Lawmakers look to the north as Juneau prepares for Arctic Council meeting

The flags of the eight Arctic Council member states and six indigenous permanent participant organizations. (Photo by Linnea Nordström/Arctic Council Secretariat)

On a cold, sunny day in Juneau, about 40 people gathered in the Capitol to eat lunch and learn about the Arctic. Juneau will host an Arctic Council meeting later this week, and state lawmakers got a visit from national and international scientists, policymakers and researchers on Tuesday.

Listen now

Roberta Burns chairs the Sustainable Development Working Group for the Arctic Council. She started the lunchtime presentation with a geography quiz, asking which countries were permanent, participating members of the council.

“Norway,” “Russia,” “Greenland,” the crowd shouted answers, eventually coming up with all eight Arctic countries. As part of the council, representatives from these countries work on the scientific, social and economic problems facing their shared regions, and collaborate with indigenous groups throughout the Arctic.

The U.S. currently chairs the council, but will be handing control over to Finland later this year.

Burns said that while the council has been led by the U.S. it has been focused on economic and living conditions in the Arctic, working on projects designed to combat suicide and improve rural water and sanitation.

Lawmakers in a House committee focused on the Arctic also heard from the Institute of the North and ended their day with a group from Nome.

Ukallaysaaq Okleasik bounced his six-month-old daughter in his hands and kept a close eye on his son, during a break in the meetings.

Okleasik is Inupiaq and Qawiaraqmuit. He was in Juneau on behalf of the Sitnasuak Native Corporation. He said he and has family have been adapting to a region that is very different from the one his ancestors knew.

And alongside those changes in weather, shrinking ice coverage and open Arctic water, shipping traffic has moved into the region. And Okleasik said Nome wants to evolve with those changes and expand its port.

But, he said, he also wants to personalize the region for policymakers.

“I think I’d like to say the Arctic is a place, the Arctic is also the people and the Arctic is also communities and so, when we talk about the Arctic, there’s a sense to make it abstract or make it a place only, and we forget that it is a people and its has been our homeland for many generations,” Okleasik said.

The Arctic Council will meet in Juneau on Wednesday and Thursday, March 8th and 9th.

Rashah McChesney is a photojournalist turned radio journalist who has been telling stories in Alaska since 2012. Before joining Alaska's Energy Desk , she worked at Kenai's Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau bureau of the Associated Press. She is a graduate of Iowa State University's Greenlee Journalism School and has worked in public television, newspapers and now radio, all in the quest to become the Swiss Army knife of storytellers.

Previous articleMushers hit Tanana, weighing rests; as first to the Yukon, Petit feasts
Next articleRep. Wilson seeks deeper budget cuts, to no avail