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Denmark and Greenland: Time to debate colonial history

This spring, Danish state channel DR is running a documentary series on Greenland and Denmark's shared history “for good and bad."

(CN) — “When the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede went ashore in Greenland in 1721, it was the beginning of a shared history. But also of a colonial era. Our past contains several difficult and sensitive themes, and we know that some of the decisions made over time have had great costs for many people.”

So says Ane Saalbach, a producer for Denmark's national broadcasting corporation DR. She has worked on the new four-episode documentary “The Story of Denmark and Greenland — For Good and Bad."    

Saalbach describes the story as “complex and about the meeting between two cultures, visions, power and loss, and love and hope."

The documentary is part of a big spring theme in which DR puts the relationship and the Danish colonialization's effects on Greenlandic people and society on the agenda. 

Around 300 years have passed since Egede first encountered the Inuit people on the shores of Greenland, meeting a people devoted to sealing and whale hunting, who lived with great respect for nature and its spirits.

They're also a people who would see dramatic and involuntary changes to their culture over the coming centuries.

"The relationship between Denmark and Greenland has been heavily debated. But what really happened? We want to put focus on that," Saalbach said.

If you ask Nauja Bianco, CEO for the Greenlandic House and the North Atlantic House in Odense, Denmark, it is about time to put our history up for open debate.

“I have always been surprised by how little we know about each other. Even today, prejudices and misconceptions still exist about how Greenlanders are," Bianco, who was born and raised in Greenland to a Greenlandic father and Danish mother, said. "I am very happy with the new coverage because we get a common platform to discuss from. We need nuances and insights."

The Greenlandic House in in Odense, Denmark, hosts events, educational opportunities and social work. (Photo by North Atlantic House/The Greenlandic House Odense)

As CEO for the Greenlandic House, Bianco oversees cultural events, creates educational programs for schools and helps the around 17.000 Greenlanders living in Denmark to navigate the public system.

The house also performs social work for individuals who Bianco says often have difficulty functioning in society.

“Many people arrive with traumas related to, among others, colonialism,” Bianco said.

One of the major themes in the DR documentary is the systemic Danish overtaking of Greenlandic society from 1721 to the 1960s.  

Initially, the process started with Egede´s efforts to convert the Inuit people to Christianity by offering them a new promise of heaven beyond earth. The prospect of being able to meet loved ones after death moved the Inuit, who often lost family to the sea or rough weather.   

Christianity was adopted over time, and today is widespread and heartfelt in Greenland.

From 1750 to 1870, Danish traders started traveling to Greenland to trade riffles and commodities like coffee in exchange for pelts and whale oil, which was used to fuel lamps in the Danish cities. The traders commercialized sealing and whaling to such an extent that the Inuit forgot how to hunt with their traditional harpoons.

When war with England dried up weapon supplies, it naturally caused food supply issues in Greenland.

Until then, mutual exchange and joint development were a part of Denmark and Greenland's history. But in 1950, the Danish government launched a new and highly harmful initiative.

“Here begins a series of fast 'modernization' reforms, which ends up having detrimental effects on Greenlandic society," said anthropologist and journalist Anne Kirstine Hermann, author of the book "Children of the Empire: When Denmark Misled the UN and Greenland to Hold on to Its Last Colony." "People were evicted from their small settlements, of which there were 160 at the time, and moved into bigger cities. The Danish plan was to gather the population in the four biggest cities Nuuk, Sisimiut, Maniitsoq and Paamiut”.

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Hermann lived in Greenland for six months as a new reporter and gradually discovered how Danes have forced specific values and a Danish way of living upon the locals. She received the Kim Wall memorial grant to research the topic. Her findings are shocking, albeit essential to bring to light, she said. 

“Greenlanders were brought to the bigger cities to build roads, schools, fabrics, etc. But at the same time, Danes also imported their own labor force. So, unemployment for locals was high, and families torn apart. It was the perfect storm,” Hermann said.

The effort established Danish as the official language in Greenland. Finally, the "brightest" were sent to foster families in Denmark to assimilate to the Danish lifestyle.

Twenty-two children never returned to their families in Greenland.

Recently, Denmark issued a formal apology to all living individuals, now over 80 years old, who were taken from their homes. They have also received financial compensation from the state.

Hermann said that in the 1970s, Greenlandic women and Danish men conceived around 5.000 children. When the men left, the children were deemed fatherless. They grew up frowned upon and obtained fewer social rights including child support.

“Many adults in Greenland are still affected by these cultural traumas. They may have seen their parents break down, and such social damage passes down through generations. Yet, for so many years, Denmark has refused to acknowledge the effects of its actions in Greenland", Hermann said.

She noted the sad irony that the reforms stemmed from a Danish wish to demonstrate Greenland´s status as decolonized, since under the 1945 Charter of the United Nations all members had to allow their colonies self-rule.

But Denmark succeeded in expanding the definition of “self-rule” to also include the incorporation of a colony into the “mother country." The reforms in Greenland supported the political argument that Denmark made Greenland an “equal."

Today, the colonial past is still present for many Greenlanders, Bianco said.

“And colonialism will always be suppressing. It is an uneven power balance," she added.

Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is home to about 18,000 people. (Photo by Aningaaq Rosing Carlsen/Visit Greenland)

In 2022, roughly 1 in 10 Greenlanders living in Denmark are socially vulnerable. At the Greenlandic House in Odense alone, they receive 500 to 600 requests for help a year. Some of the most significant issues are revolve around alcohol abuse.

"Even though we statistically drink less than Danes, there is no doubt that the alcohol introduced in Greenland during these modernization processes in the 1950s and 1960s has had an extremely harmful effect. It has torn families apart," Bianco said. "Everyone has at least one family member who is an alcoholic. Almost all crimes, sexual assaults, rapes, domestic violence and suicides are related to alcohol. The sad truth is that we have poor statistics."

It does not help that jokes about how Greenlanders drink a lot still prevail in Denmark. When Bianco went to university, she was often asked why she did not drink more.

Fortunately, she said, the stereotypes are dissolving. Current debates, documentaries and historical research help nuance the picture. And the political rhetoric is starting to change as well.

That became visible when then-U.S. President Donald Trump asked if he could buy Greenland and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told him it was not for sale. As part of her refusal, she referred to the sovereign position of Kim Kielsen, the premier of Greenland.

Bianco said she welcomes the DR's focus on Denmark and Greenland and considers it essential for further mutual healing.

“We need to start open and honest talks where Denmark also recognizes its role," she said. "It is important that we have start focusing on our shared heritage and its consequences. It will help us move forward. Together."

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