The image of the Inuit (Eskimo) of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland is changing. The fur-clad igloo dweller has become a political advocate dressed in a three-piece suit who wants greater self-determination for his people.
On April 14, the voters of Canada's Northwest Territories will express their opinion on whether its 1.3 million square miles of mainly forest and tundra should be divided.
If a majority is in favor, it may be the first step toward the creation of nunavut (''our land''), a province north and east of the treeline where the Inuit (Eskimos) would be in majority.
The plebiscite signifies a growing political awareness among the 100,000 native people living in the strategically important, resource rich, and inhospitable region between Nome, Alaska, and Ammasalik, Greenland.
The Inuit have made a powerful entry into the political life of their respective countries. And from next year their political influence may be extended to the United Nations. They are represented by their own organizations and lobbying firms complete with lawyers dressed in three-piece suits, passionately advocating the cause of their whale, seal, and caribou-hunting clients.
The Inuit's political efforts focus on the protection of their culture and the fragile Arctic environment against what they see as an intrusion by resource-hungry southerners.
''Oil may make us rich,'' says Angmalortoq Olsen, the president of a Greenlandic organization opposing oil development, ''but it may also pollute our waters and kill our traditional resources of fish and seals. We cannot eat banknotes.''
To one group, the north is a homeland, to the other a frontier.
The southern interest in these barren, snow-covered areas was, at first, military in nature. During World War II and the cold war, strings of radar stations were constructed across the Arctic to warn of any airborne attack via the polar route by the Soviet Union.
During the last decade or so, technology has placed the oil and minerals under the tundras, the mountains, and even the iceberg-dotted seas within reach of the industrial nations to the south.
As the region has been invaded by geologists and what one Inuit leader describes as ''a pinstriped army of developers,'' many Inuit have felt increasingly alienated.
Sara, an Inuit woman in her late 20s, experienced firsthand the effects of the past years of rapid change.
She grew up in a village of 150 people and recalls her childhood with great fondness. ''It was the happiest part of my life,'' she says, her slanted dark eyes twinkling for a moment.
''We were all very poor, but also very happy. As a good hunter my father was a respected man in those days.''
''Then the qavdlunat (southerners) moved in with their heavy equipment. Everybody admired them because they were able to operate machines and build houses. Suddenly my father's skills did not count anymore. Now nobody cared to ask his opinion. He took to drinking, and later my mother moved away.''
Sara sees the lack of political responsibility as a prime reason for the alienation that led to her parents' divorce. Like many other young Inuit, she has become a passionate advocate of greater self-determination for the people of the Arctic.
The common cause of limiting the impact of mines and oil rigs on their culture and environment has brought together the world's Inuit, of whom 25,000 live in Canada, 30,000 in Alaska, and 40,000 in Greenland, an Arctic province of Denmark.
In the summer of 1980 they founded the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), an organization that promotes Inuit causes internationally.
Through the Soviet Embassy in Copenhagen, Inuit from the USSR were invited to the founding meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, but they did not attend. A Soviet flag was symbolically hung next to those of Denmark, the United States, and Canada.
During its short existence, the ICC has become relatively well known outside the Arctic region. When Greenland's Premier Jonathan Motzfeldt visited the United States in January 1981, then-Vice-President Walter Mondale interviewed him at great length about the new organization.
''I feel that we have managed to draw a fair amount of attention,'' says Hans-Pavia Rosing, the tall, blue-eyed president of ICC. Like many of his fellow Inuit in Greenland he is of mixed blood.
Last spring the interest in ICC materialized in the form of a break-in. The young organization's secretariat in Nuuk was visited by a burglar who showed no interest in radios or tape recorders. Instead, the files had been checked carefully.
''There is probably a great deal of speculation going on about what we are up to,'' Mr. Rosing says. It is not, he assures, ICC's goal to create an Eskimo empire or to reserve the wealth of the Arctic to the native inhabitants.
''We are not making claims to all the resources in the Arctic. There is too much for us. We just want our fair share, a few percent.''
Lynn Setcliffe of Van Ness, Feldman, & Setcliffe, an Inuit lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., agrees. ''They (the Inuit) do not take the position to stop all development because in some ways it is the key to their future,'' she says. ''They just want to protect themselves against development which eliminates the resources on which they base their lifestyle.''
The immediate goals of the ICC are to become accepted as a nongovernmental organization by the United Nations, which is expected to happen in June 1983, and to promote a common policy for Denmark, Canada, and the US on the development of the Arctic. Such an agreement would be closely tied to the settlement of remaining land claims, particularly in Canada.
Even if a majority in the April 14 plebiscite vote in favor of dividing the Northwest Territories, a Nunavut province would not become reality until around the turn of the century at best. The first 15 years or so will serve as a transition period, according to a proposal put forward by the Canadian Inuits' own organization, the Inuit Tapirisat (''eskimo brotherhood'') of Canada (ITC).
Explaining the cautious attitude of his organization, ITC president John Amagoalik says that ''the Canadian fear of separatism is in the way.''
Although the Inuit use every opportunity to emphasize that they regard themselves as Canadians and have no intention of breaking away from the rest of the country, suspicions always arise that the natives of the north have become inspired by the French minority in Canada.
''The vote on April 14 is the opposite of the Quebec plebiscite,'' Mr. Amagoalik explains. ''We are opting into the federal system, not out.''
The result is not binding and thus only serves as a sort of public opinion poll. Not eager to reduce its influence in the strategically important and resource-rich region, the Canadian federal government may choose to ignore a ''yes'' on April 14.
Such an attitude would not be surprising to many Inuit leaders who are deeply dissatisfied with their national leadership in Ottawa.
The new Canadian Constitution's failure to advance native rights has added to a feeling of disappointment.
ITC president Amagoalik says, ''We are the most oppressed among the Inuit.
''Canada has always tried to put on a good face to the rest of the world, but compared to Denmark or the United States, Canada's track record is very poor.
''We are getting lots of encouragement especially from the situation in Greenland. All predictions about disaster before the Greenlanders took over did not hold true. Instead, there has been lots of improvement.''
It may have been the first recorded case of consumer fraud when Eric the Red, the Norwegian Viking, dreamed up the name Greenland.
Eighty-five percent of this gigantic treeless island, the largest island in the world, is permanently covered by ice up to two miles deep. Only between the glaciers and the sea is there a narrow strip of habitable land.
Eric discovered the island in 982. By giving it an attractive, but deceptive name, he persuaded hundreds of Vikings from Iceland to go west in their longboats, with images of milk and honey and lavish pastures in their minds.
After 500 years, their descendants mysteriously vanished, leaving the land to a people much better adapted to the inhospitable conditions of the Arctic: the Inuit.
The Scandinavians returned 250 years ago and colonized the country once more. But history is in the process of repeating itself, as the Inuit are regaining control.
The first small step was the implementation of home rule three years ago, leaving the 50,000 inhabitants, of whom 80 percent are of Inuit origin, in charge of their internal affairs. But Denmark still controls defense and foreign policy.
This time the Scandinavians are leaving more behind than a few ruins of Viking dwellings and some rusty nails: They are leaving a deep imprint on the culture of the Inuit and a dependency on imported goods.
In the words of a Danish author and former reporter for Radio Greenland, ''They (the Inuit) have become too big around the middle to ever again be able to squeeze into a kayak.''
The high standard of living, funded in part by $200 million a year from Denmark, has become a limitation to expanding Greenland's economy.
Says Lars Emil Johansen, one of the five members of the island's miniature cabinet, ''The deficit on our balance of payments serves as a straitjacket.''
One way to loosen it would be to exploit the minerals and potential oil deposits under Greenland's rocky surface. But so far the home-rule government has proceeded with caution in order not to harm the environment and Greenland's traditional occupations, fishing and hunting. Only one mine, producing lead and zinc, is in operation.
At this time there is no strong desire to change relations with Denmark. Greenland Premier Motzfeldt comments, ''We have a cultural, biological, and historical fellowship with Denmark. These are ties that are not easily broken.''
Hans-Pavia Rosing, the ICC president, regards the oil field at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, as the origin of his organization.
''This is where the resource development began, and thus the pressure against the Arctic region,'' he says. ''It was no accident that the initiative to form the Inuit Circumpolar Conference came from Alaska.''
Atlantic Richfield's drill hit the huge oil reservoir on a cold February day in 1968. The discovery made it necessary to settle an issue that dated back more than 80 years: native land claims. In 1971 Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, granting the aboriginal population of the 49th state 40 million acres and $963 million.
The 1971 act became the basis for the political and economic power of the Inupiat, as the Inuit of Alaska call themselves. Twelve Alaska native regional corporations and 220 village corporations were created to administer the land and the funds.
Since then, the native corporations have become major factors in Alaska's economy. They have invested in almost everything from hotels to oil and gas exploration. As the Inupiat become more business-oriented, they are more and more frequently choosing their allies among conservatives in national and state politics.
Another source of income for the Inupiat is taxation. Following a referendum in 1973, the North Slope borough was created between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean, enabling the area's 6,000 inhabitants of mainly Inupiat origin to be somewhat autonomous and collect local taxes. The borough government now receives a percentage of the value of the oil flowing through the Alaska pipeline from Prudhoe Bay.
During the 10 years since the passage of the act, Inupiat society has undergone some profound changes. Bill Reffault of the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of the Interior in Washington says, ''It probably all happened too fast.
''Some of the natives didn't even know what private ownership meant. They had to learn all that and begin to select their land within a three-year period. It was kind of like throwing a two-year-old baby into a swimming pool and saying, 'swim.' ''
Several native corporations have suffered the effects of inexperienced leadership and have not been able to make profits. But, little by little, the baby is learning how to stay afloat.
''The wealth has given the Inupiat a certain amount of freedom,'' says Mr. Rosing, ''but many Inupiat seem to feel that they have lost part of their soul in the process.
''The culture and the language have not found a natural place in the businesslike American society which they have been forced into.''