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The Forced Relocation of the Indigenous People of Uummannaq, or How to Silence a Minority


Telegram from Thule 3136 145/141 31/5/1953

gdl greenland cbh

for permanent under-secretary of state /stop/ village population a total of thirty families now all removed to mouth of inglefield bay staying the summer in tent camps at kanak kekertarssuak and natsilivik /stop/ the people are amply supplied from here with hunting equipment clothing provisions kerosene and medicine /stop/ the base has promised to drop kerosene for tent campers during the summer if necessary /stop/ removal began when shortly after our return we notified the population the decisions made in denmark /stop/ many people were grieved by parting with the place but everyone understood it was for common good /stop/ many hunters asked me to send their respects to permanent under-secretary of state thanking for the help already provided in form of equipment and for promise of new and good houses in compensation for those they abandoned in thule compliments


This message from the district governor in Thule, Egon Mørck Rasmussen, to the head of the Department of Greenland within the State Ministry reports that the first part of the relocation of the inhabitants of the village of Uummannaq in Thule had been successfully carried out. That relocation is the subject of the following article. Our purpose is to bring to light the forced relocation of the Inuit people living in the Thule district, and especially its aftermath, which is still very much an ongoing case. To clarify what has happened, and just as importantly, what has not been done, we will present the case chronologically from its origins in the Second World War to its pending status in the Danish Supreme Court. 

An overwhelming array of actors have been involved in the Thule Airbase Case and the forced relocation of the Inuit people living in the Thule district, called the Inuhuit. We will examine the relationships between the Inuhuit people, Denmark, which includes Greenland as a self-governing part of the kingdom, Greenland's Home Rule Government, and concerned outside parties, including researchers, journalists, the United Nations (UN) and the International Labor Organization (ILO). Although the Thule airbase belongs to the U.S., this article focuses instead on the agency and responsibility of Denmark.

The Forced Relocation

In the last days of May 1953, Danish authorities informed the 116 inhabitants of the village of Uummannaq that they had to leave their current homes and move to other villages in the area. This area in Northeastern Greenland, dubbed Thule by colonizers, was inhabited by 372 people in 12 different villages in 1952. Thus nearly one third of the population in the district of Thule was ordered to move. Shortly after the order, the Inuhuit began moving their possessions to their new "homes," temporary tents provided by the authorities, and four days later the village of Uummannaq was deserted, opening a bleak chapter of modern Danish history. 

The official version of the removal explains that the Inuhuits chose to move because the U.S. military base had decreased hunting returns in Thule.  Two of the leading experts on this issue, Jens Brøsted and Mads Fægteborg, write in 1985: "While the Danish public has never known anything else but that the Inuhuits moved of their own free will, there has never been, locally in Thule, any doubt about the fact that the people of Uummannaq were strategically expelled." Over the years different explanations of the removal of the Uummannaq village have circulated, but today a clearer picture has emerged from the archives.

What Led to the Forced Relocation?

The reasons for the removal of the Inuhuits in 1953 lie in the military strategic importance of Greenland during and after the Second World War: Greenland offered a number of weather stations and a good location for the protection of transatlantic transportation routes. During the Second World War there was a total of 17 U.S. military installations. On April 9, 1941, Denmark and the U.S. established an agreement on the defense of Greenland, which was extended in 1951 with a number of changes. The end of the Second World War changed Greenland's role as a "steppingstone" between occupied Europe and the U.S. While Denmark thought the U.S. would gradually dismantle its bases in Greenland, instead it maintained and expanded its presence there during the Cold War. Construction for the Thule Air Base began in February 1951 without prior consultation with, or notification of, the local inhabitants or the local Hunter's Council which had the formal political and judicial authority over the territory in Thule. 

Furthermore, the U.S. misrepresented the extent of the base in negotiations with the Danish authorities, which led the Danish Foreign Minister, Ole Bjørn Kraft, to assure his colleagues in the Danish parliament that the military installations built in Thule "would be placed where they would not be in close contact with the Greenlandic population," as noted by Brøsted and Fægteborg. This turned out to be far from true and the Inuhuit's hunting returns soon decreased drastically. When the U.S. military planned to extend the base's defenses with an anti-aircraft battery very close to the village of Uummannaq, it determined that the inhabitants had to be relocated; Danish authorities then made the final decision to carry out the relocation. The decreasing hunting returns served as the official explanation for the inhabitants' purportedly self-initiated relocation. As quoted in Harlang et al., a letter from Chief of the Greenland Department Eske Bruun to Prime Minister Erik Eriksen on June 11, 1953, reveals that there was more to it than decreasing hunting returns: "…we did however succeed in avoiding letting the cat out of the bag, since we declared that this was a relocation based on the decrease of the hunting returns, which the already existing American activities had actually caused."   


The Hibernation Period, 1953 - 1985: The Claim That Was Hushed Up

While individual and collective compensation for decreased hunting returns had been paid in other cases, the Danish authorities showed no interest in the case of the Inuhuit. Immediately after the relocation the population raised a claim for compensation in the Hunter's Council. But from 1954 to 1960 these claims were halted. The first claim, in 1954, reached the chair of the Hunter's Council, Erik Mørck Rasmussen, but he did not advance it to the Prime Minister. Mørck Rasmussen had no comment when the Hunter's Council inquired in 1955 about developments in the case. In 1956 Johannes Kjærbøl, the Minister of Greenland, visited the site of the relocated people at Qaanaq and heard the people's complaints about a decrease in hunting returns after the relocation, but did not investigate the matter further.

In 1959 the Hunter's Council in Thule unanimously adopted a claim for an annual compensation for lost hunting areas due to the establishment of the U.S. base. The summary from the meeting was sent as usual to the Department and the chief governor of Greenland, P.H. Lundsteen. In response to contemporaneous claims against military installations elsewhere in Greenland, the Department of Greenland set up visits to quantify the losses of the Inuhuit, but the Department eventually dismissed the claims and would not address the question without a special application. 

At its next meeting in 1960 the Hunter's Council drew up a direct, official request to the Department of Greenland. Apparently the Department then opened a file on the case and sent a statement to the Governor, who commented on the matter in a reply to the Department on February 4. There is no further documentation of correspondence between the Department and the Hunter's Council and according to Jens Brøsted, "the claim was barred by State inaction and neglect." According to a report to the UN Human Rights Committee in October 2000, "it has been generally presumed, that the government file dealing with the claim  raised by the Hunter's Council in 1959 and 1960 had been lost or misplaced. This summer the material was found in its systematic place in the records of the Ministry of Greenland and the record suggests that the government during the entire process has been in control of the file and deliberately  withholding the evidence." 

Public ignorance prevailed in this period due to the loss of evidence and the quieting of critical voices. In 1961 the editor of the Greenlandic Post received a letter about the relocation from an inhabitant of Thule. The editor showed this letter to the governor, who in turn contacted Eske Brun who commented: "No more force than necessary was used because the U.S. base was placed so close to Thule. Already in 1951 when the U.S. began building the base it was known that the hunting conditions in Thule could be reduced to such a degree that relocation should be considered"; it continued in conflict with the truth: "The old Thule has supposedly never been a good hunting area". The debate ended here and the reader's letter was never published. 

The Resurrection of the Case, 1985 - 2001

The publication in 1985 of Brøsted and Fægteborg's book "Thule - Hunters and Military Installations" played an absolutely crucial role in the reopening of the Thule Airbase Case. Upon its publication the municipality of Thule restated the compensation claim, and the government appointed a review committee in 1987. The review committee, due to finish its work in 1988, concluded in 1994 that the Danish authorities could not be held responsible for the events of 1953. Furthermore, in a letter to the Danish minister for Greenlandic affairs the chairman of the Home Rule Government found "neither juridical nor moral grounds for compensation," which led the Danish government to deny any compensation whatsoever, as Fægteborg notes in a 2001 review of the case. However, a critical resolution set forth by the Danish left wing suggested that the Parliament should intervene and make reparation for the violation. The resolution was rejected.    

But dedicated individuals connected to Thule refused to give up their claim. They contacted the Danish advocate Christian Harlang, who in December 1996, on behalf of the association of those displaced in 1953, Hingitaq-53, submitted four claims to the Danish State: a claim to the right to live and use the old site of Uummannaq, the right to use and hunt in the Thule district, a claim for the collective loss of the community and for individual loss and damages. 

The High Court ruling on August 20, 1999 rejected the claims to land rights and offered minor financial compensation for the claims to damages. The court recognized a conflict between the people's land rights and the presence of the base, but would not rule that the base should be removed because it had been established legally, on the basis of the 1951 treaty between Denmark and the U.S. regarding the defense of Greenland. That is, while private citizens have a right to their land, the State's authority over the land is higher. By contrast, Hingitaq-53 argues that "a mere international treaty was not in itself sufficient legal authority for an encroachment on the private rights of citizens," according to a report by Jens Brøsted to the UN Human Rights Committee.

However, the rights of Greenlandic citizens are debated in this case. The Inuhuit were forced to leave Thule in May 1953, less than a week before Greenland came under the revised Danish Constitution on June 5, 1953. Long before the revision the Danish Constitution recognized respect for home and the inviolability of private property. But the parties to the case debate the role of Danish law in the period before 1953, when Greenland was a colony of Denmark. In a June 19, 2001 interview, Jens Brøsted explains, "In its judgement, the court concludes that it was an act of expropriation, but not an illegal expropriation. Because of the constitutional status at that time, it was not necessary for the Danish State to have justification for the expropriation."

Although Greenland was not yet under the Constitution, other legal precedents existed. In his book, Christian Harlang points out that as early as 1947 the Danish government reported to the UN that "Greenlanders enjoy the same civil rights as Danes regarding freedom of speech, assembly, press, religion, as well as freedom of choice of residence and occupation." But in its argument to the High Court, the government claims exactly the opposite, that these rights do not apply to Greenlanders before their inclusion under the Constitution.  

In an interview of June 19, 2001, Brøsted further points out that there was a law in place before 1953 providing that the Danish government could not encroach on Greenlandic rights. But ignorance of Greenlandic law limits the role that such arguments have played in this case. Brøsted comments, "Greenlandic law is being taught in no place and researched in no place, or at least not in any institutionalized way." 

Ambiguity surrounding Greenlandic law and the relationship between Denmark and Greenland's Home Rule generate problems in the case. For instance, the Danish government argues that international conventions, such as the International Labor Organization Convention 169, do not apply to this case because of the special role of the Home Rule Government in Greenland. According to Jens Brøsted, "the Danish government's attitude has been that the ILO Convention cannot be brought into play by the indigenous people of Thule because under the Home Rule agreement only the Home Rule Government can be held responsible." Brøsted concludes, "As more and more power is transferred from Denmark to the Home Rule government, it happens more and more that the Home Rule Government comes into responsibility (for), and conflict with, indigenous people."

International treaties on human rights and indigenous rights such as Convention 169 play an important role in the case advanced by Hingitaq-53, since the role of Danish law in Greenland is debated. The European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination are relevant to the case, but the most important document is the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. The advocate of the Inuhuit group, Christian Harlang, has argued that Denmark violated Convention 169, while the advocate of Denmark maintains that the Convention is irrelevant to the case for a number of reasons. First, it is argued that Convention 169 was written in 1989 and ratified by Denmark in 1996, so that Denmark was not bound by the Convention at the time of the forced relocation in 1953. Although the government of Denmark cannot be held responsible for breaking the Convention before it was established, by ratifying it Denmark accepted the Convention's ideals on the treatment of indigenous peoples. These ideals do not apply only to an abstract future but also to the recent past. Moreover the Convention explicitly addresses compensation for the past: article 16, point 3 of Convention 169 states that if a people has been forcibly relocated, "whenever possible, these people shall have the right to return to their traditional lands." Point 4 continues that when return is not possible, the people are entitled to "lands of quality and legal status at least equal to that of the lands previously occupied by them" or to other forms of compensation. Thus the Convention applies retroactively to the Thule case.

Denmark also argues that the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples does not apply to this case because this group of people does not qualify as indigenous. According to Jens Brøsted, "before the high court, the Danish Crown argued that the Inuit could not draw on Convention 169 because at the time, in 1951, the people of Thule were indigenous in the sense of the convention" but it argued "now they are fully integrated into Greenland and have no right to their own identity." These issues of integration and identity pose questions for the definition of "indigenous." The argument of the Danish government implies that a people cannot be both integrated and indigenous. An earlier version of the Convention 169, Convention 107 on Indigenous and Tribal Populations written in 1957, argues similarly: it defines indigenous in part by introducing the term "semi-tribal", which includes "groups and persons who, although they are in the process of losing their tribal characteristics, are not yet fully integrated into the national community." Thus "semi-tribal" represents the midway point on the path to full assimilation and freedom from "tribal characteristics." The Danish government restricts its definition of indigenous by maintaining a similar ideal of assimilation. The ILO repudiated such an ideal in 1989 by revising Convention 169 with the main goal of "removing the assimilationist orientation of the earlier standards." Convention 169 now recognizes self-identification as a criterion for being indigenous.

It is important to note that this revision was brought about by the efforts of an Indigenous Rights movement that emerged in the 1970s and brought critical attention to the treatment of indigenous peoples. 

Final Comments and Analysis

The U.S., with the collusion of Denmark, constructed the Thule air base and relocated the inhabitants without the permission or notification of the Thule Hunter's Council; this violation of Convention 169 cannot be reversed. But the continued use of the land demands reparation. There is little hope that the Thule airbase will be removed and the land returned to the Inuhuit because the U.S. military is too deeply entrenched. But in such cases, Convention 169 provides that the indigenous people is entitled to compensation in money or in kind. This award must be granted not only to compensate the Inuhuit, but also to set a precedent for respecting indigenous rights. 

Though the Danish government has tried to place all responsibility for indigenous rights on the Home Rule Government, unfortunately it took as little interest in the claims of the Inuhuit as did the Danish government. Greenland's Home Rule Government has played a limited but increasing role in this case. As Brøsted suggests in an interview of June 19, 2001, to the extent that the Danish government has transferred power and responsibility to the Home Rule Government, it increasingly faces the challenge of dealing justly with indigenous peoples. Thus far the Home Rule Government has not handled this task well, as evidenced by its 1997 agreement with Denmark which secured an expensive civil airstrip in Qaanaaq, Thule as "a satisfactory solution to all remaining questions in the Thule case," according to Information, March 1999. But can human rights really be traded for an air-strip?

The UN and ILO maintain higher standards for human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples, and stand as witnesses to the conduct of Denmark. Since such organizations intend to represent the interests of indigenous people, it is crucial that revisions, like that of Convention 107 to Convention 169, match the varied and changing concerns of indigenous peoples themselves. These conventions then influence the policies of ratifying nations. 

The most disappointing conduct in this case has been that of Denmark. This, the longest running court case in Danish history, reveals an appalling gap between Denmark's officially espoused values on human rights and its actual treatment of the population of the Northernmost corner of the Kingdom of Denmark. Christian Harlang comments on the Thule case on national television: "I honestly find it indecent that the Danish government on the one hand praises human rights and the rights of indigenous people while it, within the territory of the Danish state, completely denies the existence of this people."

Indecency perhaps best describes the Danish authorities' abuse of power, violation of minority rights, and 45 year effort to keep these violations from receiving the attention they deserve. Some of the arguments made by the government to the Danish High Court are ridiculous, some offensive. Although every trial depends on arguments for both sides, let us imagine the reality these arguments propose.

Because the Danish Constitution came into effect on June 5 rather than five days earlier, the Inuhuit possessed no rights and deserved no compensation? Moreover, the case would have been dismissed at the outset since the claim was 45 years old. Yet the government itself delayed the case by not responding and by withholding important case files for up to 20 years! 

Fortunately all societies consist of more than mere authority, and this is no less true in Denmark with regard to the Thule case. This case demonstrates the value of independent and critical faculties within academia, law and journalism. Had it not been for the two dedicated writers, Brøsted and Fægteborg, it seems unlikely that the case would have been raised to the height of the Danish Supreme Court, where it is now being tried, with a ruling expected in the summer of 2002. 


"If you from this case have learned that the Danish bureaucrats and bureaucracy are sometimes lying, then you have learned a lot!"

Professor Isi Foighel, commenting on our findings

Within the rules of the game all tricks apply. The Danish government certainly used all available tricks in its defense. The advocate representing Hingitaq-53, Christian Harlang, in an interview of June 26, 2001, comments that "…the way the lawyer who represents the government has handled the Thule case is an unfortunate continuation of the way the government has handled the whole thing: namely through denials and concealment." On the lessons to be learned from the Thule case Christian Harlang adds: "The Thule case reflects a regrettable tradition within the Danish administration of twisting and withholding the truth and directly spreading lies. It is a working method which the Danish state makes use of, and has used in the Thule case, and unfortunately also in the years after. And that is a threat to democracy."



Jens Brøsted, Political Science, University of Copenhagen

Professor Isi Foighel, telephone conversation

Mads Fægteborg, Arctic Information

Christian Harlang, Advocate, telephone interview 

Niels Helveg Petersen, Member of Parliament, Foreign Minister (1993-200), telephone conversation 


Brøsted, Jens and Mads Fægteborg. "Thule - fangerfolk og militæranlæg," Copenhagen 1985

Brøsted, Jens and Mads Fægteborg. "Expulsion of the Great People. When U.S. Air Force came to Thule. An Analysis of Colonial Myth and Actual Incidents" in Native Power: The Quest for Autonomy and Nationhood of Indigenous People, Bergen 1985

Harlang, Christian, Aqqalak Lynge and Henrik Karl Nielsen."Retten til Thulelandet," Copenhagen 1999

Danish High Court Ruling on the Thule Case, Copenhagen, August 20, 1999

Lunde, Erik. "Thule-folket versus Staten" in Information, March 1, 1991

Other Sources

Bendixen, Søren. "Slæderejsen," Television special, Dags Dato, May 20, 2001

Advocates Christian Harlang and Henrik Karl Nielsen on the Thule Case: www.hknielsen.com

ILO Issues: www.ilo.org

Parliamentary debate on the Thule Case: www.enhedslisten.dk, www.dupi.dk

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