Three-quarters of the immense land surface of Greenland is covered by permanent ice and is unsuitable for permanent settlement. About 57,000 people live in Greenland, 50,000 of whom are Inuit. There are three linguistic groups: Kalaallit along the west coast; Inughuit in the north; and Iit on the east coast.
Greenlanders generally call themselves collectively Kalaallit and refer to their land as Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenlanders’ Land).
The first groups of nomadic migrants came to Greenland around 4,500 years ago; early settlers were mainly hunters of land mammals, but later migrants also harvested sea resources.
European settlement began in about CE 985. In the eighteenth century small trading stations were established along the west coast, and in 1776 the Danish government formed the Royal Greenland Trade Company, which had a monopoly on Greenland trade until 1950. The Inuit population was converted to Lutheran Christianity in the eighteenth century, but records remain of Inuit cosmology and moral codes. A complex series of taboos ensured regulation of human activity in relation to the environment.
The early Danish colonizers were paternalistic and protective towards their Inuit subjects, enabling most Inuit to retain their small-scale subsistence economy. Economic modernization partly began as a result of climate warming during the early nineteenth century, which made a transition from hunting to commercial fishing possible.
In 1953 Greenland’s colonial status was abolished, and it became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark. A large-scale development programme began. Inuit were encouraged to migrate from ‘unprofitable’ settlements in the outlying areas to west coast towns. Rapid urbanization resulted in the break-up of Inuit kinship and other customary networks, as well as in increasing immigration of Danes and growing Inuit politicization and demands for home rule.
The Greenland Home Rule Act was passed in 1978 and implemented in 1979. The right of the Danish Parliament to decide Greenland affairs was transferred to the Greenland ‘Landsting’, an elected legislative authority composed almost entirely of resident Greenlanders.
Administrative functions are delegated to the ‘Landsstyre’, the government body. Home rule government areas of responsibility include economic affairs, trade and industry, education, health, social affairs and the environment. The Danish government maintains control of defence, foreign affairs, policing and the administration of justice. In 1994 the Greenland home rule administration set up the Greenlandic Legal Commission to review and recommend revisions for the territory’s justice system. The Greenland authorities aspire to greater independence from Denmark generally.
In 2009, an Act on Self-Government was passed, granting Greenland greater autonomy. This was an act which many perceived as strengthening cultural independence and as a recognition of Greenlanders as an increasingly independent people and a nation. Among other developments, Danish lost its status as the official language and the country became formally known as Naalakkersuisut, its Inuit name. The official language of the territory became Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic), an Inuit language which is taught in schools and used in broadcasting, administration, church services, literature and newspapers. Both Danish and Kalaallisut are official languages of instruction, and the latter is not in danger of disappearing. Radio Greenland, run by Inuit, broadcasts in Kalaallisut.
As a result of the achievement of home rule, a national Inuit identity has emerged. Yet Inuit face a range of economic, social, health and environmental problems. While they enjoy constitutionally protected rights, their traditional way of life is threatened by a process of urbanization started in the 1970s, economic modernization, and international campaigns led by animal rights activists against their traditional forms of subsistence hunting, which remain crucial in the north and east.
The impact of climate change is also posing a serious danger to the Inuit way of life, as the polar regions appear to be warming more rapidly than elsewhere. Rising sea levels, melting ice and the disappearance of animals which the Inuit rely on to sustain them, are just some of the effects that are already apparent. In February 2007, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, representing Inuit in Greenland, the United States, Canada and Russia, argued before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the US’s failure to contain greenhouse gases violated their right to maintain their traditional ways and put it in breach of its obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights. While the petition had previously been rejected on the basis of insufficient proof of harm, the fact that the hearing was held was a significant achievement and was a relatively early step at the international level towards linking human rights and climate change. Still, progress remains slow. At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, Greenland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, expressed his disappointment that indigenous peoples’ rights were not included in the agreement.
Greenland’s real per capita GDP is roughly half that of Denmark and many Inuit are unemployed. In the mid-1980s over-fishing caused serious problems for the economy. Danish subsidies are needed to buy Danish commodities and to pay Danes who do skilled work. Inuit also suffer from high rates of mental health issues and have an infant mortality rate five times higher than in Denmark. The rapid shift from their traditional way of life, including changing dietary habits, may account for many of their health problems. Substance abuse is common, especially among younger people, as is alcoholism and the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are a matter of increasing concern. The suicide rate in Greenland is six times higher than in Denmark and is especially pervasive in the Inuit community. Many Inuit point to the transfer of communities by the Danish authorities to urban areas as the beginning of their problems; the blocks of flats that were built to house the resettled Inuit were touted as signs of progress but felt alien to many of those who were forced to live in them.
Pressures arising from rural-to-urban migration have affected not only those seeking better economic opportunities within Greenland, but also those moving from Greenland to Denmark, who currently number around 18,500 people. Many Greenlanders experience severe culture shock when moving to Copenhagen and face serious challenges in integrating into society. This process is not eased by the fact that many Danes hold prejudicial views: in a recent poll, nearly half of Danish respondents associated Greenlanders with substance abuse and other social problems.
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