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Aspiring Arctic actors, policymakers should learn from traditional conflict avoidance

Pete Garay
The whale bone sculpture in Barrow's Browerville neighborhood frames a ship. Alaska's Arctic has seen a marked increase of ship traffic in recent years, and all those who come to do business would do well to remember the Iñupiat concept "Paaqlaktautaiññiq." Loren Holmes photo

With the advent of this past year's focus, discussions, meetings, forums, commissions, papers, plenary sessions, policymaking and headlines encompassing the Arctic, perhaps it is a good time to look back on 2013 as "The year of the Arctic." Along with this proliferation of events, we are also witnessing a growing pool of Arctic experts with wide degrees of varying experience whose collective voice is increasing in volume with the passing of each year. As an observer in this critical time of change and opportunity, I am concerned about one set of experts in this group in particular. If we are not careful, their voices could become muted by the din of all the rest. Those voices are Iñupiat, the original Arctic experts.

With the above sentiments in mind, I believe it would be wise for all who have a vested interest in Arctic affairs to continue to pay keen attention to this lone and oftentimes soft-spoken voice, if not for one reason and one reason alone: Paaqlaktautaiññiq, or "conflict avoidance."

Reflecting for a moment on the meaning of this word, along with the fact that one of the primary considerations of Alaska's Arctic Policy Commission is "indigenous perspectives and priorities," I offer the following observation and suggestion. Given the expansive dialogue currently taking place today concerning the Arctic, Paaqlaktautaiññiq is a fundamental cultural element that we as a people have yet to embrace but should.

Paaqlaktautaiññiq, so I have been told, is one of the primary tenets of the Iñupiat culture. While to date there have been localized microapplications of "conflict avoidance" being implemented in the Arctic, such as the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and Shell's early agreement to halt exploration activities during summer whale hunt(s), beyond this, to my knowledge, conflict avoidance in the traditional sense has yet to be considered on a more macro set of scales.

Considering our own culture's fait accompli that conflict is simply a cost of doing business, it seems to me that if we as Arctic actors collectively fail to take into account the importance of conflict avoidance as a way of life, we run the risk of placing ourselves on a collision course with a set of values that has held a people in good stead for thousands of years. Given the potential for such a calamitous trajectory, it seems to me that it would make good sense to borrow a page out of the Iñupiat playbook, whereby we could then examine the benefits that may be accrued by adhering to the guiding principles inherent in conflict avoidance.

One way to accomplish the utilization of the Iñupiat concept of conflict avoidance is to explore the role that academic research into conflict resolution and building political consensus can be combined with traditional knowledge toward the goal of developing the Arctic in a responsible manner. By doing so, in our time, if we as Alaskans, and for that matter, as a nation, continue to listen carefully to those who speak in softer and deeper tones than many of us are able to express, we may begin to understand and learn why Paaqlaktautaiññiq is such an important cornerstone of life not just in the Arctic, but in all life as well.

Dealing with the confluence of conflicting cultural values in the Arctic could become some of the most challenging waters that all future Arctic policy actors will have to someday navigate through. Given that, the question we need be asking ourselves today is how best to avoid trouble before trouble begins, particularly so given our deepening relationships with the indigenous people of the north.

Captain Pete Garay has been working as a state-licensed marine pilot in Alaska for more than two decades. He currently serves as one of the public commissioners on Alaska's Arctic Policy Commission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail  commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.