Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic:
Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience (GLACIER)
Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center – Anchorage, Alaska
Monday, August 31, 2015
Luncheon Remarks of Mr. Evon Peter
Vice Chancellor for Rural, Community & Native Education
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Shalak naii, juk drin gwinzii. Dzaa nal’in geenjit shoo ihlii. Shoozhri’ Evon Peter oozhii. Vashraii K’oo gwats’an ihlii gaa Tanan gwiichi’. Neetsaii Gwich’in ts’a Koyukon ihlii.
Friends, Dignitaries, and Guests,
Good afternoon and once again, welcome to Alaska. I’m happy that you have chosen to visit this beautiful and bountiful place we call home.
Before I get into my remarks, I would like to acknowledge the presence of my wife Enei Begaye Peter, we celebrate our twelfth wedding anniversary today. We can think of no better way to celebrate than being here with you all and taking part in these historic and pressing conversations.
Today, we meet on the land of our southern Dena’ relatives, the Dena’ina. I come from the Gwich’in, the northernmost of the Dena’ peoples in Alaska. The village I come from is called Vashraii K’oo. In English they call it Arctic Village, it is five hundred miles north of where we now sit, nestled in the southern foothills of the Brooks mountain range and only accessible by small plane.
As a boy I lived in a single room cabin with my grandfather and uncle. I packed water from a hole in the river ice, kept a wood fire going throughout the long winter, and relied on candles and kerosene lanterns for light.
From the mountain creek we had clean water, fish from the lakes and streams, berries from the tundra, and the caribou would return each fall on their annual migration. There were also ducks, geese, muskrat, beaver, moose, and many other flora and fauna that nourished our body and spirit, as well as filled us with appreciation and wonder for what had been bestowed upon our people as a place to live and way of life.
Our elders taught us to respect the land and animals, to understand that we are in an interdependent and intimate relationship with the world around us. I remember thinking that as long as our people hold onto our culture and balance in our relationships with the natural world, in the same way our ancestors had done for over ten thousand years before us, we would be fine.
But when my mother moved us to the city of Fairbanks so that my brother and I could pursue a stronger school-based education everything changed. I transitioned into my teenage years in the city and was struck by the inequalities and imbalance I witnessed in my new environment. We lived in low-income housing projects, went to charitable organizations to receive donated food, and were immersed in social settings that often involved the abuse of alcohol, drugs, and violence.
Like many of my peers I picked up social habits that were pulling me down a dark path. Then the traumatic loss of a close friend and a powerful dream woke me up to a simple truth -- that I have the power to alter my life’s path.
At seventeen years old I made a silent personal commitment -- that I would pursue knowledge and work to achieve my full potential, so that I may better understand the history of what brought us to where we are today and have the capacity to help my people. Little did I know that this pursuit would bring me from being a high school dropout to a college graduate and tribal chief, and later would take me around the world working with indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in places as distant as Africa, Peru, India, and New Zealand. A much broader appreciation for and perspective on humanity grew within me over those years.
As I studied, traveled, and worked, I came to understand that every society has been impacted by a history of colonization and yet this history has been rarely acknowledged. Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to a gathering of Native American youth and acknowledged that history. Her words gave hope and inspiration to Indigenous peoples throughout this country and we thank her. And just yesterday her husband President Barack Obama, took this acknowledgement a step further by restoring the official name of our great mountain to its most well known Alaska Native name, Denali. We are grateful for these actions, as they move us in the right direction, but there is much work left to do.
The harsh impacts of this history have reverberated through several generations of my people and other Arctic Indigenous peoples. For well over a hundred years our identity and right to self-determination were under attack. The attacks were aimed at dismantling the social, cultural, and spiritual systems that had successfully provided for thousand of years of survival in the harshest environment inhabited by man. The goal was to erase our sense of indigenous self and to assimilate us into the dominant cultures. Tth’aii dzaa draadii. But we are still here and our Indigenous identity remains intact. My home of Arctic Village and the people of my community continue to live a life dependent on this land.
Today, I stand before you as both an indigenous leader and a vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to share with you just a few reflections on what I have come to understand.
The need to address the impacts and effects of a history of colonization is critical. And as I see it, we can achieve this goal. The solution is two-fold and within it rests the opportunity for the circumpolar North to demonstrate to the world the impact reconciliation with indigenous peoples can have on society. We have the opportunity to usher in a new paradigm of sustainability and respect.
First, we must continue our work to reverse the trends of linguistic and cultural loss in Arctic communities. Within our languages and cultures is imbedded a world of Indigenous knowledge. We have only scratched the surface in researching the practices and systems employed by Indigenous peoples to maintain sustainability. I often reflect on the fact that our people are among the most forgiving in the world. We know that despite the circumstance, we must work together in order to survive. I foresee that Indigenous knowledge will serve a critical role in guiding humanity to balanced relations with one another and the natural world.
Second, we must continue to advance self-determination among Indigenous peoples. The Arctic Council founders were visionary in this regard, making a place at the highest decision making table for Indigenous peoples to represent themselves. Research within the United States has shown that the simplest path to addressing the social and economic challenges faced by Indigenous peoples is through self-determination. This becomes a direct benefit to state and national governments, strengthening the position of circumpolar health and economy, and increasing capacity for partnership with Indigenous peoples.
At Troth Yeddha’, the hill upon which the University of Alaska Fairbanks sits, our leadership has prioritized the building of an Indigenous studies center that will serve to educate a new generation of Indigenous and non-indigenous researchers, scholars, teachers, and administrators to support meeting these challenges.
On a broader scale, the challenges my people face are tied to a set of global issues that impact us all. My generation of leaders inherits these issues at a time when the world is on the verge of crisis. The impacts from climate change, growth in human population, and natural resource depletion are headed toward a breaking point. Most people around the world are already experiencing impacts from one or more of these global issues.
Within Alaska and the Arctic this is certainly the case. In my lifetime, I have experienced substantial climatic changes impacting the land and animals that our people depend upon. Major floods along the Yukon River have devastated entire villages and the earth is literally falling from beneath homes as the permafrost melts. Last summer, for the first time in the living memory of our people, we had to stop subsistence fishing for chinook salmon because of the declining population. This is a critical source of physical and cultural sustenance that greatly affects the food security for thousands of people living along the river.
We must take bold action on these issues. Decision-making needs to be based on a set of solid criteria that incorporates scientific data, technological capacity, and Indigenous knowledge. An analysis of long-term, multi-generational sustainability is essential. As human beings we depend upon natures’ capacity to replenish and sustain itself.
My generation has grown up in a technologically connected world. While we respect the boundaries of nations, we see the bigger picture, that our fate is woven together as one. The world’s government and business leaders will be challenged to reshape long-held preconceptions of national and corporate identity in the coming years. Unwieldy competition and distrust will not get us to where we need to go, if we are to ensure future generations have similar opportunities as we have enjoyed.
We are the generation tasked with collectively ushering in new paradigms that bring together the best of all cultures and technologies in a way that will challenge us to expand our imagination and expectations. This is not a choice; it is simply what we must do.
Together, we have the ability to hand those to follow a future in which their families thrive, communities flourish, nations cooperate, culture is embraced, and the land and waters provide.
Together, we have the capacity to develop a prosperous Arctic, founded upon solid governing-institutions -- an Arctic where sustainable economies of scale, incorporating innovative energy systems, strengthened educational institutions, and protected ecosystems, provide for our economic, social, cultural, physical, and environmental health and wellbeing.
Thank you for inviting me to share these few thoughts with you today and I wish you all blessings in this work.