Iceland (one of the few true nation-states in the world) recently initiated and hosted the Arctic Circle – a nonprofit/nonpartisan conference designed to increase participation in Arctic dialogue and strengthen the international focus on the future of the Arctic. Despite its small population of just over 320,000 people, Iceland is geopolitically positioned to exert a great deal of influence on Arctic affairs, including climate change mitigation, security and commerce – a reality seen by the fact that the nation-state is being diplomatically courted by economic powerhouses such as China, India and South Korea.
Amidst the myriad of Arctic-related topics presented at the conference – including the effects of Arctic development on indigenous livelihoods – one area of discussion was completely absent from any roundtable discussion; the notion that Iceland, itself, is an indigenous nation.
In most academic, scientific and policy-oriented circles (indigenous and non-indigenous alike) the above statement may be deemed unorthodox and contrary to the prevailing belief system of what constitutes an indigenous nation, given stereotypical racial associations the word indigenous conjures up.
While its original inhabitants were of Celtic/Norse origin (as opposed to Inuit or Sami), Iceland’s history of shared cultural continuity and common territory spanning more than a thousand years, centuries of colonization and a subsistence-based fishing economy reveals a story that is not so dissimilar from other indigenous nations in the Arctic region. Politically, the nation of Iceland dates back to 930 A.D. when ruling chiefs established a parliamentary assembly, the Alþingi, considered one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world. After centuries of colonization, in which the Alþingi’s ability to govern was thwarted, a national Icelandic consciousness was revived in the late 1800’s; leading to a series of enhanced self-determination configurations, full restoration of the Alþingi in 1845 and independence (from Denmark) in 1918.
Yet few, if any, in the international diplomatic arena would refer to Iceland’s story as one of an indigenous nation, demonstrating the racial component of “world order” political status designations. Fourth World analysts, on the other hand, would argue that the perceived dichotomies between “indigenous” and “non-indigenous” peoples in the Arctic (and beyond) do not provide a comprehensive analysis of past, present or future geopolitical dynamics.
Iceland distinctly exemplifies this reality. While demographically small – a reality shared with many indigenous nations – Iceland’s central role in matters relating to the Arctic demonstrates the fact that creative diplomacy, when done strategically, can trump size and assymetrical power relations.
The nation-restoring phenomena of Iceland and its ability to initiate new, ideally more inclusive, frameworks for dialogue such as the Arctic Circle holds tremendous relevance for other indigenous and Fourth World nations on their own path towards political autonomy. By establishing new international mechanisms that are more reflective of indigenous (whether they perceive themselves as that or not) realities, Fourth World nations can begin debunking Western-based international relations’ theories and transforming detrimental internalized belief systems about their ability to be influential in the international arena.