Something about Vikings in Greenland and other thoughts I have about Kalaallit Nunaat, Denmark and the North Atlantic … and just stop saying “Eskimo”

Header image by Leif Josefsen from Sermitsiaq.ag

This post comes as a reaction to the unfolding decolonization efforts that are happening across the Western world. As protests erupted here in the United States, so did sympathy protests in Europe. In the wake of the sympathy protests in Europe, legitimate criticisms of police brutality and racial injustices were addressed in countries like Germany, France, United Kingdom, and my old home country Denmark. More than 15,000 came out in support of BLM in Copenhagen on June 7.

As protests unfolded, statues of individuals linked to past racial injustices, not least representatives of the Confederacy, were targeted by protesters and officials alike. A wide-reaching effort to address Confederate monuments—an effort that began long before the recent protests—unfolded and gained political traction on both sides of the political spectrum. Inspired by these processes here in the US, protesters dethroned the statue of English slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, UK. Soon thereafter statues and monuments to compromised figures like Belgium’s King Leopold 2 and others on the European mainland received similar treatment. Even the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, a figure that I have featured on my blog before, was subjected to being spray painted with the words “racist fish.”

The motivation behind defacing the Little Mermaid is hard to grasp, but another defacing of a statue that happened in the Danish commonwealth (Rigsfællesskabet) is indeed more meaningful. In Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, or Kalaallit Nunaat in the local Inuit language, the statue of Hans Egede, the colonizer priest who established Nuuk as the trading post Godthåb in 1721, received a bucket of red paint, the word “decolonize,” and markings known from traditional Inuit tattoos on the pedestal. Not long after that, Hans Egede’s statue in Copenhagen, the city in the Danish commonwealth outside of Kalaallit Nunaat with the highest percentage of Inuit, was treated in a similar fashion. 

It is clear that a portion of the Inuit population of the Danish realm, the inhabitants of the largest still-remaining colony in the world, have taken the opportunity in the wake of these protests to vent their own frustrations and signal to the Danish majority that change needs to happen. Aside from voting on dismantling the Hans Egede statue in Nuuk, Kalaallit voices have also called for renaming and rebranding certain consumer products. Most recently, the Danish ice cream company Hansen Is (the best damn ice cream you can get in Denmark) has renamed their “Eskimo” ice cream in compliance with requests from Kalaallit. This has of course caused some stir in Danish public opinion and the rest of this blog post is going to be my comment to this subject.

Apart from being an educator in the subjects of Arctic culture and society, Greenland and Nordic historical relations, I also lived in Kalaallit Nunaat as a child. This means that the following comment will be informed as much by my personal history with the country as it is by the formal historical knowledge that I have as an educator. This comment or essay is, in so many words, my personal musings on the subject of North Atlantic cultural relations between Inuit, Icelanders, Norwegians, Danes and Faroese. It is also a thorough walk-through of the history of Scandinavian relations to Inuit, so pay attention!

Scandinavians and minorities

Many do not know this, but Scandinavia has its own colonial history with its own poor record when it comes to treating indigenous peoples, non-whites and ethnic minorities with dignity. Since the medieval period the Scandinavian countries have at best, in different capacities, mistreated the nomadic Sámi minorities in northern Scandinavia, Finnish, Estonian and Polish ethnic minorities, the Roma, Jews, even Orthodox Russians. At worst, both Sweden and Norway, in particular, are responsible for cultural genocide against the Sámi and certain Finnish minorities. Finland, in turn, has also mistreated both Sámi, Karelian and Swedish minorities within its own borders. During the Danish-Swedish wars in the 1600s and 1700s, the Danes and Swedes were both responsible for genocidal acts. Similarly, the Danes have been known to mistreat German minorities within their country’s borders, even, in some capacity, to this day.

Both Denmark and Sweden owned slave-trading stations in West Africa, slave colonies in the West Indies, and trade colonies in India. The US Virgin Islands, St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John were purchased from Denmark in 1917, and since 1867 the US has had an interest in buying Greenland from Denmark, too. The current US government floated this idea in 2019, which eventually led to a minor crisis between the two countries. Greenland was established as a colony under the Dano-Norwegian Empire in 1721 but had been considered part of first Norway and then Denmark since 1262 by Scandinavians. Before that, it is likely that Icelanders considered the Norse colonies in Greenland part of their realm.

The Norse history in Greenland

The Norse colonies in Greenland were established by Scandinavians in the later part of the 900s, the period we call the Viking Age. Icelandic legend has it that a man named Eiríkr rauði, well-known in the Anglophone world as Eric the red, settled in Greenland in 985. Eiríkr settled at Brattahlið in southern Greenland in what was called Austurbyggð, the eastern settlement. Archaeological remains from the area, now known as Qassiarsuk, indicate a Scandinavian presence there from at least the 970s, coinciding with the legends. In the decades after Austurbyggð were established, Vesturbyggð, the western settlement, was founded farther north in the two fjords around the modern-day capital Nuuk; Nuup Kangerlua and Ameralik.

Eiríkr was, according to Icelandic legend, the one who gave Greenland its name: grænland, the green land. In Íslendingabók, the Icelandic historian Ari fróði, claims that this name was given to Greenland to make it more attractive to go there and settle. However, there is also good reason for calling Greenland “the green land.” The reason for this is the sailing directions from Iceland. If you sail due west from Breiðafjörður, the area in Iceland that Eiríkr most likely departed from, you will encounter rocky beaches and massive glaciers, but if you sail south-west from that area, you will get to lush, green fjords instead. The name may therefore suggest sailing directions more than an early attempt at branding. This way, the Scandinavian name for this massive island with an inland ice-sheet became grænland, Greenland, and the Scandinavian settlers that went there were called grænlendingar, Greenlanders. This designation is different from the traditional Scandinavian name for Inuit, skrælingar, possibly a derogatory term meaning “weaklings.” 

At the time the Scandinavians were the only inhabitants in the areas where they founded their settlements. While these areas had been inhabited before, the previous cultures had died out. It is possible that there was a presence of Dorset Culture Inuit until the 800s in West Greenland, but the ancestors of modern Inuit, the Thule Culture, did not reach the area around Austurbyggð until the 1200s. However, from around the year 1000, it is likely that the Scandinavian-Norse and the Thule Inuit interacted on hunting and trading expeditions in their mutual hunting grounds around Qeqertarsuaq farther to the north of Vesturbyggð.

However, by the middle to late 1400s, the Scandinavian-Norse communities in Greenland were gone. The latest written evidence of Norse presence in Greenland is from 1408, where the local priest in Hvalsey in Austurbyggð witnessed a wedding between two Icelanders named Sigríðr Björnsdóttir and Þorsteinn Ólafsson, who reportedly left the area two years after and moved to Akrar in Iceland. After that the settlements deteriorated and eventually disappeared. By 1500, they were certainly all gone and nobody from Iceland had heard much about Greenland for some 90 years.

What happened to the remaining people in the Norse communities is still considered a mystery. Theories range between climatic deterioration to Inuit eradications of the remaining Norse farmers and Portuguese piracy. While a deteriorating climate, where the northern hemisphere experienced the so-called Little Ice Age, was probably the main reason for the decline of the Norse settlements, a general depopulation as a result of economic decline in the 1300s would also have contributed to the disappearance of the communities. It is most likely that both Iceland and Greenland became settled by Scandinavians as a result of a booming walrus hunting industry. Quickly, the Scandinavians eradicated the walrus in Iceland, then in the settlements in Greenland, and then farther and farther north from there. As they searched for walrus in northwestern Greenland, they encountered the Thule Inuit.

Skirmishes between Inuit and the Norse cannot be verified archaeologically but are reported in much later Kalaallit folklore from the 19th century. It is likely that some unfriendly interaction did occur between Inuit and the Norse, but the two populations managed to live side by side for several centuries, so the likelihood of major enmities seems minimal. That the remaining Norse became victims of piracy towards the end of the 1400s and beginning of the 1500s is, on the other hand, quite likely. All coastal stretches in the North Atlantic were subject to piracy by peoples from North Africa and the Mediterranean. These raids for slaves took place in the Middle Ages, but increased in the early modern period, culminating in the 1600s. Similarly, Basque, Spanish and Portuguese whalers began moving into the Arctic waters in the 1500s. Ultimately, the report that the last Norse were taken by pirates comes from late Inuit folklore, too.

The early colonial history in Kalaallit Nunaat

When Greenland was settled by Scandinavians in the Viking Age, it was probably an independent state with very close ties to Iceland. Whether Iceland ever had any political influence in Greenland is uncertain, but it is likely that Norse Greenland and Iceland developed parallel to one another, and that the Greenlanders were somewhat dependent on Iceland. In 1262, the Norwegian king became ruler over Iceland. When this happened, Greenland followed suit, and with the Norwegian king Magnús 6’s law Járnsíða from 1271–74, Iceland and Greenland effectively stopped being independent states.

After 1397, however, Norway was no longer a sovereign state itself. When king Hákon 6 of Norway died, he left the realm to be de facto governed by his widow queen Margaret 1 of Denmark. Through a series of tactical moves and plotting, she managed to place her foster son Erik of Pomerania (1382–1459) on the thrones of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, thus creating the Kalmar Union, which would last until 1521. As part of the Norwegian kingdom, Greenland eventually became the property of the Danish crown. Sweden seceded from the Kalmar Union in 1521, and this left Denmark-Norway in a twin kingdom. Gradually, power would shift towards Copenhagen, and Denmark would become the powerful part of the twin kingdom. As Denmark-Norway fought in bitter rivalries against Sweden, and the Reformation in 1536 brought with it several religious conflicts for the Dano-Norwegian Empire, Greenland was forgotten.

However, in 1605–7, the Danish-Norwegian king Christian 4 was reminded of his possessions in the North. The Danish kings had immediately ceded to Luther’s reformation from 1536, but different parts of the Dano-Norwegian realm did not follow suit that quickly. In Iceland, the last Catholic bishop in the North, Jón Arason, led an uprising against the Danish king as late as 1550, known as the Battle at Sauðafell. Jón and his sons were beheaded for their treason and the end result was tightened Danish royal control in Iceland. Christian 4 became king in 1588 and eventually took an interest in his subjects in the far North. His expeditions to Greenland in 1605–7 were predicated on the idea that there were still subjects in the outer reaches of the realm who were Catholics. Christian 4 sent his ships there to convert them to Lutheranism.

No Scandinavians were found in Greenland during these expeditions. Instead, Christian 4’s sailors kidnapped some of the Inuit they encountered and shipped them back to Denmark. For about a century, ships from Denmark-Norway made the journey to Greenland to look for the Norse settlers, the North-West Passage and, not least, a fabled fjord that was supposed to cut through the interior of Greenland, according to the Icelandic sagas (Króka-Refs saga in particular), revealing a lush, green valley where the “lost Vikings” might still live. No such place was ever found. Instead, they found the ruins of Vesturbyggð and Austurbyggð.

Even so, in 1721, the Norwegian priest Hans Egede, who had been a minister on Lofoten in Arctic Norway, arrived in Greenland under the pretense of locating the ancient Norse settlers and preaching Lutheranism to them. In 1711, Egede had successfully argued to the Danish king that if there were any Catholics left in Greenland, they needed to be converted—and if there were none, then the “heathen” Inuit should be converted. As a priest in Arctic Norway, he had gained sufficient experience with both the climate and brutal conversion methods directed at the Sámi populations there. 

While Egede used the history of the Norse settlements and the conversion to Lutheranism as his pretext for gaining access to Greenland, it is more likely that his primary goal was the opportunity for monetary exploitation. In Bergen he raised the money for his expedition from wealthy Norwegian merchants, who most certainly anticipated a return on their investments, and he established The Bergen Greenland Company, a Dano-Norwegian Arctic version of the East and West Indies Companies, which would own and run the colonies. The Bergen Greenland Company founded Godthåb, the colony that became modern-day Nuuk city, Greenland’s capital.

Although Greenland as a colony never experienced any physical genocide, Kalaallit did suffer both spiritual and cultural genocide at the hands of the Dano-Norwegian Lutheran colonial mission. Rituals, customs, songs, stories, artifacts, were destroyed or purposefully discredited. Racial segregation was in place in the beginning of the colony, but in the late 1750s segregation was replaced with a law granting rights to the children of Scandinavian-Inuit marriages (where the man was Scandinavian). In the 1700s, most of the Scandinavians in Greenland would be Norwegians and a few Icelanders and Danes. However, in 1814, the Dano-Norwegian empire fell apart. Denmark had supported Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars, while its old rival Sweden had been supporting the winning side, the British. At the peace conference in Kiel, Denmark was forced to cede Norway to Sweden. However, Sweden did not care about Norway’s old Atlantic possessions, so Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands stayed in Denmark’s possession.

Colonial rule during the rise of nationalism

After 1814, Denmark was reduced to a small European nation. This caused a major identity crisis where a once powerful country with a fleet that could match the British still needed to catch up to reality and find its new place as a small country in the world. Nationalism gained foothold in Danish mentality, and the old stories of the glory of the Vikings became popular self-narration. While nationalism and nation identity grew in Denmark’s intellectual circles, it invariably had an effect on Icelandic intellectuals, too. From the 1830s, Icelandic intellectuals became more and more active in promoting specific Icelandic identity, separate from both Danish and Norwegian identity. 

Danish self-perception could not overlook or discount the Icelandic claim to self-identification. Through the 1830s, Danish self-perception as an underdog to Prussia grew. Resentment of both German, British and Russian imperialism grew, and during the wars with Prussia in the 1840s, Danish pro-Nordicness and anti-Germanism grew exponentially. Finally, in 1864, Denmark lost half of its population to Prussia, when the country had to cede the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein as part of a peace settlement.

In this period, from c. 1830 to 1870, the growing Danish self-identification as a Nordic Viking nation brought with it a curious solidarity with the possessions in the North. Due to the high status that medieval Icelandic literature had in the Scandinavian countries, both Old Norse mythology and the saga literature, Denmark consistently recognized Iceland as a country with the right to a separate identity. Although Denmark saw itself as the sovereign in the relationship to its possessions, it is notable that lenience towards Iceland and its claims were widespread and growing throughout the 19th century. 

This rubbed off on Greenland, too. Local councils were allowed in Greenland from 1862, permitting Greenland to have local “native” councils that would advise Copenhagen on policies in the country. Similarly, Greenland received its own newspaper in Kalaallisut, the western Inuit dialect spoken by the majority of Kalaallit. As Denmark recognized Icelandic claims to self-govern, it gave similar—although less consequential—concessions to Greenland. And, just like intellectuals in Denmark took an interest in the collection of Danish folklore and folktales to bolster Danish identity, so did intellectuals in Iceland and Greenland. For this reason, we now have a wealth of Inuit folklore from Kalaallit, including the above referred stories about what happened to the early Norse settlers.

While it can hardly be interpreted as any kind of reverence or deep-seated respect for Inuit from the Danish perspective, it is nonetheless a fact that the Danish colonial policies supported rather than dismantled the perseverance of Inuit identity in Kalaallit Nunaat. At a time where other colonial powers committed heinous atrocities, destroyed cultures, religions and peoples, Inuit culture managed to some degree to pass under the radar of European hegemony. The reason for this is probably that, from the Danish perspective, the remaining Inuit culture and identity was not perceived as a threat to Danish supposed superiority. It was seen as something that would die out on its own because it was simply not viable in the long run.

This attitude was most certainly at the core of the famous Greenlandic explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen’s view of Inuit culture. Knud Rasmussen was born in Kalaallit Nunaat to a Danish missionary and a half Danish, half Inuit mother. He had intricate understanding of Inuit culture, spoke Kalaallisut and knew how to hunt and travel in the Arctic environment. He used these skills and his networks in Kalaallit Nunaat to explore both the Arctic interior of Canada and northern Kalaallit Nunaat, where he was the first to make contact with the Inughuit in Avannaa, the northernmost part of Kalaallit Nunaat. Rasmussen’s descriptions of Inughuit in The People of the Polar North from 1908 is an interesting mix of anthropological descriptions and staged narration of their cultural demise. This social Darwinist perspective on Inuit culture in intellectual and political circles in Denmark was dominant until at least the 1980s.

The 20th century

A turning point in Danish relations to its colonies occurred in the 1910–20s. As I mentioned earlier, the Danish West Indies were sold off to the United States in 1917. This came in the midst of a wide-ranging debate in Denmark about the relationship to the old slave colonies. While there was a widespread sentiment present in Danish conversations on the subject that accepted the predominantly black population of the three Virgin Islands as Danes, and many thought that Denmark had a responsibility to their former slaves, the American offer to buy the islands came as a quick-fix solution to the Danish government. To this day, practically no one on the US Virgin Islands celebrate that day, which has become known as Transfer Day.

Where the Virgin Islands could be considered “foreign” and “out of our range” in terms of responsibilities on the still narrowing Danish mental horizon, the subject of Greenland was a different matter. This was the old home of nordboerne, the Norse settlers. It was and has always been seen as part of “our homelands” by Danes, Norwegians and Icelanders alike. Every one of the several identities that emerged from the old Dano-Norwegian empire stake some claim to Greenland in one sense or another.

In the 1910s, Denmark was running a campaign to regain parts of the lost country south of the border. Schleswig, the northern German duchy, is the original home of several Danish kings and queens, not least aforementioned queen Margaret 1. Apart from having the remains of at least one king in the Schleswig cathedral, the duchy is also home to the remains of the largest Viking Age town ever to have existed in Scandinavia: Hedeby, or Haithabu in German. The Danish king and the government lobbied hard internationally to find some way to regain that part of the country without having to go to war. 

After World War 1, the resolution finally came: a vote among Schleswig’s inhabitants to signal their identity. In 1920, the people of Schleswig voted for either Danish or German citizenship and the result was that Schleswig—which, historically, has always cultivated its own identity—was torn in half. The importance of regaining Schleswig to the Danish king and high society at the time was so great that when they realized that the southern part had voted for Germany, the country was on the verge of a coup d’état, where the king sought to depose the prime minister and parliament.

As Denmark was struggling to make Germany recognize the wills, wants and needs of the Danish minority in northern Germany, the hypocrisy of ignoring those same struggles among Icelanders for Icelandic recognition was glaringly obvious. For this and several other reasons, the Danish king Christian 10 gave Iceland a union treaty on December 1st, 1918, that would have to be renegotiated in 1940, and could be fully annulled three years after if no agreement on its continuation was reached. As an awkward turn of events, Denmark found itself occupied by Nazi Germany in April 1940 with no real authority over Iceland or Greenland, for that matter. 

Meanwhile, Britain occupied Iceland during World War 2. Nazi Germany did occupy a minor section of eastern Greenland for a brief period, but quite quickly, the allied forces established themselves across the North Atlantic in every one of the Danish possessions. The Icelandic government was respectful enough to honor the agreement with the occupied Danes and their exile government in London. Iceland waited until 1944 to declare full independence, even though they renounced the Danish king in 1940.

During the first part of the 20th century, Kalaallit Nunaat was very overlooked. Nobody saw any particular strategic or resource potential in the country, except for Faroese and Icelandic fishermen. Much to the Kalaallit native councils’ dismay, the Danish government allowed Faroese fishers in the 1920s and opened Færingehavn (Faroese Harbor) in 1927 without consulting with the local government.

During and after World War 2, the British and American governments realized the strategic potential of Kalaallit Nunaat. In October 1941, the US Airforce established the Bluie West Eight airbase in Kangerlussuaq, known as Søndre Strømfjord in Danish. Notably, this was before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US’s involvement in World War 2, but it was after the Nazi occupation of Denmark. The establishment of Kangerlussuaq as an airbase was part of the general American attitude that Kalaallit Nunaat should rightfully belong to the US. 

Although the US recognized Danish rule in Kalaallit Nunaat after the war, the de facto military presence in Kalaallit Nunaat was and is American, in close alliance with the Danish Arctic command and the Danish navy. After the war, the US also established the Thule Airbase in Qaanaaq in the northernmost part of Kalaallit Nunaat. This is still the first line of defense of the American mainland in case of tactical nuclear attacks from Russia.

With this newfound importance of Kalaallit Nunaat, the Danish government scrambled to maintain control over the country. From the 1950s, the United Nations called for the abolishment of colonies across the globe. Denmark was no exception to European colonial powers, yet, unlike England, France and Portugal, it did not let go of its main colony. Instead of granting independence to Kalaallit Nunaat, the Danish government solved the “colony problem” in 1953 with an amendment to its constitution, where the former colony would become part of Denmark, giving Kalaallit full rights as Danish citizens.

While granting Kalaallit citizenship on the same terms as the majority population of the realm might look like a positive development, the result was devastating. The new situation meant that Kalaallit Nunaat would be opened up for the Danes and the Faroese to live and work there, not least for businesses to move in. The Danish government decreed that Kalaallit Nunaat had to modernize and forcibly moved hundreds of people to the colonial town centers, built infrastructure, fish factories and concrete apartment blocks. In one generation Kalaallit had to adapt from life as hunters and fishers to a life in a modern, industrialized world. Family structures, social bonds, traditions, connections to the land and the basic sense of self-worth and self-reliance that people had before this leap for progress, were completely torn apart.

Adding to the complications, the influx of Danes with formal educations and a firm contempt for traditional Inuit life, culture and language (they had heard Knud Rasmussen’s descriptions in school), sowed the seeds for generational animosity between Danes and Kalaallit. Some social programs in Kalaallit Nunaat in the 1950s and 1960s emulated Canadian boarding school programs, where children were taken away from their hometown and family, and placed in boarding schools in Denmark, essentially to “civilize” them. For infrastructural reasons, the Danish government moved criminals from Kalaallit Nunaat to Denmark to serve time in a country they had never seen before. Once they had served their time, they were let out into the streets of Copenhagen to whatever social problems they might encounter there. 

Similarly, if you had lost your job and had fallen to alcoholism, the laissez faire welfare state in the period from the 1950s to the 1980s ensured that you could be on benefits for years and still have money for booze. This combination proved highly toxic for Kalaallit. Problems with depression, suicide, violence and alcoholism skyrocketed in Kalaallit Nunaat. Meanwhile, the growing Kalaallit minority in Denmark, especially in Copenhagen, suffered from similar problems. Recognized as citizens, but not as a protected minority or an indigenous people, Kalaallit in Denmark were left to their own devises in a culture that was fundamentally different from what they knew from home. Just the sheer loneliness and cultural divide experienced by Kalaallit in Denmark was enough to create problems with alcohol and drugs in their minority communities. In turn, all of these problems experienced by Kalaallit as a result of insensitive Danish policies helped reinforce the Danish perception of Inuit as inferior. This pattern is in fact very common in any colonized culture, from New Zealand to Canada, the US, Brazil, Australia, wherever you go.

From home rule to independence

This unsustainable situation, coupled with the general international civil rights trend in the 1960s and 1970s, led to calls for home rule in Kalaallit Nunaat. Home rule was granted in 1979 and has been expanded on several occasions since. Before Brexit there was, for instance, Kalaalit Nunaat’s exit in 1985, where Kalaallit voted to leave the European Union.

In 2009, the Danish government granted Kalaallit Nunaat a new treaty. This new treaty is very similar to the Icelandic treaty from 1918 insofar that it stipulates that Kalaallit Nunaat may leave the Danish Commonwealth at any point. Public opinion in Kalaallit Nunaat suggests that the majority would like independence, yet the current financial situation for the country is one of dependency on Denmark. Some 46% of Kalaallit Nunaat’s GDP is a direct monetary contribution from Denmark. Ironically, it pays for that social and physical infrastructure that Denmark built back in the 1950s and 1960s, and it keeps Kalaallit from leaving the commonwealth.

When Iceland called for independence from the 1870s and onwards, the discussions often revolved around some key points: can Iceland sustain itself financially? Can Iceland defend itself against foreign invaders? Those arguments would be advanced by Danes and the Icelanders would respond to them in various ways. Regardless, it is clear that Iceland has done phenomenally as an independent nation, and that it never needed the Danes to “take care” of it. The mere notion that the Danes had some kind of role in taking care of Iceland was—and still is—some paternalistic, self-serving bullshit. Yet, these arguments are now advanced against Kalaallit Nunaat, as if the situation was any different. For this reason, the current Kalaallit government is looking far and wide to the US, China and Russia for investment opportunities.

The question is: where does all of this leave our common 1000-year-old history and the cultural and familial relationships that have been created in that timespan? 80% of Kalaallit is mixed with European ancestors, and, on average, Kalaallit are a quarter European. As one of my old friends from Kalaallit Nunaat put it in a Facebook post: “We’re family.” Apart from a genetic relationship that may or may not mean something to some, there is a rich cultural history across the North Atlantic. 

From the Kalaallit perspective, it varies greatly how positively that relationship is perceived. There are some who cherish it and there are some who hate it; nonetheless, it is there. As a Dane who has spent much time in Iceland over the last 10+ years, I have noticed how close the Icelandic culture is to the Danish culture despite the 75+ years “apart.” Copenhagen and Denmark are still a primary destination for Icelanders traveling abroad. Denmark is one of the preferred destinations to go study if you are an Icelander, and, needless to say, familial ties between Icelanders and Danes are still plentiful and strong. 

In fact, this is the case for all parts of the old Dano-Norwegian realm: there is continual movement, settlement and family formation between Norwegians, Icelanders, Danes, Faroese and Kalaallit. I would argue that these five distinct peoples still, and for the foreseeable future, have the capacity and opportunity to live in each other’s countries with few cultural adjustments and largely feel welcome and comfortable—barring the colonial complications between Danes and Kalaallit. The Icelandic experience suggests that relations can indeed improve greatly once independence is attained. That is worth keeping in mind.

However, as a Greenlander, an ethnic Scandinavian, Dane, who has lived in Kalaallit Nunaat, I would be sorry to see Kalaallit Nunaat leave. A portion of us Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders and Faroese can rightfully be called Greenlanders. Since the name “Greenlander” historically applies to Scandinavians from or in Kalaallit Nunaat, it applies to us and not Inuit, who have their own identifications. I am a Greenlander, not a Dane. Even if I have lived most of my life in Denmark, I am still a Greenlander. Why? Because those of us that are Greenlanders but not Inuit, we are neither this nor that: we may be white, we may be Scandinavians, but, living in Kalaallit Nunaat, we have had significantly different experiences from the other Scandinavians.

My childhood in Kalaallit Nunaat was largely positive, but I did experience a wide range of retributions from Inuit thanks to the aforementioned generational animosities that came to life through the modernization process that began in the 1950s. In the streets, Kalaallit would sometimes shout at you, spit at you, tell you to go home, and whatnot. In the school yard, Kalaallit kids would pick fights with you. In the classroom, the teachers who were Inuit would single you out and, on a couple of occasions, your Kalaallisut language teacher would smack you upside the head. These are very common experiences that I, as an ethnic Dane, share with other Danes who have lived in Kalaallit Nunaat. Each can be elaborated upon in a multitude of ways, because racially motivated abuse towards non-Inuit in Kalaallit Nunaat is rampant. It is not just Danes who are targeted, it is also other Europeans, Africans and Asians.

Regardless of how you want to talk about that issue or frame it or rationalize it, the important thing to understand is what it does to a human to experience this level of animosity for simply existing (yes, the irony of whites being targeted for their skin color is not lost on me here): it tells the person experiencing this that they do not belong. This means that if you exist in Kalaallit Nunaat as a Scandinavian, the likelihood of feeling at least in the periphery of society is incredibly high. 

However, this does not change when you come “home.” In Denmark, I experienced being firmly labelled as a “Greenlander.” To the other Danes, I was not a Dane. I was something else: a Greenlander. 

You could use that to tease me in the school yard, shout slurs at me like you (or rather your parents) would shout at ethnic Inuit in Denmark. In Denmark, as a “Greenlander” you would be lumped together with those who suffered from alcoholism and drug problems, homelessness and prostitution, regardless of your background, skin color, ethnicity, whatever. A Greenlander is a Greenlander in Denmark. 

In Denmark, you find yourself speaking Greenlandic Danish, not Danish-Danish, but a particular Greenlandic dialect of Danish that has a Copenhagen twang to it and a distinctly different vocabulary, where some words are Norwegian instead of Danish (nobody says bjerg in Greenland, everyone says fjell, if they’re not a stupid Dane, that is—both words mean “mountain.”) Aside from speaking a different dialect of your native language, you have also picked up parts of another language that is so distinctly different that your bilingual child-brain sees the world quite differently from your monolingual peers. This turns out to be an awesome advantage in the future, but as a pre-teen, you’re generally just confused about it all.

When you meet Inuit in Denmark, you suddenly find a community or some kind of common ground with them that you had no idea existed. You share experiences, tastes, thoughts and values that none of the Danes around you even knew existed. You both love the taste of seal suaasat and mattak; you both miss proper winter, think the air is too dense in Denmark, and are getting dizzy from the movement of the leaves on the trees, because in Kalaallit Nunaat, there are no trees at all. And, more importantly, you both grew up with a healthy fear of the tupilak in the mountains and the cold ocean, yet a great respect for Sassuma arnaa, whose hair the angakok would need to comb to release the animals from the bottom of the ocean. 

Those are some of the things and experiences that make me a Greenlander instead of a Dane. These are also the experiences that can make me appreciate the frustrations of Kalaallit. In the Kalaallit world, the Dane has been put on a pedestal and heralded as the thing you must become. Yet you can never actually achieve it, because you will always look different and be marked as different for the way you look. Each experience that I have had with generational animosity in Kalaallit Nunaat is a response to that colonial problem with Denmark.

The future of Greenland in the Danish commonwealth

While racially motivated abuse of non-Inuit in Kalaallit Nunaat is a real problem, so is Danish racism against Kalaallit. A couple of days ago, a Danish journalist posted on Facebook about Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Denmark. The journalist complained that while Pompeo was sowing discord in the Danish commonwealth, the Danish national broadcast station DR kept bringing in Inuit with “war paint” in their faces to talk about identity politics associated with rebranding Hansen’s aforementioned Eskimo ice cream. The so-called war paint he was referring to, was a traditional Inuit face tattoo. The journalist in question, Michael Rastrup Smith, is a center-right journalist who, I am sure, perceives himself as non-racist. Other posts of his on Facebook feature concerns for young immigrants who are stuck in Denmark’s draconian immigration system.

However, concerns for proper treatment of people do not extend to Kalaallit Nunaat for a man like him. The same arrogant approach to Inuit culture that Knud Rasmussen expressed a century earlier, and that led to generational animosity in the 1950s and 1960s, is still alive and well at the core of how Danes think about Kalaallit today. Calling Inuit face tattoos war paint, delegitimizing their status as actors in the commonwealth by saying that Pompeo’s desire to have conversations with Kalaallit Nunaat’s government is sowing discord, and not bothering to learn the name of an entire people in our commonwealth, are far too common symptoms of Danish arrogance (the Icelanders even have a name for those Danes: stórdani). 

No wonder Kalaallit want to leave. The absurd situation is that when Kalaallit say they want to leave, many (typically middle-aged men) like Rastrup Smith tell them they should. The typical Danish response is that all we do is pay their bills anyway, and if they want to leave, they should—and then see how well they will do on their own, circling back to that age-old argument about Iceland and its inability to foster a healthy economy. Unfortunately, what these self-absorbed, arrogant Danes have not understood, is that the Danish position in the contemporary world order exists only because of Kalaallit Nunaat. The Danish ability to work with the American government and perform the task of a trusted, close ally, is the absolutely only reason that Denmark enjoys such a high status in 21st century geopolitics.

In many ways it seems that there are only two ways to go for Kalaallit Nunaat: continue on the well-known path as a (former) Danish colony in a commonwealth with arrogant Danes, or leave, celebrate freedom and see how well you do in the arms of the three major world powers vying for the throne on top of the world: USA, Russia and China. The people who would have us all believe this, are curiously similar, regardless of where they are from. The tone-deaf arrogant Dane that would remain a colonizer in Kalaallit Nunaat is hardly any different than the contemptuous Kalaallit nationalist like Vittus Qujaukitsoq, one of the founders of the populist-nationalist party Nunatta Qitornai, which seeks independence at all cost.

There is a third way, however. The third way is defined by the cultural community across the North Atlantic, which has tied Kalaallit Nunaat, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and Denmark together in one of the strongest multilateral cultural bonds ever to have existed on the planet. This bond has so far proved more durable than the Norwegian kingdom, the Danish kingdom, the Dano-Norwegian empire, any of the existing nation states that came from it, and, lastly, the current Danish commonwealth. 

It is a cultural bond that is represented by more than 15% of the current Kalaallit population, who cannot simply say “I am Inuit,” because they are mixed in multiple ways and speak different languages. It is a cultural bond that is represented by the thousands of Icelanders and Faroese that have family ties in Norway and Denmark. It is a cultural bond that is represented by the thousands of mixed Inuit-Scandinavian families across the North Atlantic, not least the thousands of Inuit who live in Iceland, Norway and Denmark. It is a cultural bond that still to this day make Norwegians and Danes two of the world’s closest related nations in terms of family ties, culture and language. Finally, it is a cultural bond that is represented by the thousands of Scandinavians, like me, who have ties to Kalaallit Nunaat itself. 

That cultural bond is the key to Kalaallit Nunaat’s sovereignty; it is the key to preserving Danish relevance in future geopolitics; and it is the key to maintaining the integrity and freedom of the nations across the North Atlantic as the world’s would-be superpowers cast ominous shadows over the peaceful North.

1 Comment

  1. You have given a context to a regional/national complexity that perhaps requires a sophisticated diplomatic disentanglement and mutual acceptance of shared past legacy. Thanks for setting this down and giving your personal experiences as an individual on it. There’s a “Nation” series of YT videos produced by Phantom Power with a Scottish host interviewing Nordic nations about how Scotland can learn and perhaps follow their example of independence and identity. There could be some parallels and roadmaps to solutions in that.

    Liked by 1 person

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