People of the Arctic
Almost four million people live in the Arctic today, with the precise number depending on where the boundary is drawn. They include indigenous people and recent arrivals, hunters and herders living on the land, and city dwellers. Many distinct indigenous groups are found only in the Arctic, where they continue traditional activities and adapt to the modern world at the same time. Humans have long been part of the arctic system, shaping and being shaped by the local and regional environment. In the past few centuries, the influx of new arrivals has increased pressure on the arctic environment through rising fish and wildlife harvests and industrial development.
The Arctic includes part or all of the territories of eight nations: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Russia, and the United States, as well as the homelands of dozens of indigenous groups that encompass distinct sub-groups and communities. Indigenous people currently make up roughly 10% of the total arctic population, though in Canada, they represent about half the nation’s arctic population, and in Greenland they are the majority. Non-indigenous residents also include many different peoples with distinct identities and ways of life.
People have occupied parts of the Arctic since at least the peak of the last ice age, about 20 000 years ago, and recent studies suggest a human presence up to 30 000 years ago. In North America, humans are believed to have spread across the Arctic in several waves, reaching Greenland as many as 4500 years ago before abandoning the island for a millennium or more. Innovations such as the harpoon enabled people to hunt large marine mammals, making it possible to inhabit remote coastal areas in which the land offered scant resources. The development of reindeer husbandry in Eurasia allowed human populations to increase dramatically owing to a reliable food source. In Eurasia and across the North Atlantic, new groups of people moved northward over the past thousand years, colonizing new lands such as the Faroe Islands and Iceland, and encountering indigenous populations already present in West Greenland, and northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
In the 20th century, immigration to the Arctic increased dramatically, to the point where the non-indigenous population currently outnumbers the indigenous population in most regions. Many immigrants have been drawn by the prospect of new opportunities such as developing natural resources. Conflicts over land and resource ownership and access have been exacerbated by the rise in population and the incompatibility of some aspects of traditional and modern ways of life. In North America, the indigenous struggle to re-establish rights to land and resources has been addressed to some extent in land claims agreements, the creation of largely self-governed regions within nation-states, and other political and economic actions. In some areas, conflicts remain, particularly concerning the right to use living and mineral resources. In Eurasia, by contrast, indigenous claims and rights have only begun to be addressed as matters of national policy in recent years.
Populations are changing and northern regions are becoming more tightly related economically, politically, and socially to national mainstreams. Life expectancy has increased greatly across most of the Arctic in recent decades. The prevalence of indigenous language use, however, has decreased in most areas, with several languages in danger of disappearing in coming decades. In some respects, the disparities between northern and southern arctic communities in terms of living standards, income, and education are decreasing, although the gaps remain large in most cases.
The economy of the region is based largely on natural resources, from oil, gas, and metal ores to fish, reindeer, caribou, whales, seals, and birds. In recent decades, tourism has added a growing sector to the economies of many communities and regions of the Arctic. Government services including the military are also a major part of the economy in nearly all areas of the Arctic, responsible in some cases for over half of the available jobs. In addition to the cash economy, traditional subsistence and barter economies make a major contribution to the overall well-being of parts of the region, producing significant value that is not recorded in official statistics.