Published: Dec. 2, 2022 By

Sheila Watt-Cloutier gives her keynote address at the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit.

Collage of images displayed during Sheila Watt-Cloutier's keynote address.

“The world knows more about our wildlife and the ice of the Arctic than its people.”

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Audience members listen intently to Sheila Watt-Cloutier giving her keynote address at the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier talks with audience members after her keynote address.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier giving her keynote address.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier has a simple prescription for staying warm in the icy fringes of the Arctic where average annual temperatures can plummet down to near zero degrees Fahrenheit: Don’t eat brand-name soup.

“It’s not going to be Lipton Cup-a-Soup that’s going to keep you warm,” said Watt-Cloutier, who was born in the Eastern Arctic of Canada. “It’s going to be our ‘country food,’ our seal meat that warms you up from the inside out.”

Watt-Cloutier has spent more than 25 years advocating for the rights of the Arctic’s Inuit peoples and other Indigenous groups around the world. On Friday, she addressed an audience of hundreds in the Glenn Miller Ballroom on the CU Boulder campus as the first keynote speaker of the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit.

Speaking to the packed room on her birthday, Watt-Cloutier quipped that when many people living in the United States think about the Arctic, their minds go to a hallmark of capitalism: soda commercials—the ones where polar bears frolic with seals on the ice.

“The world knows more about our wildlife and the ice of the Arctic than its people,” she said.

Watt-Cloutier has spent her career trying to put a human face on this cold part of the planet and on the changes in climate that have devastated the region—causing temperatures to soar and melting the Arctic’s all-important sea ice. She also noted that Indigenous peoples aren’t merely the victims of climate change. They are also in the best position to solve this global crisis, which has begun to affect communities around the world, even in the balmier south.

“Indigenous wisdom is the medicine the world seeks to attain sustainability, and we’ve got to start to tap into that wisdom,” Watt-Cloutier said. “We can show the world about sustainability because we still rely on our environment, our lands, our water to sustain our way of life.”

Shared trauma

One of the key themes of Watt-Cloutier’s moving keynote address was that the problems facing the planet and its people today aren’t separate. As she put it, “Human trauma, planet trauma are one in the same.”

Today, roughly 165,000 Inuit people live in the Arctic, spread across parts of the United States, Canada and Russia. Watt-Cloutier explained that the legacy of colonialism has taken a toll on the culture and livelihood of these communities. In the 1950s, for example, the Canadian government began a campaign of taking Indigenous youth from their homes and sending them to schools far from home. 

The impacts of climate change, she added, are just the latest manifestations of that traumatic history. At the same time, communities across the globe are also beginning to notice the consequences of the Arctic’s collapse—through wildfires, floods and other disasters.

“[The Arctic] is the air conditioner for the planet,” Watt-Cloutier said. “It’s breaking down and it’s hurting not just us in the Arctic and our way of life, but it is creating the havoc we see today.”

Warm bellies

She also believes that the ingenuity of Indigenous peoples can help to solve these problems.

Watt-Cloutier spoke proudly about how Inuit peoples invented, among other things, the kayaks that are popular across the globe.

“We can build a home of snow warm enough for your mothers to birth in,” she said. “We can still do that today. That’s architecture and engineering at its best.”

Time and time again, Watt-Cloutier returned to food as a solution to many of the issues in modern Inuit communities. She spoke about her young grandson who is autistic and feels more “grounded” when he eats a traditional Inuit diet, including seal meat.

“Food is medicine for him, especially protein, especially country food.”

Indigenous contributions to solving the globe’s climate crisis may also go beyond nutrition and inventions. Watt-Cloutier said that many Indigenous communities, including Inuit peoples, recognize that humanity can only solve its climate crisis by working across cultures and nations.

“We can’t think our way out of this,” she said. “We have to feel our way out of this.”

At the end of Watt-Cloutier’s talk, she and the audience highlighted what might have been a small example of that shared humanity. The Glenn Miller Ballroom serenaded the advocate with a standing ovation and rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

“I hope somebody captured that because my people aren’t going to believe this,” Watt-Cloutier said.