Monday, June 18, 2012

Emerging Issues in the Arctic, Part V: The Contested Space of Indigenous Peoples

Last week I was in Juneau for a conference hosted by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and united under the theme of “Environment, Culture & Place in a Rapidly Changing Raven2 North.” Papers presented have tackled a broad range of topics, from what might seem obscure to the law community (representations of gender and race in the “post-carbon” novel, a study of Edward Abbey’s taste in music) to what is most definitely on point (frontier rhetoric and environmental justice concerns in Arctic oil and gas politics, park management in Alaska and the Yukon, citizen resistance to fracking in northern Ohio, the Russian view of the far north). But as I recall the large raven statue in the Egan courtyard on the University of Alaska Southeast campus, which itself sits on Tlingit land, I cannot help but think about the recurrent motif of indigenous peoples and the contested space their stories and communities occupy in the new Arctic.

Many presenters at the conference offered studies that revealed the power of story to fuel and shape environmental conflicts. Julie Cruikshank, though, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia who has spent years of her life documenting the life stories of Athabaskan and Tlingit women in the Yukon, raised a question of particular salience for environmental law: What do current methods of incorporating traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) into environmental decision-making signal? As described by Professor Cruikshank, indigenous peoples in northern Alaska and Canada are invited, or else made, to participate in bureaucratic processes such as public hearings and environmental reviews; through their participation they are invited, or else made, to lend their TEK to the underlying field science and managerial science that will direct decisions on where and when to mine or drill. The indigenous peoples may be unaccustomed to the process, and even if they have become accustomed to the process the form and place of speech may still be antithetical to the very TEK they are being called upon to share. In essence, Prof. Cruikshank said, indigenous peoples are forced to re-orient themselves in relation to the permitting agency; but there is no corresponding obligation on the agency to shift its orientation based on the indigenous peoples’ TEK.

Now, if TEK reveals that an endangered or threatened species mates or feeds in a certain area then the agency and the project sponsor would do well to take that fact into consideration, lest they wind up in court defending their decision to ignore it. Shell learned this the hard way in the Arctic. Yet, this measure of regard is a far cry from the far deeper engagement that Prof. Cruikshank suggested would be necessary to actually inform the decision-makers’ worldview.

It was at this point that I found the lawyer in me raising questions the humanist in me probably would have preferred to leave unasked: Is the purpose of consulting with or otherwise soliciting traditional environmental knowledge from indigenous peoples really to inform a decision-makers worldview? If the answer to that is no—and on a descriptive level it is—then should that be the purpose? Or is the purpose simply, and properly, to obtain information to plug into existing scientific and bureaucratic models of knowledge-creation and decision-making?

These questions could be asked more generally, in regards to public comment from any local community – fishermen subjected to quotas and catch-share programs, city residents subjected to new construction projects, and so on. There is a real problem of ideational and emotional incommensurability. But these problematics are particularly pronounced in the Arctic, as industry moves into areas that have been almost exclusively inhabited by people with radically different worldviews, worldviews that are traditionally communicated through stories that simply do not fit into the regulatory state. Ultimately, these stories underscore the degree of difference: Agencies can account for where local people say the whales or caribou are. But what are they supposed to do with the stories of the whale and the fox?

- Michael Burger

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