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Self- Rule of Greenland 2009 – a Step Further Towards Independence?

Recently, the citizens of Greenland had much to celebrate during their June 21st Greenlandic National Day.  Thirty years after the enactment of the Greenland Home Rule Act, Greenlanders had finally achieved a change in government as well as an official ratification of self-rule.  
Danish researcher Christina Larsen described Greenland as being enveloped with “a feeling of freedom and cultural independence.”  According to Larsen, who was present during the festivities, this emotion was “very strongly stated by almost everyone wearing their traditional costumes, which decorated cities and villages all over Greenland.”  Vivi Nielsen and Søren Thalund of the Greenlandic House in Copenhagen affirmed that the self-rule was also welcomed in Denmark.  Thousands of people came to the Greenlandic House (Det Grønlanske Hus-Kalaallit Illuutaat) to participate in the ongoing celebration.  As Vivi told us, “it was a very symbolic day, because it is the first time in history that Greenlanders were recognized as people and as a nation.” 
In order to understand the meaning of self-rule, it is important to look at the political history leading up to what is perceived to be a momentous day in Greenlandic history.  

Greenland –from a colonial state to home-rule government

The largest island in the world has a population of less than 60,000 people.  Despite the fact that Greenland geographically forms part of the North American continent, its geopolitical focus is strongly linked to Denmark. With 85% of the island covered in ice, many of its inhabitants are concentrated in spread-out communities--the largest being the capital, Nuuk--that dot the ice-free western coastline. Under Danish colonial rule since 1721, Greenland has often been romanticized as the land of the Inuit "lonely hunter" who is in tune with nature, tradition, and the necessary survival skills for the Arctic wild; or conversely, viewed as a land afflicted with 21st century problems and traditional values gone awry.  These stereotypes overshadow the realities of Greenland and the rights of its inhabitants.
In the past half-century, Denmark's relationship with Greenland has been constantly evolving. While Greenland’s colonial status was officially lifted in 1953, it was during this same period that Denmark's colonial grip on Greenland actually intensified. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Greenland underwent a process of "Danization" which entailed monetary support and control by the Danish State, as well as the implementation of Danish institutions in order to “better” the nation. 
In 1979, the Greenland Home Rule Act was passed. This move toward autonomy meant that the Greenlandic Parliament would be responsible for the administrative departments within the country that had been under the control of Denmark, such as those related to education, economy, and domestic policy.  Yet, many other departments established during the colonial period were still under Danish administration. 


In 2005 the Greenland Home Rule and Danish Government established a joint committee consisting of Danish and Greenlandic parliamentarians.  Given a mandate to update Greenland’s political system, the committee issued a report in 2008 which was endorsed by the Danish and Greenlandic Government.   The report was subsequently approved by 75% of the Greenlandic electorate, and ultimately, the Danish Parliament ratified legislation on June 21, 2009 which enacted self-governance.
The most immediate changes to Greenland’s political establishment are that Greenlandic has now become the official language, replacing Danish, and the country is now known by its Innuit name, Naalakkersuisut.  Furthermore, Greenland will have greater control of its natural resources.  And finally, a procedure will be instituted which will enable Greenland to become an independent sovereign state, should Greenlanders vote in favor. 

Self-Rule – Discussion

Frank Sejersen

Changes such as making the Inuit dialect of Kalaallisut the official language, and using the title Naalakkersuisut instead of Greenland, symbolically mark the country’s transition toward self-determination. Despite Greenland’s commitment to self-rule, calling a nation "independent," according to Professor of Eskimology Frank Sejersen, "erodes understanding of the reality" of the situation.  Instead, the idea of sovereignty that is derived from being recognized as a people separate from Denmark and other nations provides, as Sejersen says, "a greater platform of which to define independence."  Self-determination is about feeling comfortable with the political systems in place, and this involves rebuilding those structures that were implemented by the colonizer while moving away from the colonial imprint left by Denmark.  Although Sejersen points out that questions of cultural identity do not normally crop up within the daily lives of Greenlanders, the symbolic enactment of self-rule might kindle a desire to deal with problems confronting the country.  

Else Christensen

Psychologist Else Christensen, Senior Researcher at The National Institute for Social Research, was much more reluctant to discuss the negative ramifications that could possibly be incurred by the Greenlanders due to self-rule.  Viewing the process as a part of the "baby steps toward emancipation," Christensen found it difficult to state her opinion on what will come from self-rule because what matters now is, quite simply, hope.  For Christensen, the hope that exists in Greenland at the moment is important for people because it convinces them that "they have a possibility to change the country and improve their own lives."  Beyond self-rule, it is the election of Prime Minister Keist, as well as the first change in government that Greenlanders have seen since the Home Rule Act was passed thirty years earlier, that makes the sense of change and energy palpable within the newly-independent nation. Christensen chose not to focus on the "hangover" effect that individuals such as Sejersen brought up when discussing the realities of what self-rule could bring.  Rather, from a psychological point of view, she emphasized the feeling of being recognized as a useful starting point in terms of solving problems.  Christensen already has witnessed this change: whereas last year the Prime Minister denied the existence of impoverished children within Greenland, the new government has already taken steps in recognizing that such issues exist. In place of the denial of problems as a way of overcompensating for non-recognition, the self-rule initiates a spirit of renewal and the drive to come to terms with current problems within society.   

Tina Frausing

Self-governance is going to be a difficult situation for Greenland in the coming years, because they have to deal with many issues that pose huge challenges, according to Tina Frausing, Secretary General of ”Foreningen Grønlandske Børn” (Union of Greenlandic Children).
In spite of these challenges, Frausing argues that from the perspective of the citizens of Greenland, the transition to self-rule is a natural turn of events.  This represents a new opinion on her part; only one month earlier, prior to the shift in government, she had expressed an inability to see any sort of transition as positive.  Now, describing the former Greenlandic government that ruled for thirty years as “disastrous,” Frausing foresees the new government as a part of “a whole new generation leading Greenland.”  The leading political party considers itself to be “internationalist” symbolizing for Frausing and others a shift toward becoming “part of the international society based on the Greenlandic values and culture.”
Unfortunately, posits Frausing, very few Danes are interested in or knowledgeable about Greenland. “It´s like that all over Denmark,” she sighs. Despite the fact that Greenland has been considered a part of Denmark for almost 300 years, Frausing is amazed to encounter many Danes who lack knowledge about Greenland, some even believing that the average Greenlander lives in igloos. “They do not see Greenland as the modern society that it is.”  The Self-Governance will most probably change this perception.

Adam Worm

According to Adam Worm, Senior Advisor at the Greenland Representation in Denmark, there are political and psychological aspects to the new self-rule that must be acknowledged. 
The political aspect derives from the fact that the Danish Government recognizes Greenlanders as a people with the right to independence according to international law:
Recognizing that the people of Greenland are a people pursuant to international law with the right of self-determination, the Act is based on a wish to foster equality and mutual respect in the partnership between Denmark and Greenland. Accordingly, the Act is based on an agreement between Naalakkersuisut (Government of Greenland) and the Danish Government as equal partners. (Draft translation, Preamble, The Act on Greenland Self-Government.) 
The law of self-determination means that if Greenland desires independence, it is the Greenlandic people who will determine whether the country should be independent.
The psychological point, Worm contends, is that self-governance enables the Greenlanders to feel that they are on an equal footing with the Danes, even though, as Worm argues, facts indicate that Greenland will be economically and politically dependent on Denmark for many years to come.  
An example of this political and economic dependence concerns the national resources that might be discovered in Greenland.  The new act states that Greenland has full ownership of resources, yet profits from the exploitation of these resources have to be shared with Denmark.  Any income that might accrue has to be divided in such a way that the first 25 million Danish Krone (approximately 900,000) go to Greenland, and the rest will be divided between Greenland and Denmark.  

Vivi and Søren

Vivi Nielsen and Søren Thalund, at the Greenlandic House (Kalaallit Illuutaat), express another point of view.  Like Tina Frausing, they believe that it is not just the ratification of self-rule but also the change in government leadership that symbolizes a new future. They propose that the new self-rule serves as an emotional, as opposed to practical, benchmark within Greenlandic history.  Nielsen and Thalund also contend that the warming climate is a good thing for the country. As Thalund, who formerly worked in the Greenland tourism industry, explained it, climate change has opened up new avenues of revenue and increased farming. “Greenland is becoming green,” they both said.
Although Greenland now has self-rule, that does not mean that it automatically becomes independent. Together with the Faroe Islands, Greenland will still be a part of the Danish Kingdom and Greenlanders will still be Danish citizens. 
As Nielsen and Thalund have emphasized, self-government in Greenland would not have much significance if it were not for the newly elected government. Most Greenlanders craved change, and this was achieved with the election of Prime Minister Kleist as well as the establishment of self-governance.  These events to many Greenlanders symbolize a better future for Greenlandic society.  

The Future is a Mystery

From our interviews, it became clear that the Act on Greenland Self-Government holds tremendous symbolic and emotional value for the Greenlanders.  All of those whom we interviewed agreed that the psychological importance of being recognized as an independent people is a positive starting point for effecting change.  However, there is the fear among Greenlanders that if the economy plummets, this experiment in self-rule will fail.  Therefore, issues directly related to this immediate crisis must remain at the forefront.  Else Christensen put it best: "if the economy falls down, then there is no country." 



Secretariat of the Cabinet, "The Greenland Self-Government Process", Grønlands Hjemmestyre

Personal Interviews

Christensen, Else. Senior Researcher at The National Institute for Social Research. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
Frausing, Tina. Secretary General, Foreningen Grønlandske Børn. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
Nielsen, Vivi and Søren Thalund. Culture and Information Worker, Det Grønlandske Hus. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
Sejersen, Frank. Associate Professor, Eskimolgy and Arctic Studies, Copenhagen University. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
Worm, Adam. Senior Advisor, Greenland Representation. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.

E-mail Correspondence 

Larsen, Christina. Researcher in Greenland. Nuuk, Greenland. June 31, 2009.
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Denmark Denmark 2009


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