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West Greenland Inuit

West Greenland Inuit

ETHNONYM: Kalaallit


Identification. The origin of the name "Kalaallit" is not certain, but it has been interpreted as derived from Old Norse skraelling. It was recorded in South Greenland in the Beginning of the eighteenth century. At the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, "Kalaallit" came in general use all along the coast spread by Greenlandic catechists educated in Nuuk (Godthab) and through publications in Greenlandic. "Inuit" is now being used as the Common name for Eskimo.

Location. The West Greenland Eskimo occupy the west coast of Greenland from Melville Bay to the Kap Farvel area. Only the coast is habitable, 85 percent of Greenland being covered by an ice sheet. Off the coast are numerous islands, and the coast itself is marked by deep fjords. Generally speaking, the winters are long and cold and the summers short and cool, with climatic variation from north to south. Linguistic Affiliation. The West Greenlandic language, Kalaallisut, Greenlandic, or Kitaamiutut, West Greenlandic, belongs to the Inuit-Inupiaq (Eastern Eskimo) group. The various dialects of West Greenland are mutually intelligible. Presently the great majority of Greenlanders use Kalaallisut as their first language and Danish as their second; English is also taught at schools. The Greenland Home Rule Act (1978) states that Greenlandic shall be the principal Language.

Demography. According to a census of 1789 the West Greenlanders numbered 5,122, not including small populations in the marginal areas. The population was decimated by epidemics, especially by a smallpox epidemic in 1733-1734. From 1900 to 1950, the population nearly doubled from 11,118 to 20,730, and during the next twenty years it doubled again because of better health services combined with a higher standard of living. From 1975 to 1980, the population was nearly stable owing to contraception and abortions. Since 1980 the population has been slowly increasing. Presently about 80 percent of the population of West Greenland are Greenlanders; 20 percent are Danes, most of whom reside for only a short period of time in Greenland. As of January 1, 1989, 41,633 people, in a population of 49,976, were native-born in Greenland. The great majority of Greenlanders are West Greenlanders. The corresponding figure for the whole of Greenland was 55,171, including the population in East Greenland and the Thule area.

History and Cultural Relations

Groups of Eskimos have at various times migrated via the Canadian Arctic islands into Greenland. The Paleo-Eskimo were represented by the Saqqaq culture and the Dorset Culture (c. 3000 b.c. to c. a.d. 900). The Neo-Eskimo, the Thule Eskimo, arrived in Greenland about a.d. 900. They were the first Eskimos encountered by Europeans, Norse settlers from Iceland who lived in Southwest Greenland from about a.d. 982 to 1500. During the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries the West Greenlanders occasionally had contact with European explorers and whalers and some trading took place, but it was the Danish-Norwegian colonization efforts in 1721 that resulted in radical changes of West Greenland culture and society. In the eighteenth century mission and trading stations were established all along the coast. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the population of southern East Greenland settled in southern West Greenland. The Colonial administration was paternalistic and the isolationist policy was not abandoned until after World War II, when modernization of the Greenlandic society accelerated as a result of the state-directed development policy.


In aboriginal times the population had a differentiated ecological adaptation, but generally speaking people spent the winters in small scattered settlements on the coast, with Summers spent in camps in the fjords. Over the years, the number of inhabited places has been decreasing, and the towns growing at the expense of the villages. The largest town, the capital and administrative center, Nuuk (Godthab) is situated on the section of coast where sea travel is possible all year round. In the eighteenth century the winter houses were built of stone and peat. Illumination came from small windows of seal intestines sewn together and from soapstone blubber lamps. These lamps also heated the room, and meat was boiled in soapstone pots suspended over the lamps. Summers were spent in tents of sealskin covering a frame of driftwood, and cooking was done outdoors over an open fire. The big winter longhouses were gradually abandoned in the nineteenth Century and replaced by small houses lined with imported wood. Later on these were made only from wood and were often of poor quality. The majority of houses are now of a modern design. The larger towns are dominated by apartment houses, and nearly all houses in the villages are single-family houses.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally, the West Greenland Eskimos were hunters. The principal prey were various kinds of seals hunted from the kayak or from the ice with highly specialized weapons. Small whales were also hunted from the kayak, and bigger whales were hunted from the umiaq, which was otherwise used for Transportation. Catching sea birds and fishing also played a role. During the summer, caribou were hunted inland. Much of the West Greenland population shifted from seal hunting to fishing for cash during the first part of the twentieth century. The fishing industry, which is mostly based on cod, shrimp, and Greenland halibut, is now modernized. It is Greenland's principal industry, but it is highly vulnerable to climatic shifts. Subsistence hunting and fishing are still important, and the sale of sealskins plays a role in northern West Greenland. Greenlandic hunters have been economically affected by the international actions against the killing of "baby" seals, even if these are not killed by Greenlandic hunters. Sheep keeping was introduced in South Greenland at the beginning of the twentieth century, and some families have since had their main income from sheep. In addition to wage labor in the fishing industry, many Greenlanders are employees in trade, restaurants, hotels, transport, building, construction, and public service. The public authorities play a dominating role as employers; about two-thirds of all wage earners are employed by the Greenland Home Rule Government, the municipalities, or the Danish government. Dogs used for sledging were the only domestic animals in aboriginal times. Dog sledges are not found south of Sisimiut (Holsteinsborg). Sheep holders have imported small Icelandic horses. Reindeer breeding was introduced in the Godthabfjord in 1952.

During the colonial period a number of Greenlandic men were trained as catechists for the church and the schools or as artisans, and some women were trained as midwives. The modernization of Greenlandic society after World War II increased the variety of jobs. A growing number of Greenlanders are now completing some sort of vocational training, half of them women.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included making stone blades for knives and harpoonheads, soapstone carving for lamps and pots, preparing needles and other items from bone, and making sledges and so on from driftwood. Clothes were primarily made from sealskins, and caribou, dog, and bird skins were also used for winter clothing. Bead collars on Women's coats were made from colored glass obtained from Europeans. Dresses combining Greenlandic and European materials and styles are used by both sexes on festive occasions, thereby stressing their Greenlandic national identity.

Trade. Barter took place on a limited scale between people from different localities when they met at summer camps. In South Greenland, West Greenlanders met with East Greenland Eskimos who wanted to obtain European goods. Before the colonial period, West Greenlanders had access to items of metal and so on through contact with European whalers. For nearly two hundred years the Royal Greenland Trade Company had a monopoly both on buying Greenlandic products like skins, blubber, and fish and selling European goods. In the 1980s, the various sectors were taken over by the Greenland Home Rule Government.

Division of Labor. Men were responsible for hunting, both sexes did some fishing, and women flensed the seals and prepared the food and clothing. Men made both their own implements and those used by the women of their family. At present, many women, especially in the towns, have jobs outside the home and at the same time play a central role in the household.

Land Tenure. All inhabitants of a settlement shared the hunting grounds, even if a regular return to a summer camp with limited resources seems to have granted a certain priority right. Even today, all land in Greenland is public property. Free building land is placed at everyone's disposal. The Home Rule Act states that the resident population of Greenland has fundamental rights to the natural resources of Greenland, but prospecting and exploitation of nonliving resources are regulated by an agreement between the Danish government and the Greenlandic government.


Kin Groups and Descent. Aboriginal West Greenland Eskimo society was organized on the basis of kinship ties, and kinship is still of great importance even if it has been weakened by acculturation. The nuclear family was the basic unit, but it rarely lived by itself. The Eskimo kinship system is bilateral, and a person's network of relatives comprises both biological and affinal relatives.

Kinship Terminology. The Eskimo terminological system is followed. In daily interaction, personal names are often replaced by kinship terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Most marriages were monogamous, but Polygyny was occasionally practiced. No marriage ceremony existed before the advent of Christianity. Divorce was not Unusual as long as a couple had no children. After the introduction of Christianity this pattern changed completely, and divorce was not legalized in Greenland until the passage of a marriage code in 1955. Virilocality was predominant, but in case of a shortage of hunters in the wife's family, the young couple might settle there. Today, young couples and many single persons as well move to a home of their own if it is possible to acquire one.

Domestic Unit. Several extended families, who probably often were related, spent the winters together, but during the summer the families who had shared a longhouse lived in separate tents in camps. Over the years, the households have become smaller, with an average of 3.3 persons per dwelling in Greenland in 1988.

Inheritance. When the head of a family died, his personal belongings were usually placed in the grave. If the oldest son was already in possession of an umiaq and a tent, or if he was still a child, these items went to someone else, who was then obliged to support the widow and her small children.

Socialization. Children were and still are given much attention. They were brought up permissively but disciplined by mockery and ostracism, and occasionally by threats of interference by external non-Eskimo agents. They learn from experience to cope with unexpected difficulties. Children must learn to control themselves and not show open aggressiveness. At present, some of the responsibility of the upbringing of children has been transferred to kindergartens and schools where different methods and other values may prevail.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In aboriginal times, no class distinction existed, but great hunters who were generous were afforded much prestige. Various kinds of dyadic relationships were known: there were men who occasionally borrowed each other's wife, and persons who had a joking relationship as regular opponents in song duels or exchanged rare food. Sharing of food was essential for survival. Hunters taking part in the same hunt had the right to certain parts of an animal killed by any of them, and gifts of meat were presented to all families of the settlements. Intermarriage with Danish men between the middle of the eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth century resulted in the formation of a specific Socioeconomic category with Greenlandic ethnic identity and Greenlandic as its first language. Many members of these families were employed by the mission and the trading Company. Since the 1950s, a considerable number of marriages between Greenlanders and Danes, including Greenlandic men and Danish women have taken place.

Political Organization. Prior to contact with Europeans, centralized political authority did not exist. Danish-Norwegian colonization, which began in 1721, resulted over time in the population scattered along the immense coast being considered as one people. In the early 1860s, a limited kind of municipal self-government was introduced. In 1908, a law secured the establishment of two provincial councils, and in 1950 they were merged into one. According to the Danish constitution of 1953, Greenland became an integrated part of Denmark, and it has since then sent two representatives to the Danish parliament. In 1979, home rule was established within the unity of the Danish realm, and the provincial council was replaced by a home rule parliament and a government. Greenland is a member of the Nordic Council and of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

Conflict and Social Control. Direct confrontation was avoided and still is. In aboriginal times, song duels held in a festive atmosphere were a major mechanism of social control. Opponents from different settlements took turns singing, insulting each other, and praising themselvesbehaviors that would be unthinkable in any other social context. The spectators showed their approbation and displeasure of the performance and tension was released. Conflicts might also be resolved simply by withdrawal. The most extreme form was a person leaving for the wilderness as a qivittoq, who, it was assumed, received supernatural powers. Leaving human society in this way was a revenge against those who had treated the person badly. A murder was expected to be followed by blood revenge by a near relative, even if many years might pass Before it was carried out. It was also considered a duty to kill a sorcerer who was suspected of having caused another person's death. Although incidents of violence occurred between West Greenland Eskimos and European whalers and explorers in the early contact period, the history of colonization is nearly free of incidents of physical violence between Greenlanders and Europeans. Some resistance did take placefor example, as protest movements among converts. In the twentieth century, disagreement both with Danes and among Greenlanders themselves has been expressed within a Political framework. A modern criminal code based on resocialization was introduced in 1954. Since then, alcohol abuse has resulted in many social tragedies and violent deaths. At Present, nonnatural deaths (accidents, suicides, homicides) constitute about one-third of all deaths in Greenland. The high suicide rate is thought to result from rapid cultural change.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. According to aboriginal belief, every animal had both a soul like a human being and an inua, that is, a man, owner, or lord. The sea, the sun, the moon, a cliff, even sleep and laughter, also had a human quality expressed by an inua. Numerous taboos were attached to birth, death, and hunting. Violation of taboos caused harm not only to the violator but also to other persons, even the entire settlement. Revealing the taboo violation had a neutralizing effect. The inua of the sea, or Sea Woman (Sedna), the inua of the air (Sila) and the inua of the moon, or Moon-Man, were very sensitive to transgressions of taboos and rituals concerning the animals and life crises. The first missionary arrived in 1721. At present, the Greenlandic Evangelic Lutheran church is nearly universal.

Religious Practitioners. Most shamans (angakkut )the religious expertswere men, but women might also become shamans. Qilallit were persons, mostly old women, with an ability to get an answer from a spirit by lifting the head of a person lying on the ground. Ilisiitsut, sorcerers or witches, mostly old women, were people who secretly, through magical means, tried to destroy the health or hunting luck of others. Ceremonies. Given that the people's whole existence depended upon hunting and fishing, a good relationship with animals was of vital importance. Technical skills in hunting, as well as observations of taboos and use of amulets and secret songs, were considered necessary to ensure a good hunt. A ritual distribution of the meat of the first seal killed by a boy would ensure his success as a future hunter. The first kill of the season of certain animals was also distributed. During seances, the shaman's spirit-helpers served as informers and as an entertaining element. According to myths, the shaman might undertake a journey to the Sea Woman to make her release the sea animals she was holding back because of People's violation of taboos.

Arts. Singing was integrated into many aspects of social life. Most songs were performed by soloists, sometimes accompanied by the audience. The tambourine drum disappeared in most places in the eighteenth century, and music became strongly influenced by European-American music. Storytelling was another important part of aboriginal life. The transition from oral to written culture was encouraged by a journal in Greenlandic, Atuagagdliutit, founded in Nuuk in 1861. A considerable number of novels, songs, psalms, and the like have been published in Greenlandic.

Medicine. In the aboriginal culture, illness was thought to be the result of taboo violations or to be caused by a sorcerer. It was the shaman's task to make diagnoses and bring back the sick person's missing soul. The cause of illness might also be discovered by a qilalik. All this was long ago replaced by a Western understanding of sickness.

Death and Afterlife. When a death occurred, the inhabitants of the settlement, primarily the close relatives, fell under various taboos. The soul would live on in the afterworld either in the sky, which resembled the inland with possibilities for caribou hunting, or in the underworld where the dead hunted marine animals. The last place was the preferred one. It was the way of dying that decided where one would go. Women who died giving birth and those who died at sea went to the lower world. The name of the dead was tabooed until a newborn child was named after him or her. Such renaming is still common in Greenland.


Birker-Smith, Kaj (1924). Ethnography of the Egedesminde District with Aspects of the General Culture of West Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland, vol. 66. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Damas, David, ed. (1984). Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Kleivan, Inge, and Birgitte Sonne (1985). Eskimos, Greenland, and Canada. Iconography of Religions 7 (2). Institute of Religious Iconography, State University Groningen. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Kleivan, Inge (1984). "West Greenland before 1950." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas 595-621. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.


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