June 22, 1977
Inuit from three countries met in Barrow, Alaska as guests of Eben Hopson, the mayor of Alaska's North Slope Borough, to create a "world Inuit organization." They called their meeting "the Inuit circumpolar conference." The name stuck.
Inuit to form world organization
Special to Nunatsiaq News
BARROW, Alaska "Whereas the Inuit of Greenland, Alaska and Canada are one individual people with a common language, culture, environment and concerns..."
So begins a resolution proclaiming the foundation of the first World Inuit Organization.
The resolution, along with 16 others, was adopted by Inuit leaders from three countries during the first-ever Inuit circumpolar conference held in Barrow, Alaska last week.
The resolutions call for action that would give much control of vast Arctic regions to a small number of people across the North.
Although U.S. President Jimmy Carter gave some official recognition to the conference, the governments of Denmark and Canada have expressed little interest in it.
For thousands of years Inuit people have lived scattered throughout remote regions, from Greenland to Siberia. Despite geographic and political barriers, they continued over the centuries to share a common language and cultural roots.
Today they also share a concern for their fragile northern environment, which they fear may be threatened by uncontrollable resource development. Most of the subsequent resolutions passed by the new organization dealt with protection of the Inuit homeland.
The only Inuit not represented at this conference are were the Russians, who were barred from participating by the Soviet government.
For five days, Inuit delegates, most of whom had never seen each other before, and who could barely understand each other's dialects, tried to work out a common stand on matters such as land claims and the environment.
The show of unity at the end of the conference was not achieved without a struggle. From the first days, there was disagreement on how and when to set up the new international organization.
Eben Hopson, mayor of Alaska's North Slope borough and organizer of the Inuit conference, wanted to set the proposed organization on its feet immediately. He urged delegates to adopt a charter for the new body and presented to the assembly one he had drafted for this purpose.
Some Canadian delegates, however, were hesitant about establishing the organization immediately, saying they wanted to study the implications and consult with their people first. Greenlanders also did not want to adopt a charter right away without prior consultation with their people.
Western Arctic delegates, on the other hand, were as eager as mayor Hopson to set up the organization. They expect the new organization will give them support in their land claim and lawsuits against the Canadian government.
On the first day of the conference, Sam Raddi, president of Committee of Original Peoples' Entitlement (COPE), appealed to the assembly to endorse COPE's claim and to set up a co-operative fund for legal suits. COPE plans to take the Canadian government to court for extending oil drilling permits in the Beaufort Sea.
Mr. Raddi then flew to Ottawa to begin land claims negotiations, but he said he would call back Friday to learn the response to his appeal.
After a day-and-a-half of behind-closed-door sessions, delegates came up with a compromise: A committee of 12 representatives, four from each country, was formed to draft a charter for the new organization by July of next year, and to carry out any other resolutions that the conference may adopt.
Mayor Hopson was voted chairman of the interim committee.
An emotional burst of applause from the whole assembly greeted the unanimous vote on the resolution. Delegates rose and joined hands while the Greenlandic delegation sang a song about their Arctic homeland.
With structural problems out of th way, the assembly wrote up a draft of resolutions one of which voiced support for COPE's land claim. However, the legal aid fund was never again mentioned.
Military ban upheld
The assembly voted for a ban on any type of military maneouver, weapons testing and disposal of wastes in the Arctic, despite the opposition of conference chairman Eben Hopson, who felt it would jeopardize Inuit relations with respective national governments.
The Barrow conference will be remembered as an important cultural celebration, as well. It was a week of continuous dancing, singing, feasting, visiting and exchanging presents. Each group brought something special to offer fellow Inuit.
There were throat singers from the eastern Arctic, drum dancers from Alaska, and a superb student theatre troupe from Greenland. A group of Sami folk singers had travelled half-way around the world from Scandinavia to entertain the Inuit with their haunting melodies and to show support for the Inuit cause.
Last week's meeting was called to bring Inuit together to share experiences and work toward common goals. By the time it was all over, it was clear that Inuit the world over are united in spirit.
Whether the Inuit can become politically united through their new organization is another matter. For one thing, there are vast problems in communication.
It is clear the interim committee of the new organization has some heavy work to do