Crossborder Indigenous Collaboration and the Western Arctic Borderland
By Barry Scott Zellen
The North’s distinct nexus of borderlands comes to a natural convergence in the Yukon, with its
network of interconnected natural and man-made corridors, from the high mountain passes
along the Southeast Alaska/Northern British Columbia borderland; to the interior Yukon river
system stretching from the headwaters of the just above the Whitehorse Rapids all the way to
the Bering Sea, some 1,980 miles away; all the way up to the Western Arctic borderland along
the North Slope of Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, contiguous with the Inupiaq
(See: FIGURE 1A, FIGURE 1B)
The Western Arctic borderland encompasses the arctic coastal plain stretching from Alaska’s
North Slope Borough all the way to the Mackenzie River Delta. Despite the construction of the
Dempster Highway, which opened in 1978 during the frenetic oil and gas boom of the 1970s on
both sides of the international boundary, the pace of external settlement has remained slow,
and Inuit demographic predominance continues to define the region from end-to-end. While an
influx of settlers during the Klondike Gold Rush would permanently rebalance the
demographics of the Yukon Territory further south (Coates, 1985; Easton, 2016), the Western
Arctic borderland escaped such a fate, though only by a whisker. While Russian-America, and
British North America (and in particular the North-Western Territory adjacent to Rupert’s Land),
asserted sovereign control over the region (See: FIGURE 2), subsequently defining the
international boundary that continues to subdivide the Inupiat homeland, these competing fur
empires would only lightly settle the region.
Epidemics decimated local populations of Mackenzie Inuit during the early years of the 20th
century, exposing the region to a high risk of demographic upheaval (McGhee, 1976). But an
influx of Inupiat settlers from Alaska in the years that followed would ensure the continued
Inuit demographic predominance, and in many ways helped to solidify the cultural and
linguistic cohesiveness of the region, imbuing it with enduring qualities that have ensured it
remains a distinct borderland strongly bound by geography, culture and language that reaches
across the international boundary to this day.
A Theoretical Framework for the Northern Borderland
My research on the Western Arctic borderland region began in the late 1980s; in the final years
of the Cold War. With a background in international relations, I turned to concepts in
international theory for guidance, finding helpful insights in regional subsystems theory, which
emerged in the early 1970s (Thompson 1973), and from regime theory which soon followed
(Young 1982; Krasner 1983; Young 1994; Young 1998). The former sought to fuse realism and
structuralism with the diversity of regional politics around the world, drilling downward from
the infamous “Third Image” toward the “Second” in search of patterns and causal loops
between these two. (Waltz, 1959; Waltz, 1979) With the emergence of regime theory a decade
later, one encounters a new structure that hovers between these same two levels, describing
an analytical unit that is at once trans-state and sub-state, and which can be used to describe
many collaborative and joint-management efforts between states and/or regions of states in
what we can now describe as borderlands.
Just as regional subsystems and regime theory
were broader than and inclusive of components of world politics beyond borderlands, they
provided a hint of the underlying structures overlooked, borderlands – like regional subsystems
and some crossborder regimes – emerge as a viable contender for this previously nameless
structure in world politics where many northern intergovernmental, intertribal, and hybrid
regimes (and other collaborative bodies including co-management boards) operate, such as the
Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council, and the Arctic Council’s permanent member
organizations – the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), Arctic Athabaskan Council (ACC), and Aleut
International Association (AIA). Borderlands thus provide us with a hybrid “level of analysis”
where cultures, languages, identity, geography, and jurisdictional authority, blend – planting
seeds for future autonomous regions and potentially even new independent states to rise, and
containing echoes of an earlier order before the modern state arrived, absorbing everything in
its path. These underlying echoes continue to help bind a borderland together, leveraging
regional centripetal forces to offset the state’s centrifugal forces.
In the late 1980s, I began what has become a quarter-century of research on the Western Arctic
borderland, and its fascinating world of land claims, emerging systems of indigenous and
regional governance, its balancing of subsistence culture with economic modernization and
development, its blending of two worlds – one traditional, one contemporary. The Western
Arctic borderland is thereby significant, presenting us with a compelling example of enduring
order in the absence of strong state institutions and without traditional tools of border
fortification and security to apply to the world at large. Here, one finds compelling evidence
that not all regions of the world are defined by international anarchy, nor dominated by armed
conflict and political violence. Some have found their own ways to mitigate regional conflict and
to foster peaceful and collaborative interaction across borders, sometimes borrowing ideas and
emulating policies for application from adjacent areas. The Western Arctic borderland is just
such a place.
Here, we can witness an alternate historical narrative defined by an historic reconciliation of
tribe and state, a restoration of indigenous land and cultural rights, and a rise in Native
participation in international relations at the regional level. Here, ideas and insights from the
Alaska land claims process of the 1970s flowed across the international boundary and into the
Western Canadian Arctic where they were re-thought, refined, revised, and re-applied –
resulting in a stronger, more resilient, and ultimately more scalable model for northern
development. (Zellen 2008) That the modern state in its many northern forms, whether the
State of Alaska on the U.S. side of the international boundary, or the Yukon and Northwest
Territories on the Canadian side, overlaps with these underlying indigenous crossborder
networks, has resulted in the emergence of a diverse, inclusive, and fascinating political culture
in the North, one where this nexus of borderlands has embraced a deep and enduring
commitment to collaborative crossborder management, inter-group (and international)
partnerships, and constructive transboundary relationships that present a compelling model for
how the world can and should be governed. It’s not always frictionless collaboration, since
there are times and issues where interests can and do clash.
But despite these very real and recurring collisions of values between Native, environmental,
settler, and resource-extractive interests – as we’ve seen ever since the oil strike in Prudhoe
Bay catalyzed the rapid emergence of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971,
collaborative efforts between neighboring Native communities that reach across the border are
ongoing, and continue to help counterbalance those conflicts when they do arise.
Inuit Land Claims and the Western Arctic Borderland
When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (or ANCSA) was enacted, it aimed to
quickly bring Alaska Natives into the modern economy, and at the same time to clarify the
limits of aboriginal title, making it possible to fully develop the state’s natural resources and in
particular to build the trans-Alaska pipeline. (Naske & Slotnick 1979; Zellen 2008) Because its
objectives were largely economic, its corporate model became its defining and most
transformative characteristic – not without controversy, since the corporate model was viewed
with some skepticism by indigenous leaders as a tool of assimilation, and there remains a
continuing debate over the appropriateness of the corporate model to the indigenous north.
(Berger 1985; Zellen 2008)
In addition to the corporatization of village Alaska, ANCSA’s original design also had some
structural flaws that also nearly proved fatal to the land claims experience, including a 20-year
moratorium in transferring shares in Native corporations to non-Natives, which many feared
would inevitably result in the dilution of Native ownership, known as the “1991 time bomb.”
(Sykes 1985; Worl 1988).
On the Canadian side of the international boundary that divides the
Western Arctic, lessons from the Alaska land claims experience and its worrisome structural
flaws were closely studied, and this crossborder flow of ideas and insight influenced a new
model for land claims settlements that ensured Native lands and corporations would always
remain in Native hands, that young Natives would be automatically enrolled as shareholders
upon adulthood, and that subsistence would forever be protected on both Native-owned lands
as well as adjacent government lands.
The Alaska experience thus proved critical in guiding Canadian Natives forward in their quest to
assert, and protect, their Aboriginal rights.
When the Inuvialuit negotiated their landmark 1984
Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA), the land claims model became significantly enhanced. In
addition to creating new Native corporations, the IFA also made an equal institutional
commitment to the preservation of Native culture and traditions, to preserve the land and the
wildlife, and to empower not just new corporate interests but also traditional cultural interests
as well, by creating new institutions of co-management and more powerful hunters & trappers
committees. They also made sure all Inuvialuit became shareholders, and that no non-Inuvialuit
ever could, learning from the Alaskan experience. The Inuvialuit thus successfully modified the
land claims concept, so that its structure included a natural institutional balancing – not unlike
our own balance of powers concept – that has enabled a greater commitment to cultural and
(Zellen 2008) (See: FIGURE 4) But one issue that was not yet on the
table in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Inuvialuit chose to pursue their own regional
land claim – and thereby gain some control over the intense oil boom in their homeland – was
the establishment of new institutions of aboriginal self-government, something that the Inuit of
the central and eastern Arctic – the future Nunavut territory – decided to wait for. The
Inuvialuit felt they did not have the luxury of time given the frenetic pace of oil and gas
exploration in their lands. But Nunavut remained far more isolated than the Western Arctic and
under much less external pressure to develop, thus providing more time to re-think, and
renegotiate, the land claims model.
Crossborder Collaboration in the Western Arctic Borderland
The Inuvialuit land claim presents a substantial evolutionary leap beyond the Alaska land claim
which inspired it, with many prescient and enduring advances in collaborative management and
stronger protections of Native lands and traditions missing from the Alaska claim. Had the
Inuvialuit not so enthusiastically embraced and constructively improved the land claims model,
the many structural weaknesses of the Alaska land claim –as described by Thomas Berger in his
1985 Village Journey (Berger 1985) and more recently by University of Alaska professor and
publisher Edgar Blatchford (Blatchford 2009; Blatchford 2013) – might well have doomed the
This embrace of, effort to improve, and continuing process of reforming the land claim model
as it flowed from the Inupiat to the Inuvialuit and on to Nunavut and Nunatsiavut is a reflection
of the collaborative mechanism that defines the Western Arctic borderland. When the land
claims movement swept across the Arctic coast, starting in Alaska in 1971 and culminating with
the birth of Nunavut in 1999, it was the Western Arctic borderland, long a crossroads of
cultures, that served as the gateway for ideas about land claims to migrate into the Canada
from across the border in Alaska. The Western Arctic borderland contains many of the very
same ingredients found in more contested regions of the world, including intense pressures of
militarization and geopolitics from the time of the fur empires up through to the Cold War, with
World War II’s interstate violence reaching right up to Alaska’s shores, resulting in the
militarization of much of the region.
And yet, from this cauldron emerged a strikingly collaborative, crossborder dynamic on both
sides of the Western Arctic borderland. This is particularly evident in the close collaborative
relationship between the Inupiat and the Inuvialuit, who have partnered on numerous
crossborder issues – including the Inuvialuit-Inupiat Polar Bear Management Agreement in the
Southern Beaufort Sea, and the Inuvialuit-Inupiat Beaufort Sea Beluga Whale Agreement – and
whose collaboration extended to the resumption of bowhead whale harvesting by the Inuvialuit
during the 1990s, when community-to-community exchanges ensured the transfer of
traditional knowledge required for a successful and safe restoration of bowhead hunting.
The result is the emergence of a diverse, inclusive, and fascinating political culture across the
Western Arctic borderland which has embraced a deep and enduring commitment to
collaborative crossborder management, intergroup (and international) partnerships, and
constructive transboundary relationships that present a compelling model for how the world
can and should be governed. It’s not always frictionless collaboration, since there will inevitably
be times and issues where interests can and do clash – as evident in the post-settlement
challenges faced by Alaska Natives as well as Inuvialuit, and more recently evident in tensions
between Yukon First Nations and the Government of Yukon to protect the Peel River watershed
– but it nonetheless presents our world us with an intriguing model for crossborder
collaboration worthy of emulation.
Indeed, the model has been emulated all across the North, as is evident in many of the more
recent land claim settlement areas, including Nunavut and Nunatsiavut to the east, and the
many Dene settlement areas to the south. In these adjacent regions, many of the collaborative
structures pioneered by the Inuvialuit endure, with the formation of new governing structures
to fulfill Native aspirations for greater self-governance. Future research, on how more recent
ideas and structures, particularly on issues relating to self-governance and traditional
sovereignty, have flowed back across the Western Arctic borderland, and south below the
treeline into the Dene homeland, can help to shed more light on the continuing impact of the
Western Arctic borderland on not only the political economy of the North, but of the entire
The author wishes to express his deep appreciation to Dr. Nadine Fabbi for her kind willingness
to read this paper at ACSUS 2017. He also thanks Dr. Heather Nicol, Professor of Geography and
Acting Director of the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University, for her helpful
editorial suggestions. He also wishes to thank the Kone Foundation for their generous financial
support for his project on crossborder indigenous homelands.
These natural borderlands are increasingly connected by several man-made transit corridors that facilitate
crossborder flows of trade, commerce and settlement. These include the 1,420-mile “Alcan” (short for Alaska-
Canada, now more often called just the Alaska) Highway linking northern British Columbia with Alaska’s interior
since 1942, but not fully paved for another 50 years; the single-lane gravel Dempster Highway, linking the Klondike
Highway just south of Dawson City with the Western Arctic’s first planned community, Inuvik, 458.3 miles away on
the East Branch of the Mackenzie Delta-- part of Canada’s “Roads to Resources” strategy announced in 1958 but
not completed until 1978; the 79-mile “Top of the World” seasonally linking the summer ferry at West Dawson to
the Taylor Highway in Alaska, a northern spur off the Alcan at Tetlin Junction, since 1955; the Haines Highway, also
known as the Haines Cut-Off or Haines Road, joining the Alaska Marine Highway port of Haines with the Alcan 146
miles to the north at Haines Junction; and the South Klondike Highway, linking the Alaska Marine Highway port of
Skagway to the Alcan 98 miles to the north via Carcross -- each superimposed atop the underlying networks of
natural corridors formed by rivers, mountain passes and coastal plains to further facilitate crossborder flows from
adjacent states and territories. (Valencia 2016) (See: FIGURE 1C).
It was the fluidity of crossborder migration by the Inupiat, drawn in part by economic opportunities
presented by the fur trade, that preserved the demographic balance, when it was a similarly fluid crossborder
migration by non-Native settlers during the Gold Rush that would transform the demography of the Klondike. This
challenges many of our preconceptions about settlers and about what constitutes indigeneity; that both were in
flux gives the Western Arctic borderland region a particularly dynamic nature.
As recounted by Robert McGhee in his chapter in volume 2 of the 1976 Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project
Report: “By 1910, the Mackenzie Eskimos were reduced to a few score survivors scattered among the more
numerous Alaskan Eskimo immigrants who flooded into the Delta in the company of European whalers and
traders.” (McGhee 1976, 141) As McGhee further describes: “After the appearance of the American whaling fleet
along the Mackenzie Delta coast in 1889, and with the increasing association between the indigenous population
and the whalers wintering at Herschel Island and elsewhere, the effects of disease and the disruption of aboriginal
social patterns accelerated rapidly. The population was subjected to two devastating measles epidemics in 1900
and 1902. By this time, according to police reports, the Mackenzie Eskimo population had declined rapidly from an
estimated 2,500 people in 1850 to about 250 in 1905 and under 150 in 1910. At the same time as Eskimos were
being decimated by disease, local aboriginal culture was being submerged beneath a wave of American and
Alaskan Eskimo introductions.” (McGhee 1976, 144) McGhee recounts Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s 1919 observations
of this influx of Alaskan Inuit into the Mackenzie Delta region: “A large number of the Nunatama have come either
overland by themselves or eastward from Point Barrow or Kotzebue Sound as passengers on whaling ships, while
those from Bering Strait have ordinarily come as whalers or servants on board. The net result is that the Mackenzie
Population is becoming mixed in blood, is already deeply influenced in its culture, and has taken up many strange
words into the spoken language.” (McGhee 1976, 144)
Such a nimble use of regime theory as a lens through which to understand what we now know as the
northern borderland can be illustrated by the pioneering work of Oran Young, who wedded regime theory with the
study of the Arctic and Subarctic in the 1970s and 1980s, and whose examination of Beringia as a regional sub-
system can be viewed as theoretical precursor to northern borderland studies, as can his broader work on the
Circumpolar North which is, in essence, a circumpolar borderland that encompasses the boundaries of all the
Arctic states. (Young and Osherenko 1989; Zellen 2009a)
ANCSA formally extinguished aboriginal rights, title, and claims to traditional lands in the state, while
formally transferring fee-simple title to 44 million acres – or some twelve percent of the state’s land base – to
Alaska Natives, with $962.5 million in compensation for the lands ceded to the state, $500 million of which was to
be derived from future oil royalties – as a result of which over half the “compensation” was to be derived from
resources extracted from the Inupiat homeland – an irony not missed by Alaska Natives. (Tundra Times 1969;
ANCSA also created 12 regional Native corporations (and later a 13th for non-resident Alaska Natives), and
over 200 village corporations to manage these lands and financial resources. (See: FIGURE 3) These new corporate
structures introduced a brand new language and culture, as well as a new system of managing lands and resources
that seemed at variance with the traditional cultures of the region and their traditional subsistence economy. The
early years of ANCSA were famously described by former B.C. Supreme Court justice and prominent land claims
expert Thomas Berger as dragging Alaska Natives “kicking and screaming” into the twentieth century, and many
Native corporations approached the brink of bankruptcy, forced to monetize their net operating losses in a last
desperate bid to stay in business. (Berger 1985; Zellen 2008) A new cottage industry of northern investment, legal,
and policy advisors emerged – sometimes to the benefit of their clients, but often not – a problem that would
remain problematic as the land claims model migrated into Canada. (Richards 1971; Zellen 2008; Widdowson &
While critics of the land claims process are correct to point out these original structural flaws and the
assimilating pressures introduced by new corporate structures, the land claims model has nonetheless proved
resilient and adaptive, as Native corporations matured and their boards, managers and shareholders found ways
to better balance traditional and modern values, learning from their crash course in capitalism as they went – so
today the Native corporations represent a huge economic force in the state of Alaska.
Just across the border from Alaska, the Inuvialuit of the Western Canadian Arctic – many of whom were
descendants of early 20th-century Inupiat settlers as chronicled by McGhee – had a front row seat to ANCSA, and
were impressed by all the money that was flowing north, as well as the new corporate structures created and the
sizeable land quantum formally transferred to Alaska Natives. But they also took note of the continuing threat to
indigenous culture, and the lack of adequate protections of subsistence rights, traditional culture, and
environmental protection, and were determined to do better.
The Inuvialuit land claim entitled the 3,000 Inuvialuit living in six communities to 35,000 square miles of
land; co-management of land and water use, wildlife, and environmental assessment; wildlife harvesting rights;
financial compensation of $45 million in 1978 dollars, inflation-adjusted to $162 million, for lands ceded to Canada;
and a share of government royalties for oil, gas, and mineral development on federal land; the formation of new
national parks in their settlement area that further protect their land base from development, while allowing
subsistence activities unhindered; and a commitment to meaningful economic participation in any development in
their settlement area. This model has remained largely in-tact in later comprehensive land claims, showing great
endurance as a model for northern development.
Blatchford noted how the very land claim model that has transformed the political economy of Alaska,
Yukon, the NWT, and Nunavut, would ultimately be rejected by Indian Country in the “lower 48” as a flawed
model; but in the Arctic, it has become a central and evolving blueprint for strengthening the bond between First
Nations and the state, and a defining feature not only of the Western Arctic borderland but of the entire nexus of
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Figure 1A: The Yukon River Watershed.
Figure 1B: Inupiaq Language Map
Figure 1C: Highways of the Yukon.
Figure 2: Russian America, the North-Western Territory, and Rupert’s Land as of July 1, 1867.
Figure 3: Regional Alaska Native Corporations as Created by the Alaska Native Claims
Settlement Act in 1971.
Figure 4: The Inuvialuit Settlement Region as Created by the Inuvialuit Final Agreement of 1984.