustainable futures of their homelands. This unfortunate position is further intensified by the image of sustainability as embedded in the ecological and idyllic indigenous cultures – it has to be found rather than produced.

The President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Aqqaluk Lynge, criticises this perception and states that “we do not think of our past or our present as ‘idyllic’ ... We acknowledge that ... Inuit are human and make mistakes. But all ... Inuit – and the social, political and economic institutions through which we express ourselves – know that our living
resources are the backbone of our existence. As such, we want to protect them and use them sustainably”. The commitment and dedication of indigenous peoples to protect the resources of their homelands are clear. In Canada, for example, the Inuit have gained a large amount of control over their territories and resources through the establishment of regional self-government in the 1.994 million square kilometres (one-fifth the size of Canada) area named Nunavut (Our Land) created in 1999.

The Inuit in Greenland formulates their own strategies for sustainable development through their Home Rule government established in 1979. Arctic indigenous peoples face different opportunities due to the variety of legislation. In Siberia, for example, many indigenous peoples lack proper influence and strategies at almost all levels due to the dominance of non-indigenous peoples. Despite differences they all have to fight many prevailing misconceptions in order to be able to present and qualify their contemporary strategies and visions for sustainability. Being noble and original ecologists is one of these misconceived images.

Frank Sejersen, assistant professor
Department of Eskimology,
University of Copenhagen

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