Greenland — History and Culture
Greenland’s people, 89 percent of whom are Inuit, have a lot in common with their counterparts in Alaska, Siberia and northern Canada. The vast majority enjoy modern conveniences such as cell phones and Internet access, but many still hunt for survival, travel by dogsled, and attend traditional coffee gatherings called Kaffemik.
Greenland’s first settlers migrated from Canada’s northernmost island between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago when northern Greenland’s narrow Thule strait was frozen solid. Most of the present population are descendants of the Thule people who first set foot on this gigantic island during the 9th century.
One of Greenland’s most fascinating, yet mysterious, times in history was the 982 arrival of Viking explorer Erik the Red. The Norse established a colony which thrived for roughly five centuries in southern Greenland until its unexplained disappearance in 1500. Today, all that remains of the Brattahlíð colony are located at the Tunulliarfik Fjord’s head northeast of Qassiarsuk.
Although Danish missionary Hans Egede didn’t find any Norse settlers during his 1721 trip to Greenland, he did establish the territory’s present-day capital, Nuuk, and converted the Inuit to Lutheran Christianity. Many more Europeans from Scandinavia or England, met and traded with Greenland’s Inuit between the 16th and 17th centuries. The Inuit coveted the small glass European beads which are now part of their national costume.
Greenland has been a Danish possession since 1536, but the territory developed closer relationships with the US and Canada during WWII. The United States established military bases in Greenland during Germany’s occupation of Denmark, and Greenland continued to be strategically important during the Cold War years. One of these bases is now the public Kangerlussuaq Airport. The Kangerlussuaq Museum (P. O. Box 1006, 3910 Kangerlussuaq) can provide further details about this tense period in Greenland’s history.
However, unlike Russia did with Alaska in 1867, Denmark refused to sell Greenland to the United States for their asking price of US $100 million in 1946. Instead, Greenland entered a more independent relationship called home rule in 1979. They’ve become even more independent with each passing year, leaving the European Union in 1985 and replacing most Danish town names with Greenlandic ones.
During the past 30 years, Greenland has dramatically transformed from an isolated territory with virtually no communication with the outside world to a modern society complete with television, Internet and a growing tourism industry. Visitors can see just how far they’ve progressed at the Greenland National Museum (Hans Egedesvej 8, P. O. Box 145, 3900 Nuuk).
Today’s culture in Greenland is a fascinating combination of old and new. Only 30 years after the 1982 debut of the territory’s first television station, Greenland is a place where cell phones outnumber people and where nearly 93 percent of its population has regular internet access. Despite these modern conveniences, locals still use traditional hunting knives, called ulo, to cut freshly caught meat and travel by dogsled or sea kayaks called qajaq.
Despite centuries of isolation from the outside world, most of Greenland’s people are friendly and welcoming to visitors, especially those who come to their traditional Kaffemik coffee gatherings. Drum dances and tupilak sculptures carved from reindeer antlers, narwhal or walrus teeth have remained important art forms. Crafts workshops where local artisans work and sell their creations are found in virtually all communities.