Interviews of UArctic Board members: Mikhail Pogodaev

Building competence locally based on the best available knowledge, both Indigenous-based knowledge and science are important. The challenge for Indigenous people is that their traditional knowledge is not included in education and research in the Arctic, says Mikhail Pogodaev.

“The challenge for Indigenous peoples is that their traditional knowledge is not included in education and research. UArctic has taken this seriously.” Those are the words of Dr Mikhail Pogodaev, a Board member of UArctic.

Mikhail Pogodaev is Even, of Indigenous reindeer husbandry background. He lives 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow, in the city of Yakutsk in the Russian republic of Sakha, and has a PhD in economy from St Petersburg State University. Outside his office, the temperature has been incredible – minus 50 degrees Celsius for weeks. Inside, we find a burning engagement for higher education for Indigenous people and including Indigenous knowledge in Arctic science activities.

“The challenges of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have to be taken more seriously by UArctic. Thus I have been honored to represent the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Russian Federation on the Board”, Pogodaev says.

In working on the new strategic plan of UArctic, Pogodaev has in particular engaged with issues relating to Indigenous peoples’ research and education. “Universities have different approaches to these issues, depending on their history and capacity. For the past few decades, we have nevertheless seen a greater respect for the traditional knowledge possessed by Indigenous people.”

How would you describe the situation on research and education for indigenous peoples in the part of Russia where you live?

“Russia has over 90 years of tradition in research and education of Indigenous peoples through Institute of Peoples of the North, Herzen University in St Petersburg. Today, university-level education is mostly available in major cities throughout Russia, including universities located in the North, such as in Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Sakha and Petrozavodsk. The North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk is a long-term supporter of UArctic since its first president; it provides multidisciplinary seminars and training courses for Indigenous peoples, and hosts and pays for a UArctic professorship. But there is a need to develop new programs based on Indigenous peoples’ knowledge.”

Youth Do Not Return

How does the new UArctic strategy respond to the worries you have regarding higher education among Indigenous peoples?

“There has traditionally not been much emphasis on education in small Indigenous communities with poor infrastructure, where choices are extremely limited. For some, traveling to the university in Yakutsk is an option, though young people who go there to study rarely return. If we are to bring Indigenous people on board, we must respect their special life situation, with weak institutions. UArctic needs to provide funding for Indigenous peoples. Thus I believe one of the primary goals of UArctic must be to engage small communities too in larger international cooperation. We also see that external teaching resources represent a form of colonialism created in the bigger cities. There are no opportunities for exploiting local potential, so that we can develop our own knowledge. The university in Yakutsk is an exception, as it both teaches in accordance with western models and contributes to developing Indigenous knowledge.”

Education for an Elite

“In working on UArctic’s new strategy, I have argued that we should pay particular attention to small Indigenous communities and institutions, so that no one lags behind in their educational processes. If we do not, education will only be for an elite from central areas in the country. They do not fully acknowledge the special needs of Indigenous peoples living in the Arctic.”

In your opinion, what will it take to change this?

“First of all, small Indigenous institutions have very limited resources. This means we will have to create mechanisms through which they are prioritized, or at least guaranteed some form of funding. There is strong competition for the economic resources available, and the largest institutions are always prioritized, while the small universities for Indigenous peoples always lose out. If we provide funding, institutions will be able to develop teaching programs by themselves in more traditional knowledge areas. I have seen myself how this can work in my work on the Association of World Reindeer Herders, while finding funding has been next to impossible in Norway and in Russia. We also see how big universities fund education for students outside the Arctic. In my opinion, we should prioritize our own Indigenous youth first and foremost.”

Russian Funding

As far as I understand, Russia does not contribute with any kind of funding for UArctic. Will this possibly change when Russia assumes chairmanship of the Arctic Council?

“First, I should mention that Russia actually was in the very beginning of UArctic. I remember that the first President of Sakha Republic Mikhail Nikolaev was one of the strong supporters of Arctic education and the idea of creation of UArctic. Even today there are some bodies in UArctic named in Yakut language. Many Russian universities are members of UArctic, and they pay membership fees and also fund some UArctic activities in their regions. So Russia does contribute to funding UArctic, but in a different way. For instance, NEFU holds a UArctic professorship and provides support for seminars, courses, logistics and congresses. There has been a challenge to raise money for the UArctic Institutes to fill the requirement from the UArctic Board. There are also some summer and winter schools. During the process of working on a new Russian strategy for the Arctic, we suggested specifically to get funding of UArctic into the program. We have to hope that cooperation will be strengthened during the Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council. There are plans to hold the UArctic Congress in Russia as a part of the Russian chairmanship program, strongly supported by the Russian Government, and hosted by Moscow State University. In general, of course we hope that UArctic activities will be funded and that there will also be greater attention in this regard to small Indigenous peoples’ education and research institutions and organizations.”

From the perspective of Yakutsk, how has COVID-19 affected cooperation within UArctic?

“It is very challenging for us when we have to use telecommunication to be able to continue this cooperation. In many communities, particular in our republic, telecommunication infrastructure is not very well developed. Internet is mainly satellite based, which is costly and runs slowly. Many communities do not have any internet, and thus there is no communication at all in the current situation, as we are not able to meet in person. On the other hand, the current situation goes to show that there should be more investments in web-based communication and digital teaching. In the future, the demand for this will increase, and we should be prepared.”

What role should UArctic play on the global arena?

“We should play an active part in reaching the goal of sustainable societies. Being part of a university structure, and as an existing platform of partnership with the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council, we have everything it takes to become a global player. It is absolutely possible to build new kind of education and research based on our own knowledge.”

UArctic, a Modern Tool

If you were to look into your crystal ball, where will UArctic be by the end of the decade covered by the strategic plan?

“First of all, I see UArctic already now as a strong network and a strong actor in the Arctic. We are to be a state-of-the-art tool and a modern platform that can offer higher education to everyone in the Arctic. All citizens in the Arctic, be they Indigenous or others, shall have equal opportunities to higher education and research, and equal opportunities to develop their own communities through their own education systems. UArctic should develop new technology that enables such a development. The vision of the strategic plan is for all northerners to have the opportunity to develop their own communities through applying competence and education as tools. Most important for UArctic over the next years is building competence locally based on the best available knowledge, both Indigenous knowledge and science."

Arne O. Holm
Editor in Chief, High North News

[Read the article in the Shared Voices magazine here.]