FINAL WEEK: ALASKA
Paġlaġipsi Means Welcome in Iñupiaq: An Alaskan Shares What It Means to Call the U.S. Arctic Home
by Elizabeth Saagulik Hensley, an Iñupiaq lawyer practicing in Anchorage, Alaska, who also calls the U.S. Arctic village of Qikiktagruk (Kotzebue) home.
Alaska: the state that makes the United States an Arctic nation, and my home. In the Alaskan Arctic, communities hunt, fish, gather and work hard day in and day out, honoring ancestors and future generations. It is a complex web of knowledge developed over generations, cutting edge technology, sweat, and endurance. It is where traditional drumbeats mix with hip hop, where thousands-year-old indigenous words intersperse with English brought over from another continent. The Arctic is a place where much has changed, yet much is the same as it was, and as it always will be.
American political and pop culture interest in the Arctic has ebbed and flowed over time. Most recently, we have experienced a major ebb with the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council and the visit to Alaska by President Barack Obama himself.
His trip to Anchorage, Dillingham, and the place I have roots, Qikiktagruk (also called Kotzebue), inspired stories that will doubtless be told for generations to come. Our own five-year-old daughter, Aqattaq, will tell her children someday about the day she sang for President Obama with her classmates of Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat, the Iñupiaq language and cultural immersion school in Qikiktagruk.
I will certainly tell my grandchildren someday about the time the people of Qikiktagruk came together to provide the most impeccable hospitality I have ever seen for the President, his many staff and the myriad other visitors (media and political leaders, for example) who flocked to Qikiktagruk over the course of not just a day or two, but weeks. I will tell my grandchildren that our community members worked their tails off to ensure these guests received only the best caribou soup, sheefish and salmon prepared dozens of different ways, tundra blueberries and salmonberries served with milk and sugar and as aqqutaq (traditional “ice cream”), sourdough hotcakes, and fresh bread made like our aanas (grandmas) taught us, and other delicacies that are implicit in who we are as Iñupiat, or the “Real People” in English.
I will tell my grandbabies that these hundreds of guests were provided comfortable shelter in a community with a dire housing crunch even without visitors present. I will solemnly whisper to them that our children, Elders, and those in between honored our guests by sharing traditional motion dances with them, telling some of the most intimate stories of our People, despite their previously being outlawed by federal agents.
I will share that we welcomed our guests to join the dancing, and that they shoved any insecurities aside and did and we shared smiles and laughter together. I will tell them that the President opened his time and space to connect with community leaders, Elders and youth, that he sat on a rock by the beach in Qikiktagruk which is reinforced by steel to prevent our town from washing into the ocean and pondered his visit and the scenery, and that he took the time to fly over the village of Kivalina to see how its beach is currently eroding. This is a life and safety issue for the whole community because each time there is a heavy storm off the coast, there is no road by which people can travel to escape the ocean waves.
As I reflect in the dusk of 2016 with an eye toward a new year, a new period in which the United States will transition out of the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and an imminent new commander-in-chief at the helm of our nation, the urgency for keeping the focus on the Arctic and continuing the dialogue between the people of the Arctic and people and institutions in positions of power presses upon us.
The strategic position of the Alaska Arctic enables the United States to play a key role in economic development, national security, global shipping and international cooperation. It also presents tremendous opportunity for the United States to demonstrate model behavior for how to uphold fundamental human rights embodied in a score of international treaties the United States has signed and which have therefore generally become “the law of the land” on par with the other laws and treaties the United States has promised to uphold.
The Arctic is a place where much has changed, yet much is the same as it was, and as it always will be.
A core fundamental human right that is of utmost importance — and one that the President highlighted by flying over Kivalina — is the right to safety. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 7(1) states, “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.” As we move into this era of multiple new fronts, let our nation keep at the forefront this commitment, and invest in solutions where as a nation we are not hitting the mark. The fulfillment of additional rights and responsibilities will only become more important at this critical junction in time: the right to maintain, control, protect and develop cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions;  the right to establish and maintain culturally appropriate educational systems and to provide education in indigenous languages; the right to self-governance; the right to free, prior and informed consent before the adoption or implementation of legislative or administrative measures that may affect the indigenous peoples concerned; and, finally, the right to be secure in the enjoyment of the indigenous communities’ own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.
Sheefish and salmon prepared dozens of different ways, tundra blueberries and salmonberries served with milk and sugar and as aqqutaq (traditional “ice cream”), sourdough hotcakes, and fresh bread made like our aanas (grandmas) taught us, and other delicacies…are implicit in who we are as Iñupiat, or the “Real People” in English.
Let’s take a moment to focus on subsistence and economic development. Hunting, fishing and gathering is of utmost cultural, spiritual and nutritional importance to the indigenous peoples of Alaska’s Arctic. It is intertwined with all of the other rights listed above; it is culture, it is traditionally the school, it is self-governance.
Participating in contemporary economic development is also of great import, as the indigenous communities of the Alaskan Arctic are a part of the global economy. Alaska Native communities in so many ways “live in two worlds with one spirit” — that is, they are traditional and modern… all at the same time. And it is articulated in international legal instruments that living in two worlds, or to hone in a bit, engaging in both traditional subsistence and participating in the cash economy, is a fundamental human right that our nation pledged to stand behind. To boil it down further, indigenous peoples get to be the contemporary version of themselves as a matter of international law.
Time is short, and the world is changing rapidly. The natural environment of my childhood is no longer after the passing of just a few decades, and social dynamics are changing quickly with the change of the natural world. The people of the Arctic are not bystanders watching the change, they are adapting — some perhaps because they have to in order to survive and some because they want to in order to thrive and enjoy a high quality of life.
I put out a call to my Facebook contacts of the north for answers to the question, “What do you want the world to know about the Arctic?”
Through all of this, the voices of the Arctic are and will remain of critical importance. The voices of the Arctic are valid. They are important. They are varied. Some represent indigenous worldviews rooted in the land, waters, sky, and spirit world that has provided for communities for thousands of years.
The voices of the Arctic matter. They are not an anecdote; they are where the story begins and where the story will end. Some voices represent families who colonized Alaska and who now know this place as their home. Their voices matter, too. The voices of the Alaska Arctic are intriguing, valuable and critical to a path forward in a global world that is seeing rapid change. If anything as we move forward in time, let’s listen to each other.
I put out a call to my Facebook contacts of the north for answers to the question, “What do you want the world to know about the Arctic?”
Here are their responses:
Hunting. Our subsistence way of life. We’re not savages, we do have an education. — Iñupiaq man with roots in Utqiagvik, Alaska
The Arctic is home. It’s where my soul feels most at ease. And somehow it’s still so hard. It’s hard to live in the cold, in the dark. Where food from the store could be why you feel like you’re living without even though you know you’re working and very fortunate. You can feel so isolated. But it’s home. And I’ve never been so calm. I often wonder how this lifestyle can be so rewarding because when people ask me how I like it, it sounds like I hate it. But I love it. Every season has its bounty. Every activity has its purpose. I don’t do things because I’m bored, I’m doing them because it’s time. It’s work, hard, enjoyable, memorable work. — Young Iñupiaq mother from Qikiktagruk, Alaska
The Arctic is our home, our life, our sustenance. We are not saving a people, we are preserving a culture and saving our land — our Iñupiaq culture and the land we subsist on. Our way of life sustains us — enriches our lives, feeds our souls and sustains a culture over 15,000 years strong. All we ask is that you respect and honor this, as we do.” — Iñupiaq grandmother from Qikiktagruk, Alaska
Our Iñupiaq culture and traditions (culture/ language/ heritage). And how we as a people thrive in our sustainable cold environment that ties us all to the land. (example: sigaloaqs ice cellars melting) What endangers us as the ice caps melts? (drilling, global warming/ environmental changes…etc) What we can do to help or get involved. — Iñupiaq father and hunter from Utqiagvik, Alaska
I would like the world to know that we are ‘the real people’ [this is the English translation of Iñupiat] attempting to save what we have left….Identity and culture. We are also a people trying to fit into society. Sadly society dictates who you are in today’s fast changing world. — Iñupiaq father, hunter and dog musher from Iviq, Alaska
People have so many different points of views… There are so many stories to be told… So much is going on in the Arctic life. — Iñupiaq father and hunter from Qikiktuģruk, Alaska
People live there, global warming is real and it is effecting those who call the arctic home the most, for now. Soon that effect will effect the world. By then it would be too late. Do something now.— Athabaskan hunter from Allakaket, Alaska
I believe that the people of Alaska’s arctic are going to be OK through big threats to our lifestyle such as climate change, but what threatens our lives and future the most are the beating hearts of other human beings who would exploit this land and people. I would want people of other culture and histories, other governments and organizations of the world to deeply feel, understand and innovate utilizing our cultural values, taking example of how our strongest live, and taking only this from us.” — Iñupiaq woman who grew up in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, whose family is originally from Sivuaqaq Boxer Bay, via the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska
The Arctic is our home. We share with fellow beings who know the way that we are supposed to live here with the unwritten laws on how to be. If you come from the outside it is your responsibility to take the time to fully understand this, until then you are a visitor, and even a visitor should come with respect. We have a sacred space where we hold that energy, and that is the core of who we are. We might get western educations, but that system should not become our way of being, but simply serve as a shield of protection, a tool to deal with the western world. Unfortunately, this is not how it is right now, but speaking openly about it will hopefully help us back to keeping the Arctic how it is supposed to be. — Inuit mother and artist from Greenland who lives between Alaska ,Greenland and Denmark
The myth of Iñupiat still living in ice igloos. It’s the 21st century and people still think we live in ice igloos. I live in Idaho now and people still ask the question however reluctantly. — Iñupiaq grandmother from Qikiktagruk (Kotzebue), Alaska
About our changing environment and that we love our subsistence food.” Iñupiaq grandmother from Selawik, Alaska
I want the world to know that we are a highly adaptable people and that the Arctic nations need to combine their considerable expertise to figure what we can do help mitigate the effects of climate change. — Athabaskan man and culture-bearer from Eklutna, Alaska
The Arctic environment is changing very rapidly due to climatic change…and it seems to be getting warmer faster. Food security is becoming an urgent matter for hunting communities who have little money to support them in the modern economic conditions Arctic residents face. As a whaler I have seen the ice mass shrink from 22–30 feet to about 18 inches in my life time. There is no more old ice around my hometown of Barrow, Alaska. — Iñupiaq grandfather from Utqiagvik, Alaska, now residing in Fairbanks
Every policy decision must put its first people first and go forward from that point. Arctic policy decisions will effect the entire world as time goes on. It will impact its residents first of course. — An individual who hales from a rural cold state, North Dakota and has spent the last 37 years in Alaska working all over the state
As a transplant who came from New England originally then California and Oregon I think people should understand that the first peoples of the north have never left, and that those of us who are settlers do have an obligation to respect land claims and desires of the original inhabitants. People in the south really need to understand that there are vibrant cultures and economies and communities alongside the incredible beauty. Perhaps there also needs to be an exploration of different definitions of wealth and well-being because I think folk in the south don’t understand those concepts from northern perspectives. — Educator residing in Anchorage, Alaska
I’d like the world to know and come to respect the tenacity and wisdom of the Inuit to manage their lands, their resources sustainably for over 10,000 years. I’d like the world to finally embrace and respect the right of Inuit to continue to make decisions about the place on the planet that they are the premier experts, then and now in modern day times. The original weather predictors, the original sustainable hunters, the original environmentalists, the original technologists, the original and last stewards of all that is the arctic.” — Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow) community member of Native Hawaiian descent from Niumalu, Hawaii and who now resides in Anahola, Hawaii
What is considered ‘the Arctic,’ what is its history from a non-western civ perspective, what is it like today, the push and pull of modern vs traditional lifestyle, the affect of policies on a personal level. — Lifelong Alaska resident from Anchorage, Alaska
The Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic are the key decision makers for anything/everything regarding the Arctic. If the diversity of their internal issues means they have divergent views on what to do or not do, than it is up to them to work that out and the rest of us can support them doing that without inserting our own values/beliefs/monetary interests into the picture. I’m not from the Arctic, but I live in a state that has Arctic peoples and lands in it. I stand with the indigenous peoples of the Arctic to be the drivers of their destiny, just as I know they would do for my indigenous peoples of the rainforest and islands of Southeast Alaska. Our destinies are intertwined, and our self-determination of what is best as lived by our values and embedded in our cultural practices and languages will guide us in the right direction. When we sever that and look instead to others values, we will lose our footing in our own homelands. Accept no substitute. — Tlingit and Haida auntie from Southeast Alaska.
Self-determination is the key to our overall well-being. Amazing example is Teck-John Baker Youth Leaders (“TJBYL”) program which truly teaches our youth self-determination- youth learn skills to use in their schools and communities to prevent bullying, substance abuse, suicide. Then they are expected to be responsible for how things are going in their schools and expected to use the tools and skills they were taught. It is so effective that for the first time since the 80s, when our tracking system first started, the youth rates of attempts and fatalities has fallen below the rate of adults in our region. The drop correlates almost exactly with the start of TJBYL program. — Iñupiaq grandmother and social services provider from Qikiktuģruk, Alaska
About the Author: Elizabeth Saagulik Hensley was born in Anchorage, Alaska and calls both Qikiktagruk (Kotzebue) and Anchorage “home.” She is an attorney at the law firm Landye Bennett Blumstein and has been active in Alaska and Native American affairs for many years, working to meet the unique legal needs of Alaska Native tribes, tribal nonprofit health and social service organizations and corporations. She holds a B.A. from Darmouth College and J.D. from University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. You can reach her at Elizabethh@lbblawyers.com.
 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 31.
 Id. at 14.
 Id. at 4.
 Id. at 19.
 Id. at 20.