Since 1977, the Inuit people scattered from Alaska to Greenland have united to preserve their vast, resource-rich homeland. This week leaders of these native peoples are meeting to work out a policy for Arctic development and research - a plan that would tailor mineral and oil extraction to the needs of the Inuit's subsistence culture, so dependent on the icy frontier's wildlife.
When Henriette Rasmussen, an Inuk (Eskimo) from Greenland, arrived in Alaska six years ago, she was greeted with a friendly ''Welcome back.''
Ms. Rasmussen had never been to Alaska before. But the customs of the state 2 ,000 miles from her native Greenland made her feel very much at home.
''Until my visit to Alaska in 1977, I was hardly aware that there were Inuit people like myself living beyond the horizon of the Davis Strait,'' Ms. Rasmussen recalls. ''It was a strange experience to travel for eight hours by airplane and still be in a country where people speak my language, eat the same kinds of food, and dress in a similar way.''
Centuries ago, Ms. Rasmussen's ancestors had migrated east from Alaska across tundras, snow-covered mountains, and frozen seas to populate northern Canada and Greenland. Because of the vastness of the Arctic region, there was virtually no contact between the various Inuit communities until the advent of modern transportation.
The Inuit's rediscovery of each other was prompted by the recent southern interest in the inhospitable but resource-rich and strategically important region they call home.
Ms. Rasmussen went to Alaska six years ago to meet with about 200 other Inuit from across the Arctic to discuss how to defend themselves and their subsistence culture against what one Inuk leader describes as ''the pinstriped army of developers.''
She continues: ''To us the Arctic is a homeland. To the southerners it is a frontier. While we look at the region in its entirety, they are only interested in its resources.''
Taking place in Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States, the 1977 meeting became the first step toward the creation of an international organization called the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC).
The third Inuit Circumpolar Conference is taking place in Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay), Arctic Canada, between July 25 and 31. About 500 people - delegates, observers, news media representatives, and artists - are invading this community of 2,500 just below the Arctic Circle to discuss Inuit politics and to elect a new leadership for the ICC.
The conference is also to be a cultural exchange of music, drum dancing, and traditional Inuit games. (Eskimos, which means ''eaters of raw meat'' in an American Indian language, now prefer the word ''Inuit,'' meaning ''people'' in the Inuit language.)
But probably the most important item on the agenda is the formulation of a coherent policy for the development of the Arctic. The group hopes to produce a set of guidelines to use in discussing the issue with the governments of countries south of the Arctic.
The US House Committee on Science and Technology last month agreed, on hearing testimony by Mayor Eugene Brower of Alaska's North Slope Borough and ICC president Hans-Pavia Rosing, to await ICC's Arctic policy before continuing work on the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1983.
The act would provide a comprehensive national US policy dealing with national needs and objectives in Alaska, especially with respect to Arctic research. In his testimony, Mr. Rosing stressed the need for circumpolar international cooperation, pointing out that oil spills and air pollution do not respect national boundaries.
''There is probably a great deal of speculation going on about what we are up to,'' ICC president Rosing says. It is not, he states, his organization's goal to create an Eskimo empire or restrict the wealth of the Arctic to its native inhabitants.
''We just want our fair share, a few percent.''
Among ICC's successes since its founding three years ago was the intervention against the so-called Arctic pilot project, a $2 billion plan to ship out liquefied natural gas in giant icebreaking supertankers from the Canadian Arctic to industrial centers in Canada or Europe. Claiming that the underwater noise from the tankers' powerful propellers would scare away the sea mammals on which many Inuit base their living, the ICC viewed the project as the greatest threat ever to the subsistence culture of the Inuit.
In the spring of 1983 the Arctic pilot project was shelved permanently because of popular opposition and declining prices of energy.
The ICC has also succeeded in being recognized by the United Nations as a nongovern-mental organization in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council. The ICC thus obtained a voice that would be heard internationally.
Not all of ICC's efforts have been successful. Attempts to establish contact with the 10,000 Inuit in Siberia have been futile. The Soviet government responded negatively to an invitation to the 1983 conference in Iqaluit.
When the Soviet attitude became known, ICC president Rosing commented, ''I am extremely disappointed that our efforts to establish contact (with) our fellow Inuit living beyond the 'ice curtain' of the Bering Strait have not been productive.
''I am sorry to see a political boundary restrict the cooperation between people of the same ancestry and the same culture.''
Just as in Nuuk three years ago, a Soviet flag will be hung next to those of the US, Canada, and Denmark to remind the participants in the 1983 about the missing delegation.