The Protectors of Knowledge
Gunn-Britt Retter from the Saami Council explains how indigenous groups bring a traditional, human perspective to the Arctic Council.
Words Alex Hacillo
Illustration Aaron Nelson
Gunn-Britt Retter was born in Finnmark in the Norwegian Arctic — Finn being an archaic name for the Saami people. The Saami are the indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic regions of Sweden, Finland and Norway, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, descendants of the people who settled there 13,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age.
“The Saami language is my native tongue,” says Retter, head of the Saami Council’s Arctic and Environmental Unit. “I’ve been conscious of being Saami and living in a different country since I was very young.”
Like many European ethnic minorities, the Saami have been marginalised at the hands of dominant national groups, with early-twentieth-century nationalism leading to the suppression of the Saami language and forced resettlement. In the Soviet Union, the Saami were shunted onto collective farms or absorbed into large Russian-speaking cities like Murmansk.
The Saami Council was established in 1956 to strengthen Saami identity and culture across four countries. A volunteer- run NGO, it is one of six Permanent Participants representing indigenous groups on the Arctic Council.
In the case of the Saami, Retter is confident that the Arctic states can benefit from the integration of traditional knowledge and their deep connection with the landscape, wildlife and resources.
“We believe that science and traditional practice should both be used to inform decisions affecting the lives of the people in the Arctic. Traditional knowledge is validated knowledge, developed in the Arctic by the people living there – so we have something to contribute to climate change discussions.”
Of course, the interests of the Arctic Council member states and indigenous peoples don’t always align.The extraction of oil and gas, for example, has the potential to disrupt Saami industry, particularly reindeer herding and fishing. And although the Permanent Participants do not have voting rights, they can prevent a consensus decision that is harmful to their interests.
“In practice, if we really wanted to block a decision, we would be able to do so by getting some of the states to support our position,” explains Retter. “It’s easy to reach a consensus, but easier to break one.”
Because of the ‘soft power’ of the Permanent Participants, Retter feels that the Arctic Council is a good model for the representation of indigenous peoples. It grants the Arctic Council greater legitimacy, and allows historically marginalised groups to actively contribute to the decision- making process.
“We have lived here for millennia and we want our future here too, so we provide a holistic, long-term perspective to the Arctic Council, and not least a human perspective. We get the scientists and other participants in the Arctic Council to understand that there are not only polar bears in the Arctic, but that there are people living here too.”