"We don't need a seat at the table. It's our table."
When Melanie Bahnke used those words alongside a cartoon of a man in a parka checking his mailbox for an invitation to talk about the future of the Arctic and finding nothing, at first the audience was silent, then they began to applaud.
"The Arctic is our homeland," said Bahnke, president of Kawerak Inc. "That's so appropriate because when I consider that we were the Arctic's first stewards, environmentalists, and resource managers and then I consider the long history that we've had with governments -- we've gone from colonization to assimilation to segregation, desegregation, tribal recognition, tribal consultation. Where do we graduate from next? Where is this history line going?"
She was speaking before a room full of politicians, scientists, policymakers, and a handful of Alaskans, some of whom were Arctic residents, at the third annual Arctic Encounter Symposium in Seattle.
The theme this year was "Our Best Chance: Acting Right in the Arctic," and speakers from the state took those words to heart, calling for not just recognition, but equality, in discussions centering around the future of the far north.
"The popularity of the Arctic region has exploded in just a few short years and the eyes of the world are looking north," said Tara Sweeney, executive vice president for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. "When looking to the future, the only constant that we will know is change."
Sweeney underscored the need for Arctic communities to be at the forefront of decision-making and development as they have long been in the unique position of balancing environmental stewardship with the need to take advantage of economic opportunities.
Because these communities often rely on extractive industries like oil and gas development, mining, and commercial fishing, they may see serious changes over the next 20 years as "economies that were once viable may become unsustainable," she said, and incorporating local and traditional knowledge into the adaptation strategies to those changes is vital.
"We are businessmen and women who also hunt, fish, and gather," she said. "A true understanding of the Arctic is just as vital to the success of an investment as capital."
Down in the audience, Percy Ballot mulled over the speakers' words. Ballot is the vice chair of Maniilaq Association and vice president of the village of Buckland and has seen the caribou grow thinner, the beluga and ice disappear, and the winds change over the last several decades.
"I'm hoping we'll have a set of goals that will help us understand how we can slow climate change down," he said. "Surely there are things that we can do. I don't know what the answer is but surely there's got to be something we've all got to do together. Using scientific knowledge and local knowledge can work."
Many of the scientists who spoke reiterated the need for inclusivity and partnership and spoke against the common practice of holding up science in contrast to traditional knowledge, rather than alongside it.
"We recognize that as scientists, we have a responsibility to our colleagues and the public to take on the burden of clear communication," said Dr. Brendan Kelly, executive director of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH). "If we make our work accessible, we shall enhance scientific collaboration, we'll better serve society, and our science will benefit from the insights of those whose specialties are local knowledge, resource management and policymaking."
Craig Fleener, Arctic policy adviser to Gov. Bill Walker, challenged the audience to change the way they think about the state as they move forward with discussions -- to consider the Alaska perspective and if they don't know what that is, to ask.
"Think of Alaska not just as a faraway mythical, mystical, cold, snowy wasteland at the far reaches of the globe, not just a victim of a changing climate -- think of Alaska as the most strategic place on earth, as the homeland of indigenous people," he said.
While many of the speakers outlined goals like increased maritime security, the creation of comprehensive Arctic policy, and developing adaptation strategies for climate change, the Alaskans predominantly pushed for a direct line of communication between stakeholders and locals, for better technological connectivity, for practical solutions like clean water and sewage treatment, and expansions of ports and harbors. The two approaches met in the middle as panelists bounced ideas off one another and audience members asked questions of both sides.
Bahnke, for one, didn't mince words as she said communication is key at this turning point in Arctic policy-making.
"The U.S. history of encroachment on areas that Alaska Natives rely on is a stain on the soul of our country. We all know this," she said. "And now, we have an opportunity to write chapter two in this history book. We're the ones writing this in a manner that future generations will be able to look back on and be proud. This year's conference theme is appropriate -- 'Acting right in the Arctic.' Let's get it right this time."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.