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Greenlanders in Denmark: a Realistic Perspective of a Varied Group


Image and Reality

Aqqalu Rosing-Asuid and Jytte Lindskov Jacobsen are 42 years old.  Aqqalu is currently undertaking the final research towards his Ph.D. in biology while Jytte holds the position of chief nurse at the Danish national hospital, Rigshospitalet. The couple and their two children will be moving back to their native country, Greenland, by the end of this week.

To most Danes, being Greenlandic means having serious social and substance abuse problems, and to some it even means coming from a backward culture.  There’s a well-known saying used to describe someone who is very drunk that goes, “Drunk as a Greenlander.”  This family is just one case to prove that the general prejudice against Greenlanders is plainly not true.  Here’s another example:  Julie Berthelsen, in her early twenties, has already studied medicine and, incidentally, she is now one of the most famous popstars in Denmark.  While newspaper articles keep a heavy focus on the destitute - the sensational - Julie is important in changing public Danish perception of the “typical Greenlander.”

So what do Danes envision when they think of Greenlanders? Perhaps they may recall what is most publicly visible – the socially excluded Greenlanders of Vesterbro Torv or Christiania, a counter-culture commune in the heart of Copenhagen where hash is openly sold.  They are often homeless and flagrantly drunk, contrasting sharply with a relatively reserved Danish culture.

Actually, according to recent studies, the destitute Greenlanders only constitute approximately 10% of the Greenlandic population in Denmark.  Thus the vast majority of Greenlanders, estimated to be between 7,000-9,000, lead lives similar to that of any other Dane but have to nevertheless reckon with a both unfair and misrepresentative stereotype of indigence.  It is exactly this stereotype that Helene Risager, Information Manager of Copenhagen’s Greenlandic House, bemoans when she relates her experiences at social functions:  “They say ‘Oh, you don’t look like a Greenlander,’ and they mean it like a compliment, but if they saw me with a beer in my hand they would say that I look like a Greenlander.”

Such an image distortion mirrors a real problem that has proven two-fold.  On the one hand, the majority of Greenlanders in Denmark, a well-functioning group, must deal with an unfair prejudice.  On the other hand, the group of socially excluded faces distinct problems that need greater and more specific attention.  Helene Risager cogently sums up this predicament: “They are our images... they are our friends but also our enemies.”  There is clearly a need for more balanced accounts of Greenlanders in Denmark.  The difficulty lies in creating such an account without belittling the serious problems of the lower tenth percentile.  

Danish Double Standards

In spite of Denmark’s international renown as a champion of indigenous people’s rights, it has so far been quite reluctant to take a similar stance on the home turf. When Denmark in 1997 ratified the European Council’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, it only granted status as a national minority to the Germans living in the southern part of Denmark (Jutland). Besides the European territory of Denmark, the North-Atlantic Faroe Islands (another former colony of Denmark) and Greenland belong to Denmark, and the inhabitants are Danish citizens. 

Endowing national minority status to the Greenlanders residing in Denmark would provide directly claimable rights regarding language, culture and traditions.  A member of the Danish and Greenlandic Parliament, Kuupik Kleist, who is elected in Greenland puts the point in even stronger terms: “Our goal is to be recognized as a people in our own right... being recognized as a nation is better than being granted status as a national minority, because it also entitles us to our own land.”  True, Greenlanders are Danish citizens.  However, their unique cultural and historical situation makes the case for granting them distinctive rights, especially with the colonial responsibility of Denmark in mind.  There is an undeniable Greenlandic nationhood that merits recognition, even if political ambiguities have skirted the issue thus far.  

More cynically, simple ignorance could explain the absence of substantial action with respect to Greenlanders in Denmark.  Commenting on his parliamentary experiences, Kuupik Kleist wearily mentions, “It seems like the Danish politicians are not really aware of what the issue truly is.”  Helene Risager seems to agree:  “It is very hard to be an Information Manager in Denmark because the knowledge of Greenland is so low in Denmark... I don’t understand that since we have been living together for more than 300 years! We know a lot more about the Danes then they know about us.”  Even though Greenland is now a legally equal part of Denmark, this lack of awareness reflects the enduring existence of mental colonialism.

Up until 1953 Greenland was a Danish colony, kept as a reservation with hardly any contact with the rest of the world. Interaction with the Danish colonizers was strongly discouraged. After this date a process of forced modernization began, widely disseminating the Danish culture and language at the expense of the original tongue and tradition. A move for increasing independence has gradually been taking place since then, with the Home Rule Act of 1979 as a poignant turning point.  This act granted autonomy to the Greenlandic Parliament in all areas but foreign and monetary affairs, and remains the situation for the 55,000 Greenlanders today. Henriette Berthelsen, a Greenlander based in Copenhagen, describes the consequently rapid development of the Greenlandic society thus: “My mother was born on the dirt floor of a cave, and now lives in an apartment watching satellite TV everyday.”

Cultural Differences: Barriers or Doors

There is a recurrent tension that haunts every aspect of the Greenlandic experience in Denmark.  It is the unsettling decision of whether to move forward and westernize or to “stay behind” and keep one’s tradition alive.  Some have described it as a pendulum, while others have described it as a battle of history versus progress.  There is sometimes the latent fear that if Greenlanders enmesh themselves too much into Danish society then Greenland per se diminishes its chances of ever becoming its own nation-state.  According to Kuupik Kleist, the Greenlandic and Danish Parliament member, “Independence is the goal,” and simply granting national minority status would do nothing positive for the future of Greenland.  

The future of Greenland is not just a lurking problem for politicians, either.  When we asked Aqqalu and Jytte if they feel any responsibility for Greenland, they sighed heavily and exchanged significant glances.  Jytte explained, “We talk about this all the time...  somewhere you feel that you have to do something... it’s our country, but it may also be our children’s’ futures... we feel we are a part of it.”  Clearly for many, the connection to Greenland evades rationality and becomes something much more personal and cultural.

Fortunately, cultural difference is not always a hindrance.  Some people see biculturalism as an advantage, as do Aqqalu and Jytte, “It’s a great opportunity; you get a lot from it.”  In fact, though Jytte is very happy with her job in Copenhagen, the couple would never consider staying only in Denmark.  They see the opportunities that result from maintaining both cultures as too great to keep from their children.  “It would be unfair.”

The holistic world-view of traditional Inuit society is a far cry from the linear, rational thinking that underpins an industrialized, Western society. The culture clash when the two meet proves inevitable. Henriette Berthelsen gives the following example to illustrate the differences in culture: “When I get a visit from Greenland and bring them to a flea market, and somebody demands 50 kroner for something, they just pay without protest. A Dane would maybe bargain the price to 40 kroner, whereas an immigrant would go on haggling until the price was 25 kroner” and she continues: “This illustrates the differences in culture: Greenlanders do not question what other people say. Greenlanders are more passive and accept whatever is presented to them.” 

To make it in the Danish society you have to be aggressive and demanding, and ready to challenge the status quo. For a Greenlander needing help this presents a special problem: first, asking for help is awkward and foreign to their natural behavior and second, Greenlanders are wary of speaking up for themselves when not treated fairly or according to the relevant standards.  In a broader perspective, this could explain why Greenlanders are less outspoken than other minority groups in the public sphere.

Most Greenlanders, especially the ones residing in Denmark, have two identities. As Aqqalu and Jytte put it, “We are both Danes and Greenlanders.  Both feel like home.”  And Helene Risager affirms, “Absolutely!  I’m both, yes.”  Being born and brought up in Greenland, but with a strong Danish influence in the educational system, combined with spells of stays in Denmark for educational or other purposes, seem to create advantageously dual identities.  

Lack of Awareness

The ability to make something positive of both identities correlates strongly to a high level of confidence in each.  Kurt Olsen, head of department at Kofoeds Skole, a shelter and educational institution for marginalized groups in Copenhagen, has extensive knowledge of the problems that can arise when such a level of confidence is lacking. He posits, “development towards being a whole person can first take place when they have grown confident enough of themselves and of their own culture – when they have accepted their own Greenlandic identity. Many Greenlanders have been brought up to believe that everything Greenlandic is worse than, or not as good as, Danish.” In order to achieve this end of greater bicultural regard, Kurt Olsen has set up workshops for socially excluded Greenlanders in Denmark that focus on cultivating an appreciation for traditional Greenlandic arts and crafts.

Greenlandic National Day, celebrated on June 21, illustrates the symbiosis of Danish and Greenlandic identity.  On one hand it pays tribute to Greenlandic culture and folklore, but on the other hand it also stresses the close ties between Demark and Greenland.  Among other places, the day was celebrated at the Greenlandic House in Copenhagen with speeches, choirs and entertainment for the children.  Both Greenlanders and Danes attended the event, some even wearing traditional clothes.  Speeches were bilingual and a Greenlandic culture prize was awarded to commend outstanding work in both Greenlandic circles but also within the Danish community.  Helene Risager, one of the event’s organizers, characterizes National Day as “a bit hysteric” and not an original part of Greenlandic culture:  “We just created it.”  

The day exemplifies the growing national consciousness of Greenlanders in Denmark that parallels certain nationalistic developments in Greenland’s Home rule policies since 1979.  For instance there, the Danish language has been progressively down-prioritized, excluding persons with little or no Danish knowledge from higher education (which is only available in Danish).  Aqqalu and Jytte describe this nationalistic flux as a pendular movement that has now gone too far toward Greenlandization.  Julie Berthelsen, the singer, says something similar when expressing her frustration with the entire language debate: “The language discussion is stupid... the two languages should be on an equal footing.”  

Legal Recognition and Equality

While for many Greenlanders the tension symbolizes an attempt to balance two identities, Denmark’s legal blindness to Greenlandic identity creates its own set of problems.  A striking example of this is the absence of reliable statistics for Greenlanders in Denmark.  Danes and Greenlanders alike share the same CPR numbers, part of a personal identification system that underpins the contact between individuals and the state.  It is thus impossible to statistically distinguish between each group, making research of Greenlanders much harder than for any other minority.  

Denmark’s divergent stances towards its former colonies become evident when taking note that a separate CPR system exists for the Faroese Islanders, a Scandinavian people similar to the Danes.  The Danish government’s blatant insistence on the sameness of Danes and Greenlanders (contrasted to the Danish allowance for the Faroese to distinguish themselves) reveals an unwillingness to deal with the cultural differences and recognize Greenlanders as a people in their own right.   

The social services available to Greenlanders, especially compared to other immigrant groups, are thus wanting.  Pre-planned integration packages are offered and even highly promoted for other immigrant groups, such as state-sponsored language instruction, proactive jobseeking support, etc.  By virtue of their Danish citizenship Greenlanders are ironically put at a disadvantage because they are deprived of such focused aids. Greenlanders are entitled to join the language education provided for immigrants, but due to their somewhat different situation they tend not to make use of it.  Kurt Olsen notes, “having grown up in Greenland means having a large passive Danish vocabulary, even while only speaking Greenlandic.” The language instruction catering for immigrants thus misfires when trying to apply to newly arrived Greenlanders.

Obviously, this condition calls for alternative measures, measures taking the special situation of Greenlanders into account - culturally, linguistically and socially. Henriette Berthelsen, a government appointee of the Council for the Socially Excluded, an advisory body on these issues, suggests various ways to sensitize the social system. These include having consultants at the regional level with special knowledge of Greenlandic issues that municipalities with fewer Greenlandic inhabitants can call upon when needed. For the municipalities with a larger Greenlandic population – usually the places where the incidence of serious problems is highest – Henriette Berthelsen suggests special education and training for social workers. Instead of spreading the aid-seeking Greenlanders to all the social workers within a municipality (distributed evenly because of their Danish citizenship), she wants there to be a concentrated group of social workers with more expertise, including linguistic, to whom Greenlanders may turn. 

The Greenlandic culture, emphasizing humbleness and not interposing oneself, spells out the need for proactive outreach work focusing on the most disadvantaged of the group. Kofoeds Skole has extensive experience in this field. According to Kurt Olsen, the main purpose of such activities is to gain the trust of the worst off Greenlanders.  Only after such a trust has been established, counseling can begin. When asked about the possibility of rehabilitation, Kurt Olsen replied, “that depends on how you define rehabilitation. To some of these people a goal of getting off welfare and into regular employment is clearly unrealistic. But it is possible to markedly better the quality of life for everyone in this group.” The importance of outreach work is underlined by one of the personal stories in the documentary “Inuk Woman City Blues,” depicting a group of women on Vesterbro Torv, a square in the centre of Copenhagen: “I’m so grateful that somebody asked if I wanted to join an alcohol detox program.  Had I not gotten that question I would still have been an alcoholic to this day, or maybe even dead.” 

As has already been suggested, granting status as a national minority would enhance the quality of life for more Greenlanders. Furthermore, the Danish reluctance to grant this status verges on the illogical. Implementing the provisions of the convention would not result in noteworthy burdens to the Danish state, but it would yield a more focused agenda.  Also, the demands of the convention – being only a framework convention - are drafted in very vague terms, posing few concrete stipulations.  Article 10, Provision 2, is an amusing example of such ambiguous phrasing: “In areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities traditionally or in substantial numbers, if those persons so request and where such a request corresponds to a real need, the Parties shall endeavor to ensure, as far as possible, the conditions which would make it possible to use the minority language in relations between those persons and the administrative authorities.”  Furthermore, the Danish government argues that, given the wide autonomy under the Home Rule, special protection under the convention is not necessary. 

It would seem, then, that there is little point in granting this status. We disagree.  We find that the official recognition of the Greenlandic people implicit in the granting of status as a national minority is positive, not least in light of the colonial history, but also taking into account the  many examples of discriminating treatment.  Also, it is important to secure political practices, such as the right to be taught in your own language, within binding international law. Human rights are in many ways a last resort, and should as such take care of the protection of those who find themselves in a worst case scenario. The protection vested in international law would create a further safeguard from shifting political whims in Denmark. The argument of the Danish government that the existence of Home Rule provisions absolves the Danish state from recognizing Greenlanders as a national minority is shallow. The Home Rule only has jurisdiction in Greenland, but granting status as a national minority would also provide protection and rights to Greenlanders residing in other parts of Denmark, whom we have repeatedly shown to be overlooked. 

Even though the vast majority of Greenlanders in Denmark succeeds it does not mean that the few who do indeed go to the bottom of society do not warrant extensive rights.  Human rights issues become only increasingly important to those who are highly exposed to social exclusion.  

Resource Instead of Burden

The granting of rights would be a step forward in the legal sphere.  But there must also be a more realistic understanding of how Greenlanders live in Denmark.  A difficult balance must be struck between giving fair attention to the socially excluded but also realizing that they are only 10% of the whole group.  Henriette Berthelsen sees signs of this transition already: “Finally, there are Greenlanders on TV, commenting on Greenlandic issues, instead of Danes being the experts.”  Julie Berthelsen, one of those Greenlanders on TV, says “I’ve been told by many people that I have made them realize that everything is possible, not only here but in Greenland, too.”

As positive Greenlandic role models move into the media, it is also important for less visible Greenlanders to play an active role in society, and assert themselves with a greater pride in their cultural duality.  As mentioned above, the doors that biculturalism opens can be many, and the advantages do not even have to be exclusive to Greenlanders.  As Danish citizens, there are many things Greenlanders could contribute to Danish society if it is receptive.  In other words, a lot could be gained by seeing Greenlanders as a cultural resource instead of as a burden.  The reciprocal relationship between Greenlanders and Danes within Denmark should be emphasized more, and policies should reflect such an equal standing.  As Henriette Berthelsen says, “We have a lot to learn from each other.” 





Berthelsen, Julie, Singer, medical student, former TV presenter (Greenlander)

Berthelsen, Henriette, Nurse, Psychotherapist, Consultant in Greenlandic issues (Greenlander)

Jacobsen, Jytte Lindskov, Chief nurse, Danish National Hospital (Greenlander)

Kleist, Kuupik, Member of the Danish and Greenlandic Parliaments, Inuit Ataqatigiit Party (Greenlander)

Olsen, Kurt, Head of department, Greenlandic section, Kofoeds Skole, Copenhagen

Risager, Helene, Information manager, The Greenlandic House, Copenhagen (Greenlander)

Rosing-Asuid, Aqqalu, Ph.D.-student, University of Copenhagen (Greenlander)


Inuk Woman City Blues, Documentary, Niels Vest Production, Copenhagen 2002

Kleist, Kuupik, Speech given at the ocasion of the Greenlandic National Day, Greenlandic House, Copenhagen, June 21 2003

Togeby, Lise “Grønlændere i Danmark – en overset minoritet”, Aarhus University Press, 2002

European Council Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, 1995


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