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Greenland Travel and Trek:
10 Things to Know about the White Island of the Arctic

Laurent Lefèvre

Covered largely by ice, the White Island was named “Green Land” by Erik the Red (c. 940 – c. 1010) in the hope that the name would attract settlers in search of more habitable spaces, including his fellow Vikings from Iceland. In the midst of a transformation, Greenland has been hit hard by climate change. The consequences are threatening to have global repercussions (rising water levels due to the melting of the ice cap), but also to offer local opportunities; access to the mineral-rich subsoil, changes in fishing periods and areas…  Ten facts to know about these new challenges that affect this gigantic territory, whose dynamics are disrupting the entire planet.

Le Groenland, plus grande île du monde ?
Greenland seen from the sky
(photo by Catherine Tisseau).


Greenland, the largest island in the Word?

Greenland is the third largest island in the world (836,000 square miles, about three times the area of Texas), after Antarctica and Australia. It is the largest archipelago in the world if we consider that Antarctica and Australia are not islands but continents.

Unquestionably the largest island in the northern hemisphere (almost four times the size of France), nearly 80% of its land mass is covered by an ice cap, which can reach 3,000 meters in depth. With 56,661 inhabitants (as of July 1, 2022), it is the territory with the lowest population density in the world. Greenlanders are concentrated along the coastline on the southwestern coast in four cities: Qaqortoq, Ilulissat, Sisimiut, and Nuuk, the capital (approx. 19,200 inhabitants in 2022), more than one third of the population. This leaves beautiful icy and deserted territories to explore…

Les drapeaux groenlandais et danois flottent côte à côte.
Greenlandic and Danish flags are flying side by side, in the same direction! (Pixabay).


A complicated and still evolving relationship with Danemark; the fans of Borgen have already known about it!

A Danish colony from 1721 to 1953, Greenland has been the third entity of the Community of the Kingdom of Denmark since that date, alongside the mainland and the Faroe Islands. Since 1979, it has been an autonomous country (“constituent country) of Denmark.

Approved by referendum in January 1979 by 70.1% of the island’s voters, the Home Rule Act provides for the creation of a government (Landsstyret) and a parliament (Inatsisartut, with 31 seats renewed every four years) and the transfer of many legislative and judicial powers, except for defense and foreign policy. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark remains the ceremonial head of state of this parliamentary democracy.

The result of a long process that could lead to the independence of Greenland (98% of the kingdom’s territory), this autonomous status was strengthened in 2019 by a new law that guarantees the right to self-determination, grants the status of a single official language to Greenlandic and delegates new powers to the local government, including the management of the island’s coveted resources.

Forming for the moment “a united kingdom, Denmark and Greenland have forever their destiny linked. Two Greenlandic members of parliament sit in the Danish parliament, the Folketing, which votes each year to provide the Greenlandic government with approximately 500 million euros in aid (an aid introduced by the 2009 autonomy law), more than half of its budget. The defense of the territory (surveillance and rescue mission operated by the Danish navy) and diplomacy remain the prerogative of the Danish central power. In 2019, the project of a Greenlandic crown was abandoned: the Danish crown remains the only local currency. The Danish language is still widely used, especially in the administration, which facilitates the integration of the 16,740 people born in Greenland (28.5% of the population) who live in Denmark.

On August 31, 2022, an iceberg under the Greenland sun (photo by Birgit Mollet).


Greenland is melting

In 2021, for the 25th consecutive year, the Greenland ice sheet lost more mass during the melt season than it gained during the winter, according to a recent UN report: 166 billion tons of ice “evaporated in 2021. In twenty years, it has lost 4.7 million billion liters of water and contributed to raising the sea level by 1.2 cm, according to measurements made by Polar Portal since 2002. If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt completely and the water was to flow into the ocean, global sea levels would rise by about seven meters, according to NASA: the Earth would rotate more slowly, with daylight hours becoming longer than today, by about 2 milliseconds.

Screenshot of the cover of Jean Malaurie's book (The Last Kings of Thule: With the Polar Eskimos, as They Face Their Destiny),
first published in 1955 in the Terre humaine collection that he founded.
In 2015, he published at Fayard Letter to an Inuk from 2022.


The Inuit have never called themselves Eskimos

The last indigenous people in Europe, along with the Sami of Lapland (read the portrait of Henrik, a reindeer herder in Lapland), the Inuit of Greenland represent 88% of the population of the White Island (56,661 inhabitants as of 1 July 2022), according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). They are composed of three groups: the Kalaallits, the main one who speak Kalaallisut, the official language of Greenland (in the west); the Tunumiit, in the east and the Inughuit, in the north.

Originating from the Thule culture, the Inuit (Inuit means “people or “human beings in the Inuktitut language) have spread throughout the Arctic regions of Russia (Chukotka), Alaska, Canada and Greenland. They are the largest ethnic group in the world. The Inuit, who have never called themselves Eskimos (or Eskimo), reject this pejorative term used since the 16th century to designate the inhabitants of the Arctic. This derogatory term may have originated with the Mi’kmaq, a tribe in eastern Canada, who have a word in their language similar to Eskimo meaning “eaters of raw flesh. Introduced in the early 16th century by southerners, particularly Europeans, it has taken on an increasingly negative connotation, perpetuating a stereotype of the Inuit as raw flesh eaters.

Reconstitution de l’église de Tjodhilde, à Qassiarsuk. Première église construite au Groenland, l’originale a été édifiée en l’honneur de la femme d’Erik le Rouge.
Reconstructions of Tjodhildes Church, Qassiarsuk. First church built in Greenland, the original was edified in honor of Erik the Red's wife (photo by Catherine Tisseau).


Religion and beliefs

Ninety-five percent of the Arctic White Islanders are Protestant in the Lutheran tradition. But half of them believe in spirits and ghosts, a reminder of the Inuit conception of nature and spirits before Christianity. According to this tradition, each thing or animal has a spirit or soul (anirniq in Inuktitut, “breath) that lives on after death – after hunting, Inuit would perform rituals and sing songs to the spirit of the animal so that it would be reincarnated.

“For [the Inuit], the memory is fetal: they have the mythical memory of a lost paradise, in which the animal was the brother, the cousin, explains Jean Malaurie, ethnologist and geographer, who studied and defended the Inuit of Thule expropriated from their lands.

It is a permanent political society: they refuse abundance. We kill a walrus that is worth four months, no need to kill two! No reserves, no accumulation, because that's where inequality begins. These are true societies of sobriety. When they look at the ice and hunt whales, they are alone. They learn, like painters or poets, to listen to and breathe nature. They "naturalize" themselves, literally! They let nature do it to them.

Il n’est pas toujours facile d’entrer ou de sortir par le tunnel étroit d’un igloo traditionnel fait de pierre et de tourbe, comme celui-ci reconstitué à Qassiarsuk, au sud du Groenland.
It is not always easy to enter or exit through the narrow tunnel of a traditional igloo made of stone and peat, like this one reconstructed in Qassiarsuk, South Greenland.


A peat igloo, the traditional Inuit home

For the Inuit of Greenland, an igloo (iglu meaning house in Inuktitut) refers to the traditional house of stone and peat or the hut encased in peat, sometimes snow, that served as a shelter during the winter months, where the cold and darkness of the polar night reigns – Greenland holds the record for the coldest temperature in the Northern Hemisphere (-93.3°F) recorded on December 22, 1991, and confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization.

Made from blocks of ice, the iglouliak or snow house – the Eskimo igloo, according to Western iconography and terminology – is only built during hunting raids. Only about 13% of Arctic Inuit used it as a permanent habitat.

The ice igloo or the traditional stone and peat igloo (see photo above) was accessed through a narrow tunnel. This passage, which served to trap the cold, led to a common room without windows, dimly lit by the flame of a soapstone oil lamp, the qulleq. Equipped with a foam wick and fueled with animal fat (mainly seal), the qulleq was also used to dry skins and cook. Placed under the responsibility of women, it played a central role in the survival of the Inuit and fed their imagination – it is notably present in the legend of Malina, goddess of the Sun, and her brother, Anningan, god of the Moon. According to Jean Malaurie [in French], when a traveler arrived, the Inuit offered him hospitality and gave him a place in the common room – his head inwards, his feet on the wall.

Un jeune homme inuit de Sisimiut, ville située sur la côte ouest, à 320 km au nord de Nuuk, la capitale (Sisimiut, Groenland, le 17 août 2019).
Portrait of a young Inuit man from Sisimiut, located on the west coast 320 km north of Nuuk, the capital (Sisimiut, Greenland, August 17, 2019).


Do you Speak Greenlandic?

Official language of the White Island of the Arctic since 2009, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut, the main dialect) is one of the Inuit languages. Assembling words to form new ones, sometimes very long, this agglutinative language has a very rich vocabulary to distinguish the multiple shades of snow, ice, and the different types of seals. A majority of the population of Greenland speaks both Danish and Greenlandic.

Statue of Leif Eriksson, in Qassiarsuk, South Greenland (screenshot of the video Greenland: Farmers protest against rare earths mining plans : Son of Erik the Red, the founder of the first Viking colony in Greenland, Leif Eriksson, nicknamed “Leif the Lucky”, has discovered America nearly five centuries before Christopher Columbus.


They have discovered America nearly five hundred years before Christopher Columbus

A study published in Nature in January 2022 establishes with certainty the presence of Vikings in 1021 at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Led by Leif Erikson, the second of Erik the Red’s three sons, a transatlantic exploration took place more than four and a half centuries before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

According to the Greenlandic Saga (Grænlendinga Saga)* in the Book of the Flat Island (Flateyjarbók), Leif Erikson, known as Lucky Leif, learned about the existence of this new land from Bjarni Herjólfsson, an Icelandic trader who was lost when he tried to reach his father in Greenland. The Saga shows Leif Erikson outfitting an expedition shortly after the year 1000. After spending the winter in Vinland (probably the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence), he would have returned to Greenland and would never have come back to the North American coast.

Less known than Columbus Day (a holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October in the United States), Leif Erikson Day pays tribute on October 9 to this explorer who grew up in Greenland, the first European to set foot in North America.

* Another version told in the Saga of Erik the Red, less credible according to specialists, tells that Leif Erikson would have been lost while returning from Norway.

Copie d’écran du tweet de Trump, promettant dans un message du 19 août 2019 qui se voulait ironique de « ne pas faire ça au Groenland ».
Screenshot of Donald Trump's tweet, promising in an August 19, 2019 message that was meant to be ironic to "not do this to Greenland".


Greenland is definetely not for sell!

Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. It belongs to the Greenlanders. This discussion is absurd, responded in August 2019 Mette Frederiksen, Danish Prime Minister, to the purchase offer of Donald Trump, who lorded over the mining resources, including rare earths, of this fall territory.

Presented as a big real estate deal, this inappropriate and contemptuous proposal towards the Greenlanders is perhaps not as absurd as it seems. It is not the first time Washington, which owns the Thule air base*, has attempted to acquire Greenland: in 1867 and 1946, the United States attempted to purchase the territory, a colony of Denmark at the time, an offer rejected each time by Copenhagen.

* In May 1953, the base was enlarged, which led to the displacement of the indigenous Thule people, the Inughuits.

Maisons colorées et immeubles de Nuuk située sur la côte ouest,capitale et plus grande ville du Groenland, avec 19 2261 habitants en 2022, soit plus d’un tiers de la population.
Iconic and colored houses and buildings of Nuuk, capital and largest city of Greenland, with 19 2261 inhabitants in 2022, more than a third of the population.


Greenland, a forced march toward modernization?

The inhabitants of the Arctic White Island have had to adapt to rapid urbanization: in 1951, 68% of the population lived in villages of less than 500 inhabitants; 15% in 2010. Some villages – home to Inuit communities with a traditional way of life based on hunting, fishing and trading meat and skins – have been wiped off the map, literally erased and removed from the list of Greenland’s cities. like Kangeq (read The Arctic Suicides: It’s Not The Dark That Kills You).

Rapid modernization has many negative consequences, Greenlandic sociologist Steven Arnfjord points out in this article. We still face many of the after-effects of the policies of the 1970s and 1980s.” Notably problems of alcoholism, suicide, particularly prevalent among young Inuit men. Feelings of exclusion among the inhabitants of isolated communities (especially in the east and in the far north of the country) and of loss of identity among the Inuit who have only recently experienced urbanization would be the cause (read The Eradication of Greenland’s Young Men). Although the suicide rate in Greenland has been decreasing since the 1990s, it remains the highest in the world.

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