Greenland’s Independence

Greenland, the largest non-continental island in the world, is culturally and politically 22greenland.600.jpgunknown to most foreigners, but on June 21, that began to change.  Following a vote in which 76% voted in favor of self-rule, Greenlandic citizens, along with diplomatic representatives from 17 countries, met at the harbor in capital city Nuuk to declare Greenland’s first step in gaining its independence from Denmark and achieving world recognition as the new nation of Naalakkersuisut, its Inuit name.    

Home to one of the harshest environments in the world–85% of the landmass is covered by glacier–Greenland has a long history as part of Scandinavia, dating back to 982 A.D. when Viking explorer Erik the Red discovered the island and established a settlement on its eastern coast, after having been exiled from Iceland.  Erik’s son, Leif, used the eastern settlement as a base for exploration to lands west, and in 1000 A.D. he became the first European to set foot on North America.  Before the 12th century, Greenland thrived as a trading post for rare goods like walrus tusk and polar bear fur and was an established Christian nation.  In 1261, the settlements became part of the kalmar map.gifNorwegian Kingdom and forfeited their autonomy to Scandinavia, a subjugation that would last for nearly 800 years.  After the Norwegian takeover, people began to leave Greenland to return to Europe, and by the 1400s there is no information about Norse inhabitants on the Island.  

Since 1721, Greenland has been under Danish rule.  At that time, the people of the island were mostly of Inuit descent, along with some Danish settlers.  From this past, modern Greenland was born.  Today, eighty percent of Greenland’s 58,000 denizens are of mixed Inuit and Danish heritage (cite).  Although a great majority of citizens practice the Lutheran faith as members of Denmark’s People’s Church, they also pass on the history of their Inuit ancestors through their strong oral tradition.  As citizens of Denmark, and therefore the European Union, it is not uncommon for young Greenlandic citizens to seek better opportunities abroad and tokonfirmation.jpg leave their homeland, which suffers from many of the same problems as other colonized nations.  Today, few Greenlandic students (can you find a %?) attend university, and there are many cases of domestic violence, unemployment and alcoholism.  The new Greenlandic government hopes to solve these problems internally.  At the ceremony establishing independence, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen described the event as “giving [Greenlandic people] the right to decide their own destiny.”

As its own country, Greenland would not only gain  political autonomy,
but it would also reclaim its unique identity.  As part of Denmark, the
Greenlandic people can be made to feel like second-class citizens, but
their eventual independence has a “symbolic value [that] gives greenland-town.jpgpeople
so much more confidence,” says to Peter Lovstrom, a curator at the
national art museum.  According to Lovstrom, although their new
autonomy will not dramatically change daily life, it gives people a
national identity, the ability to feel “more Greenlandic.” Following
the June 21 declaration of independence, the Inuit language, Kalaallisut,
is now recognized as the official Greenlandic language–before it was
both Danish and Greenlandic.  While there is no hostility toward
Denmark, the break will begin “a new relationship based on equality,”
said the new Prime Minister, Kuupik Kleist.    

of the agreement to turn the reins over to Greenland as a sovereign
nation includes a trial period based partially on Greenland’s new
resources.  Isolated from both Europe and the Americas, Greenland
cannot survive exclusively on its small tourism industry.  Currently,
Greenland’s economy is largely reliant on its export of fish and its
annual $637 million subsidy from Denmark. While environmentalists
around the world worry about the ice caps melting, for Greenland’s
success as a nation, it is potentially a good thing.  According to
Business Week, greenland-kayak.jpgglobal warming is melting Greenland’s glaciers at a rate
faster than anywhere else in the world; should these ice caps melt, the
oceans would rise 20 feet, submerging many populated coastal cities
around the world.  Although the thought of this is terrifying, for
Greenland, this melting of the ice caps is uncovering (potentially
vast) reserves of oil and minerals.  In recent years, Greenland has
been exploring hydropower and has granted exploration permits to
Chevron and Exxon Mobile.  It is estimated that there are 31.4 billion
barrels of oil off the northeast coast alone.   While Denmark would
still receive half of the profits during this trial period, the hope is
that Greenland’s resources would eventually generate enough revenue to
support its economy. In addition to these revenues, reduction of ice
cover in Greenland and the Arctic Ocean is expected to open up the
historically sought after Northwest Passage. While Canada has claimed
rights to ocean passage through its own territory, it is yet to be
determined whether Greenland or the EU will receive rights to
Greenlandic territory. Either way, Greenland would still receive a
portion of the profits.
With this eventual independence, Greenland will finally be free of Danish rule and have an identity all of its own.

Have you heard about Greenland’s independence?  With the news
surrounding Iran, Micheal Jackson and Air France, there has been little
coverage of this monumental event.  I’ve checked several online newspapers from around the world, and while Denmark covers the event, very few others do.  Why do you think it hasn’t been
covered by international news groups?

Melissa for My Wonderful World

New York Times
Seattle Times
Business Week
The Smithsonian

11 thoughts on “Greenland’s Independence

  1. Upon further research, it turns out that even though the Norse were not the first people on the island, the direct ancestors of Greenland’s contemporary Inuit did arrive about 200 years after the Norse. The first people on Greenland were Paleo-Eskimo peoples, the Arctic peoples who preceded today’s Eskimo cultures (Inuit, Yupik etc.). They however died out. It is thought thatafter that, there were several Paleo-Eskimo migration waves to Greenland from North America, but none of those populations managed to survive in the long term. Much the same happened with the Norse. Which, arguably, does make today’s Inuit the island’s indigenous people, as they were the only ones to succeed in sustaining an enduring presence. Of course, it has to be taken into account that part of the death of the Norse settlements might have been conflict with the Inuit, which would mean that, at least in part, it was the Inuit who wiped Greenland’s Norse out, further complicating the question of Greenland’s indigenous people. Of course, the concept of “indigenous peoples” itself is not a clearly defined or universally agreed upon one, there are many diferrent definitions of it. It also has to be said that the Inuit ARE considered to be the indigenous peoples of the North American north, even though others, such as the Paleo-Eskimo Dorset culture preceded them there, too, and at least part of the Dorsets’ decline is thought to be due to conflict with the Inuit, which in a way mirrors the speculated about situation between Greenland’s original Norse and the Inuit.

  2. Catholicgauze, the Inuit ARE the indigenous people of Greenland. When the first Europeans (the ones already mentioned in the article) reached the island, the Inuit had already been living there for a long time.
    Also, the Europeans didn’t just “abandon” or “leave” the island, like you say, and like it’s implied in the article. It’s not certain what actually caused the end of the Euro settlements, but at present the main theory is that it was a combination of its inhabitants leaving for Europe and the harsher weather conditions of the so-called Little Ice Age, which the settlers just couldn’t survive. It definitely wasn’t just migration back to Europe. In fact, when, centuries after loss of contact, Europeans headed for Greenland again, they were at first hoping they still might find some European settlers there.
    Also, the people on the island today (well, the majority of its population, anyway) don’t just consider themselves DESCENDENTS of the Inuit, they identify as the Inuit, despite significant Euro genetic contibution (and cultural influence). They ARE the Inuit.
    Anyway, apart from these couple of glitches, excellent article. Thank you for covering this. It’s a very interesting issue, and it will be interesting to see how it develops, and also compare it to Nunavut, the somewhat-autonomous Inuit territory in Canada, which is much newer than Greenland as a political entity, and functions within a Canadian political framework, very different from the Danish one.

  3. Thanks!
    Let us know if there’s a topic you’d like to see covered in the future.
    Sarah Jane

  4. Traveling to Greenland is still the same as travel laws for Denmark, and most flights connect from Kobenhavn (Copenhagen) Airport. For Americans, all you need is a passport and a ticket if it’s just a short visit. Information can be found here: For other countries, google travel visas to Greenland, but most likely it is pretty relaxed.

  5. Interesting! Thanks for the information, Catholicgauze. Just to clarify–did you mean to say that Greenland would become the first Native American-run country, or the first native/indigenous-run country?

  6. One of the neat things about Greenland is that it was abandoned by Europeans and claimed by Thule/Inuit (relative newcomers from Asia who are usually considered “native”). Most Greenlanders are Inuit or of a Inuit-mixed. Greenland could in fact therefore become the first native American-run country if it were to become independent

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