views updated Jun 11 2018


Culture Name


Alternative Names

Kalaallit Nunaat (used by Inuit Greenlanders)


Identification. Greenland was probably originally settled by descendants of the present Inuit culture, who identify the island as Kalaalit Nunaatmeaning "land of the people"in their native language. It received the name Greenland from Norse explorer Eiríkur Rauðe Þorvaldsson (known today as Erik the Red). He sailed from Iceland to the island in 982 c.e. and spent the next three years farming a plot of land along the southern coastline. He returned to Iceland in 986, intent on encouraging others to settle the rugged island. With this in mind, he referred to the island as Greenland, reasoning that a pleasant name would be more likely to attract settlers. Several colonies subsequently were established in Greenland, but these failed to survive. In 1605 King Christian IV of Denmark claimed Greenland for his kingdom. It remained a colony of Denmark until 1953, when it received county status. This change also gave Greenlanders full Danish citizenship. In 1979, Greenland became a self-governing part of the Danish realm after passage of a popular referendum. But it is still subject to the Danish constitution, and Denmark continues to manage the island's external affairs in areas such as defense. Greenland is currently composed of three administrative divisions: West Greenland (Kitaa in Greenlandic), East Greenland (Tunu), and North Greenland (Avannaa, also known as the Thule District).

Today, about 80 percent of Greenland's population is of Inuit or mixed Inuit/Danish heritage. Most of the remainder are of Danish descent, although a small number trace their heritage back to other regions of Europe. Modern Greenland has undoubtedly been shaped by European values and perspectives, but the island nonetheless features unique Inuit and European cultures that are distinct from one another. These differences in social customs and attitudes do bring tensions, but Greenlanders are united by the commonly held challenges of cold climate and isolation, as well as a genuine affection for the land on which they live.

Location and Geography. Greenland is the largest island in the world. It is located 17 miles northeast of Canada's Ellesmere Island, between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic. The northern tip of Greenland is approximately 460 miles (740 kilometers) from the North Pole, making it the northernmost country on the planet. It is approximately 1,660 miles (2,670 kilometers) long from its northern to southern tips, and is about 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) across at its widest point. The total land area of Greenland is about 804,000 square miles (2,175,600 square kilometers), about three times the size of Texas, but 85 percent of the island's land surface is covered by ice. The country includes about 24,800 miles (40,000 kilometers) of coastline.

Greenland is a forbidding, rugged land that nonetheless possesses a stark beauty. Much of the island's interior lies beneath a vast ice cap that in some places is up to 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) thick. Over the years, the weight of all this ice has reshaped the island's interior into a concave, bowl-like basin that has actually sunk below sea level in several areas. The white surface of this vast ice cap is relieved only by the occasional peaks of mountains (nunataks in Greenlandic) jutting into the sky. Glaciers from this great mass of ice extend through mountain valleys and ravines to reach coastline fjords at many points. At the terminuses of these drainages, thousands of icebergsmany of monstrous sizeare formed every year.

The inhospitable interior of the island relegates the entire population of Greenland to its rugged coastlines. Most settlements are on the west and southwest coast, including the capital city of Nuuk. This city, originally founded in 1721, is the island's oldest Danish settlement and by far the largest community in Greenland. It holds about 14,000 of the nation's entire population of 59,000 people.

The climate in Greenland is subarctic, with short, cool summers and bitterly cold winters. Along the fjords of the southwest coast, where most Greenlanders live, temperatures average 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) during the height of summer. But the temperature falls to a mean of 18 degrees Fahrenheit (-8 degrees Celsius) during wintertime. Temperatures are much colder in the northern interior.

Hours of sunlight vary dramatically from season to season in Greenland, three-quarters of which lies north of the Arctic Circle. During the summer, Greenland becomes a land of the "midnight sun," with weeks of 24-hour daylight all along its length and breadth. In fact, northern Greenland receives three months of continual daylight during this time. During the winter, however, Greenland's southern ramparts receive only a meager supply of daylight (several hours each day) and the far north is plunged into darkness for several weeks, bracketed by a month of brief, hazy twilight on either end.

Demography. The total population of Greenland was estimated at 59,300 (31,390 men and 27,910 women) in July 1998. Approximately 26 percent of the total population is 14 years old or younger, while 6 percent are 65 years and over. The remaining 68 percent are between the ages of 15 and 64. Life expectancy for the total population is 69.46 years (65.29 years for men, 73.65 years for women). About 80 percent of Greenland's population is of Inuit or mixed Inuit and Danish-Norwegian heritage. The rest are of European ancestry.

In addition to Nuuk (population 14,000), population centers on Greenland include Holsteinsborg (Sisimiut in Greenlandic), Jakobshavn (Ilulissat), Narsaq (Narssaq), Julianehåb (Qaqortoq), and Ammassalik (Angmagssalik). Greenlandic communities are widely dispersed across the country, and roadways connecting these villages and towns are nonexistent. Transportation within Greenland is via dogsled, snowmobile, coastal ferry, and helicopter.

Linguistic Affiliation. Greenlandic is the official language of the island. It is an Inuit dialect with regional differences (east and west Greenlandic dialects are different in a number of notable respects). "Greenlandic is a polysynthetic language, in which entire ideas are expressed in a single word by addition of prefixes and suffixes to a root subject," note Deanna Swaney and Graeme Cornwallis in Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. "Hence the impossible-looking mega-syllabic words which intimidate foreigners with their sheer length when written on a page . . . Some outsiders who've lived for years in Greenland still don't have a grasp of the language." In addition, nearly every citizen of Greenland knows the Danish language.

Symbolism. The national flag of Greenland appears as two equal horizontal bands of white and red (with the white on top), broken up by a large circle located slightly to the left of center. The top half of this disk is red, while the bottom half is white. The line dividing the circle in two is aligned with the line that divides the two horizontal bands, creating a single line that extends across the length of the flag.

Greenland is also awash in cultural symbols and slogans that reflect the history and values of traditional Inuit communities. Many of these symbols are closely related to the environment and/or the natural world, which has sustained the Inuit peoples for hundreds of years.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. It is believed that Greenland's first inhabitants arrived on the island about 4,5005,000 years ago (probably from Ellesmere Island). But these early Inuit peoples disappeared from the land about 3,000 years ago for unknown reasons. They were followed by another Stone Age eskimo culture known as the Dorset Culture. This nomadic hunting culture lasted from about 600 b.c.e. to 200 c.e. before disappearing.

In the tenth century, the Thule Culture spread across Greenland. This culture, which developed early kayaks, harpoons, and dogsleds, either absorbed or supplanted existing eskimo cultures. Anthropologists agree that Greenland's modern Inuits are descended from the Thule.

Thule influence spread across the island during the same time that Norse explorers first investigated its coastlines. About 900, a Norwegian named Gunnbjørn Ulfsson became the first European to set foot on Greenland. He was followed more than 80 years later by Eiríkur Rauðe Þorvaldsson (Erik the Red), who organized the first Viking settlements on the island. Around 1000, Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, brought Christianity to Greenland from Norway.

Norse settlements prospered for about 500 years, thanks in large measure to continuing ties with Iceland and Norway. But these settlements eventually dissolved and disappeared. Their disappearance has been attributed to climatic changes and problems with the Thule tribes, but their demise remains largely shrouded in mystery.

Europeans returned to Greenland in 1721, and in 1775 Denmark claimed the island as a colony. In 1953 a new Danish constitution made Greenland a part of Denmark, and financial aid to the island increased dramatically. In 1979, a popular referendum gave Greenland "Home Rule" status as a distinct nation within the Kingdom of Denmark.

National Identity. Greenland features a blend of Inuit and Danish cultures. Many Greenlanders have expressed uneasiness with the increased "Westernization" of Greenland communities in recent years, and many efforts are underway to preserve and sustain traditional Inuit ways, which remain an essential part of the country's national identity. But Greenland's long association with Denmark has benefited the island's inhabitants in many tangible ways, such as in raising standards of living and improving health care and education. Moreover, most Greenlanders of European descent are sensitive to the importance of preserving the historical culture and perspective of the Inuit people.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Nearly all Greenlandic architecture is extremely utilitarian. Buildings and other structures emphasize functionality over form. Greenlandic homes are typically constructed of stone, sod, or wood. During the summers, some families live in tents made from furs or skins. Communities are typically tightly clustered together, for as Gretel Ehrlich remarked in National Geographic Adventure, "for the Eskimo, solitude is a sign of sheer unhappiness. It is thought to be a perversion and absolutely undesirable."

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The typical Greenlandic diet is heavy on consumption of fish, potatoes, vegetables, and canned foods. Seal and polar bear meat is also a staple in many Inuit communities.

Basic Economy. Greenland's economic situation is comparable to that of mainland Europe, in terms of standard of living and unemployment (officially about 10 percent in the mid-1990s, with the public sector accounting for almost two-thirds of all jobs). Its annual gross national product exceeds $1 billion (U.S.), but about one-half of government revenues are received directly from the Danish government. Greenland suffered from recessionary economic conditions in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It has benefited from budget surpluses and low inflation in recent years, but fears that overfishing might trigger crippling fisheries depletion in the near future are growing. In northern and eastern Greenland, the economies of small and isolated Inuit villages are primarily based on subsistence hunting for meat and pelts (of polar bears and seals, most notably) and fishing. In addition, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has granted Greenland special permission to engage in limited "aboriginal subsistence whaling" in recent years, which has benefited some Inuit communities.

Land Tenure and Property. Community ownership of land and common resources is the rule in Inuit communities, where interdependence is a necessity for survival. In fact, Inuit families that exceed "normal" living standards within their community typically distribute excess goods to poorer individuals. In non-subsistence communities such as the capital city of Nuuk, where European influences are more pronounced, private ownership protections are stronger.

Major Industries. Greenland is heavily reliant on fishing and related industries for its economic wellbeing, and it has gained an international reputation for being a fierce protector of its fishing rights in recurring disputes with Canada and the European Union. Leading fisheries include shrimp, halibut, redfish, salmon, and haddock. Cod was formerly a leader, but its fisheries have been decimated by overfishing. Other important industries include agriculture (sheep, vegetables) and mining. Tourism is emerging as an important economic factor as well, although Greenland's remote location and short summers are hindrances in this regard.

Trade. Most manufactured and consumer goods available in Greenland are imported from Denmark. Fish and fish-related products account for approximately 95 percent of all of Greenland's exports. Leading trading partners are Denmark, Japan, Norway, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Division of Labor. Many Greenlandic communities continue to maintain a subsistence lifestyle, in which hunting and fishing skills are paramount. The fishing industry is the primary employer of both men and women in Greenland.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Social stratification within Greenlandic communities is not a major factor, since families typically share both common ethnic backgrounds and similar economic circumstances.

Political Life

Government. Greenland has been a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark since 1979 (Greenland holds two seats in the Danish parliament). It is divided into 18 separate municipalities. The executive branch of Greenland's government is a seven-member body, known as the Landsstyre, that is led by a prime minister. Other members of the Landsstyre administrate departments concerned with a wide variety of areas, including culture, housing, telecommunications, education, transportation, trade, and the environment (responsibilities in the area of foreign relations, defense, and currency remain with the Danish government). Greenland's legislature consists of a 31-member parliament known as the Landsting. Members are elected on the basis of proportional representation to serve four-year terms. Their responsibilities include electing Greenland's prime minister (usually the leader of the majority party).

Leadership and Political Officials. Major political parties within Greenland include: Siumut ("Forward"), a moderate socialist party that champions Greenlandic independence within the Kingdom of Denmark; Inuit Ataqatigiit ("Inuit Brotherhood"), which wants complete independence from Denmark; and Atassut ("Solidarity"), which has called for closer ties with Denmark. In recent years, the island has been ruled by a Siumut-Atassut coalition.

Social Problems and Control. Greenland maintains a system of local judicial courts, which hand out judgements based on a Greenlandicnot Danishcriminal code. This code, which reflects traditional Inuit beliefs about punishment, avoids imprisoning most people found guilty of criminal offenses. Instead, sentences usually consist of fines, compulsory counseling, or reform centers in particularly serious cases.

Alcoholism is often cited as a significant social problem in Greenlandic communities. This problemcommon in many isolated Arctic communities around the worldis often blamed on cultural stress, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and genetic intolerance of alcohol within the Inuit community (scientists have noted that Inuit people have lower supplies of important amino acids that break down alcohol). Greenland's government has tried to address this issue by imposing restrictions on hours in which alcohol may be sold, limiting purchases to people 18 years or older, and launching various education programs, but alcohol abuse remains a serious problem in many communities.

Military Activity. The Danish military is responsible for protection of Greenland, which does not maintain its own force.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Denmark bankrolls an extensive social welfare program that is administered by Greenland's government. Benefits include free health care and other social services.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Gender roles in Inuit communities are interchangeable in many respects. Men and women share in many chores associated with their subsistence-oriented lifestyles, although responsibilities related to hunting and fishing still tend to be divided by gender (for instance, men typically do the actual hunting, while women attend to drying the meat, harvesting of the skins, etc.)

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Inuit society has traditionally placed greater value on boys than girls, and these attitudes persist today.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. "Arranged" marriages are not unknown, but most unions are by choice. Most marriages are monogamous, but some men do maintain marriages with more than one wife at a time.

Domestic Unit. Immediate family units are usually modest in size (average two children per family).

Kin Groups. Extended families are very important in Greenlandic communities. These kin groups treat resources as communal property. For example, food obtained from hunting and fishing is generally divided up equally among families of a kin group. But Inuit families also form alliances outside their kin group. These alliances, which stem from historicaland present-dayconcerns about survival, are carefully maintained through rituals of respect and gift-giving.


Infant Care. Inuit place great importance on the time of year in which children are born. Winter children (axigirn) and summer children (aggirn) are greeted with very different birth rituals, ranging from first foods eaten to selection of garments to clothe them.

Child Rearing and Education. As Greenlandic children grow older, they enjoy great freedom by Western standards. "Greenlanders believe their children are born with complete personalities and are endowed as a birthright with the wisdom, survival instinct, magic and intelligence of their ancestors," explain Swaney and Cornwallis. According to this traditional perspective emphasizing ancestral links, punishing children for misbehavior is an insult to their ancestors.

Education is compulsory and free for all Greenlandic children between the ages of 6 and 15. Education standards are identical to those in place in Denmark. Once children complete their primary school education (where courses of instruction include the handling of firearms, an essential skill in many subsistence communities), secondary education is available at boarding schools. Vocational school training is also available. Many of these schools emphasize training youths for careers in the fishing industry, but classes in construction, business, and metalworking are also available. Greenland relies heavily on Danish teachers and administrators to keep their school system operational.

Higher Education. Students who wish to continue their education at the university level usually attend college in Denmark. The lone university on the island is Greenland University (Ilisimatusarfik) in Nuuk.


Greenlanders are friendly of temperament, albeit more restrained in their social interactions than most Westerners. Their strong sense of etiquette is guided by traditional Inuit beliefs and customs.


Religious Beliefs. The majority of the Greenlandic population is associated with the Lutheran Church, which is the national church of Denmark. But traditional Inuit spiritual beliefs remain strong in many of Greenland's remote communities.

Rituals and Holy Places. Members of Greenlandic communities continue to practice a wide range of rituals handed down from their ancestors. These range from giving ritualistic thanks to bears, whales, and other creatures after they have been slain by hunting expeditions to taboos on mixing food and clothing associated with the winter months with those associated with the summer season.

Death and the Afterlife. The Lutheran religion as practiced in Greenland and other nations is based on a belief in the ultimate authority of God. It places great importance on the life of Jesus and the authority of the Bible, and emphasizes the doctrine of salvation through faith.

Medicine and Health Care

Free health care, subsidized by the Danish government, is available to all Greenlanders. In most of Greenland's small, widely dispersed communities, however, this care is quite limited in scope. The largest hospital in Greenland is Queen Ingrid's Hospital in Nuuk.

Secular Celebrations

Secular holidays celebrated in Greenland include Labour Day (1 May), Danish Constitution Day (5 June), National Day (21 June), and New Year's Eve and Day.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. Artists and writers in Greenland enjoy some official support from the Greenlandic and Danish governments, which see the arts as an important element of efforts to increase tourism. The greatest reason for the continued vitality of Greenlandic arts, however, is the Inuit communities' strong artistic tradition.

Literature. Greenland's long tradition of oral storytelling (stories and songs) has always concerned itself primarily with explaining Inuit myths and standards of moral behavior, as well as the relationship between the Inuit people and the creatures (seal, bear, walrus, whale, fox, etc.) on which they relied for survival. This tradition remains a viable one in Greenlandic communities, and its most talented practitioners are respected figures. Written literature is less established in Greenland, but reading and writing are increasingly popular pastimes.

Graphic Arts. Greenland enjoys a distinguished place in the world of native graphic arts. Traditional Inuit clothing features intricate handmade designs, traditional materials, and festive colors. Inuit artists also specialize in the creation of tupilak, small wood or bone carvings of supernatural creatures or arctic animals that have their origins in the island's pre-Christian era.

Performance Arts. As with most other artistic expression in Greenland, performance arts often focus on various aspects of the traditional Inuit hunting and fishing culture. But modern performance art is also present in Greenland in the form of pop music groups, modern dance, etc.


Caulfield, Richard A. Greenlanders, Whales, and Whaling: Sustainability and Self-Determination in the Arctic, 1997.

Dahl, Jenns. Saqqaq: An Inuit Hunting Community in the Modern World, 2000.

Ehrlich, Gretel. "The Endless Hunt." National Geographic Adventure, September/October 2000.

Fitzhugh, William W., and Elisabeth I. Ward, eds. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, 2000.

Ingstad, Helge. Land Under the Pole Star: A Voyage to the Norse Settlements of Greenland and the Saga of the People that Vanished, 1966.

Lassieur, Allison. Inuit, 2000.

Mauss, Marcel. Seasonal Variations of the Eskimo: A Study in Social Morphology, 1979.

Nuttall, Mark. Arctic Homeland: Kinship, Community and Development in Northwest Greenland, 1992.

Seaver, Kirsten. The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America, ca AD 1000-1500, 1996.

Swaney, Deanna, and Graeme Cornwallis. Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands, 1991.

Vaughan, Richard. Northwest Greenland: A History, 1991.

Kevin Hillstrom


views updated May 11 2018


Kalaallit Nunaat, the Greenlanders' Land, is separated from the eastern Canadian Arctic on the west by Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, and Nares Strait, and from Iceland, on the east, by Denmark Strait. Through the ages, peoples from the northern parts of North America, Scandinavia, and Europe have migrated to Greenland, while others, most notably Scottish, English, and Dutch whalers, have frequented the country in times past.

The ancestors of the present-day Inuit, Greenland's indigenous people, first arrived in the country from the Canadian Arctic around 4,500 years ago, hunting land mammals such as musk ox. Successive groups of Inuit migrants continued to harvest the living resources of both land and sea, including caribou, seals, whales, and walrus. Norse farming settlements flourished in south and southwest Greenland, from approximately 985 for almost 500 years. Early English explorers, such as Martin Frobisher and John Davis in the sixteenth century, met with groups of Inuit along the west coast. Pursuing the Greenland right whale, European whalers became regular visitors to the coasts of Greenland starting in the seventeenth century. Greenland was a Danish colony between 1721 and 1953, and an integral part of the Danish Kingdom from 1953 to 1979. During these periods significant numbers of Danes lived and made there homes there, as some 7,000 continue to do today.

As a result of the interactions, intermarriages, and fleeting liaisons between these Inuit, Nordic, and other European migrants and sojourners, a society with a rich cultural heritage has evolved. Greenland is thus situated between the new and old worlds in both a geographical and cultural sense. Today, around 83 percent of Greenland's 58,000 residents are Inuit, a people who share a common language and culture with the Inuit in Canada, Alaska, and the Russian Far East; the remainder are primarily Danes. In 1979, the people of Greenland achieved Home Rule from Denmark. Presiding over an autonomous territory within the Danish Kingdom, the Greenland Home Rule Government has complete legislative power over Greenland's internal affairs.

Importance of Kinship

Anthropologists have generally agreed that kinship is the very foundation of Inuit social organization. In Greenland, kinship is both the basis for social relatedness and social organization, and the key organizing principle for hunting and fishing, which continue to be major activities for many people. However, in Greenland kinship is not simply biologically prescribed. This is immediately apparent to anyone who tries to collect genealogies, work out an individual's kin reckoning and family relationships, or simply listen to the way people use kinship terms in situations of both reference and address. The boundaries of kindred and descent-based groups, as Greenlanders define them, are shifting constantly, as are the interpersonal relationships that are defined in terms of kinship. Kinship and family relationships may appear to have distinct biological roots, but in practice they are flexible and integrate nonbiological social relationships that are considered as real as any biological relationship.

Kinship and family relationships are not always permanent states, and although it may be possible to talk of a kinship system in Greenland, it is a system that is inherently flexible and that allows extensive improvisation in that people can choose their kin. Throughout Greenland, social relationships tend to be defined in terms of being either kin or not kin. Kinship is multifaceted, embracing genealogy, consanguinity, affinity, friendship, name-sharing, birthday partners, age-sets, the living, and the dead. Kinship is bilateral, and the term for personal kindred or close extended family is ilaqutariit. The root of this word, ila-, means a part, or a companion, and a member of the ilaqutariit is called an ilaqutaq, someone who belongs. Individual households are suffixed with -kkut (e.g. Josepikkut—Josepi's household) and there are usually several -kkut in an ilaqutariit. People often distinguish between an ilaqutaq and an eqqarleq, someone who is a genealogical or affinal relative belonging to another ilaqutariit. Eqqarleq derives from eqqaq, meaning the immediate vicinity/area, or close to. As a form of address and reference eqqarleq is not necessarily always applied to distant kin, but its use depends on how a person defines his or her relationship with another person. One vitally important feature of kinship in Greenland is that kin and family relationships can be created if individuals choose to regard a nonkin relationship as something similar to a genealogical or affinal link. Just as people work out and define social relationships in terms of being based on kin or not, they can also decide how closely related they feel to someone. Although it may be rare to hear that somebody regards a sibling as an eqqarleq, an eqqarleq such as a second cousin's spouse may be regarded as a sibling by somebody and referred to as an ilaqutaq, even if those people have no consanguineal or affinal relationship.

Like many other Inuit communities, Greenlanders generally use kin terms in preference to personal names to refer to and address people regardless of any genealogical or affinal connection. To establish and continue a kinship relationship is easy enough—kin terms are simply used for both reference and address, and personal names are avoided in most situations of daily interaction. As forms of address, kin terms are used usually in the possessive: for example, ataataga (my father), paniga (my daughter). A man or a woman who regards his or her second cousin's (illuusaq) wife as a sister will use the appropriate kinship term (a man will call the woman either aleqa for older sister, or najak for younger sister; a woman will call her angaju for older sister, or nukaq for younger sister). The woman who is now regarded as a sister will reciprocate by using the appropriate kinship term for brother or sister (ani for older brother, or aqqaluk for younger brother; angaju or nukaq for older or younger sister). Such use of kin terms illustrates David Schneider's (1968) argument that the recording and listing of kinship terms does not mean that their designation will follow accordingly. Kin terms are symbols that allow for the imputation of idiosyncratic meaning and form part of a much larger set of symbols and implicit meanings that people use actively and consciously to construct the idea of community (Nuttall 1992).

Kinship and family relationships in Greenland are more accurately described as a complex network and intricate pattern of relationships that includes both the living and the dead (Nuttall 1994). When people die, their names (in Greenlandic atiit; singular ateq), their kinship relations, and their family relationships carry on in newborn children, so that people retain their social presence despite their physical absence. A person who is named after a dead person is called an atsiaq (plural atsiat), but the first same-sex child to be born after the death of another person is called that person's ateqqaataa. The dead person, who can have more than one atsiaq, is known as the atsiaq's aqqa. Aqqa is another word for name. In many Inuit societies in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, the name is not tied to either gender, and a child can receive the name of a deceased male or female. But in Greenland all personal names are gender-specific (because they are Danish names), and generally a child can only be named after a person of the same sex. This can cause problems if, say, a man whose name is Jens has died, and three girls are then born. Are people to wait until a baby boy is born? There will be concern that Jens's name will be cold, lonely, and homeless for too long. People can get around this potentially disturbing situation by calling one of the girls Jensine (usually the first to be born, if she has not yet received a name). However, a similar improvisation of naming does not occur if a woman dies, and a baby boy is born shortly after.

People continually define and bring into existence real relationships that are not based on biology (Nuttall 1992). Kinship is a cultural reservoir from which individuals draw items they can use to define and construct everyday social interaction. To understand kinship and family relationships in Greenland, it is important to focus on the meanings that individuals attribute to kinship terms and kinship terminologies, rather than accepting at face value that terminologies refer to strict genealogical relationships. Yet, although kinship is flexible, it is not formless. Nor are particular roles without obligation. Kinship in everyday Greenlandic life is all-pervasive: because kinship ties are reaffirmed or created through the naming of children after the deceased, or simply by applying a kin term to someone who may not be a biological relative, almost everyone can trace or establish some kind of kinship relationship with everyone else in their local communities, and often within a wider region. If a relationship does not exist, then one can be created. At the same time, people can deactivate kinship relationships if they regard them as unsatisfactory. Relationships can be created if people regard others as particular categories of kin, and at the same time, genealogical relationships can also be forgotten about if a person regards that relationship as unsatisfactory, uncomfortable, or strained (Guemple 1979; Nuttall 1992). Lee Guemple (1972a) has argued that this is made possible because of the negotiated nature of the Inuit kinship system. In this way genealogical relationships can be rendered obsolete or subordinated to other social relationships. In Greenland it is common to hear people talking about a member of their ilaqutariit as if they were actually an eqqarleq and vice versa. Other people may deny any kin connection whatsoever. In some cases, this may be because two members of an ilaqutariit may have fallen out.

This flexible nature of kinship in Greenland allows individuals the opportunity to move around a complex network of relationships, to reposition themselves and others how they see fit simply by regarding social relationships in term of kinship or nonkinship. The reasons for doing so are various, complex, often intensely personal, and sometimes pragmatic. There may be sexual reasons, or two people who have an especially strong friendship may commemorate it by turning it into a kinship relationship. More practical reasons for choosing one's kin may relate to subsistence activities, where a man may have no brothers but may need to depend on close male kin for participating in hunting and fishing activities. In this way, friends who help out may be regarded as kin and the relationship established with a kinship term. While the flexibility of the kinship system allows individuals to choose whom they want as their relative (or whom they do not want as a relative), it does not give them license to decide how they should behave with that person. An exception would be if two women who are cousins decide to discontinue that kinship connection by dropping the kin term, forgetting about the biological relationship, and using one another's personal name as a form of address; then the obligation to behave in a prescribed way will cease. If two unrelated persons wish to regard themselves as being like cousins, then they can establish that relationship by addressing one another with the kin term for cousin (illoq). But by doing so they must recognize that they are expected to behave as if they were cousins and must treat one another with respect and as equals, regardless of any age difference. If the two are men and are both hunters, then there may be certain obligations to share hunting equipment or to give catch-shares from large sea mammals, such as walrus or bearded seals, to each other's households.

To deny a kinship connection is a way for people to disown one another. A. C. Heinrich (1963) distinguished between optative and nonoptative categories of kinship. Optative kin can include anyone whom an individual wants to consider kin—opting for kinship—while nonoptative kin includes grandparents, parents, and siblings. People can fall in and out of the former category, but it is not really acceptable to deny the existence of one's parents, siblings, grandparents, and possibly aunts and uncles. Optative kinship networks are flexible to the point where incompatible relations between individuals can be remedied by substituting them for more effective and meaningful ones (Guemple 1979). In this way, unlike the situation described by Ernest Burch (1975) in northwest Alaska, biology does not structure kinship relationships and determine how people who are biologically related should behave towards one another. In Greenland, in contrast, kinship is not ascribed but a matter of choice. Unlike Guemple's observation that, for a group of Canadian Inuit, people become relatives if they reside in the same locality, maintain regular contact, and share game according to well-defined rules, Greenlanders do not forget kin if someone moves away from a village or does not share seal meat. Unless an individual decides otherwise, people remain kin despite physical absence and also if they choose not to share meat or fish. (However, although people are not obligated to maintain the same kinship relations if they do not wish, they do have an obligation to share.) People are therefore not constrained by a rigid consanguineal kinship system, but can choose much of their universe of kin. Thus, daily life in Greenland is inextricably bound up with kinship, and people carry out and talk about most social and economic activities—for example, hunting, fishing, other kinds of work, visiting, and gossiping—with reference to kin relationships. But however they construct their own relationships, they are bound to behave in prescribed ways. Kin categories vary in meaning, and their significance lies in the way they give individuals the freedom to employ them in any way they choose. It is in this sense that kinship is symbolic, and it is through kinship that people find expression in their social worlds (Nuttall 1992).

Whatever the particularities of kinship in different parts of Greenland, it nonetheless shapes, informs, influences, and determines how people relate to one another, and is central to the way people conceptualize and define their social worlds (Nuttall 2000). In Greenland social relatedness does not always begin in the local group—for example, children are often named after deceased people who lived in different villages. Once named, they become the kin of the surviving relatives of the deceased.

It is easy to see how an individual's universe of kin can expand to include anyone they wish to consider a relative. These people are not fictive kin; they are real in the same sense as biological kin. Ultimately, people can, if they so wish, distinguish between biological or fictive kinship. The use of the suffix -piaq, meaning one's own, personal, real can be used to distinguish biological kin from fictive kin, who can be identified by the suffix -siaq, meaning borrowed, bought, or found. The use of a kin term is not usually suffixed as a means of discriminating between categories of biological or fictive kin. Fictive kin are considered to be as real as biological kin and the use of -piaq or -siaq would be making a distinction between categories of kin that people do not necessarily worry about. An adopted son, for example, will be addressed as erneq, rather than ernersiaq. The use of such terminology suggests that the relationship between parents and son is regarded as real as if the child were the parents' biological offspring. Kinship is a rhetoric of social relatedness, as Guemple argues (1972b), but whether based on biology or affinity, it is real as long as people see it as such.

See also:Kinship


burch, e. s. jr. (1975). eskimo kinsmen: changing familyrelationships in northwest alaska. st. paul, mn: west publishing.

damas, d. (1963). iglulingmiut kinship and local groupings: a structural approach. ottawa: national museum of canada.

damas, d. (1964). "the patterning of the iglulingmiut kinship system." ethnology 3:377–88. damas, d. (1968). "iglulingmiut kinship terminology andbehaviour, consanguines." in eskimo of the canadian arctic, ed. v. f. valentine and f. g. vallee. toronto: mcclelland and stewart.

guemple, l. (1972a). "kinship and alliance in belcher island eskimo society." in alliance in eskimo society, ed. l. guemple. seattle: university of washington press.

guemple, l. (1972b). "eskimo band organization and the'd. p. camp' hypothesis." arctic anthropology 9:80–112.

guemple, l. (1979) inuit adoption. ottawa: national museum of man.

heinrich, a. (1963). "personal names, social structure andfunctional integration" anthropology and sociology papers, no. 27. montana state university: department of sociology and welfare.

nuttall, m. (1992). arctic homeland: kinship, community, and development in northwest greenland. toronto: university of toronto press.

nuttall, m. (1994). "the name never dies: greenlandinuit ideas of the person." in amerindian rebirth: reincarnation belief among north american indians and inuit, ed. a. mills and r. slobodin. toronto: university of toronto press.

nuttall, m. (2000). "choosing kin: sharing and subsistence in a greenlandic hunting community." in dividends of kinship: meanings and uses of social relatedness, ed. p. schweitzer. london: routledge.

schneider, d. (1968). american kinship: a cultural account. englewood cliffs, nj: prentice-hall.

mark nuttall


views updated May 14 2018


Dependency of Denmark

  • Area: 840,00 sq mi (2,175,600 sq km) / World size ranking: 14
  • Location: An island, north of Canada on the North American continent, in the Northern and Western Hemispheres, bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean, on the east by the Greenland Sea, on the southeast by Denmark Strait, on the south by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by Baffin Bay and Davis Strait.
  • Coordinates: 72° 00′ N, 40° 00′ W
  • Borders: No international boundaries.
  • Coastline: 27,333 mi (44,087 km)
  • Territorial Seas: 3 NM
  • Highest Point: Gunnbjorn, 12,136 ft (3,700 m)
  • Lowest Point: Sea level
  • Longest Distances: 1,660 mi (2,670 km) N-S; 800 mi (1,290 km) E-W
  • Longest River: None of significant size.
  • Natural Hazards: Continuous permafrost covers twothirds of the island in the north
  • Population: 56,352 (July 2001 est.) / World Rank: 194
  • Capital City: Nuuk, located on the southwestern coast
  • Largest City: Nuuk, 14,000 (2000)


Greenland is the largest island in the world, and is compossed of possibly the oldest rocks on Earth. Located on the North American Tectonic Plate, the island once was part of the North American continent, and is believed to have been separated from it by continental drift. More than half the country is within the Arctic Circle, and of Greenland's total land area, 84 percent lies under its ice cap (or ice sheet). Of the ice-free area, which is along the middle west and south coasts, some 38,000 sq mi (150,000 sq km) are inhabited. Mountains run along the east and west coasts, and large glaciers and deep fjords line the coasts as well. In the southern region, there are lowland areas.

The climate is arctic, and, because of the island's size, temperatures vary between the various regions. Winters are severely cold, while summers are relatively mild, especially in sheltered areas. Snow falls in any month.



Mountains are situated along the eastern and western coasts. The highest range runs along the east coast, and houses the highest point on the island, Gunnbjorn Mountain (12,136 ft / 3,700 m).


Greenland's interior, and much of its coast, is entirely covered with ice. This is the second largest ice cap in the world; only that of Antarctica is larger. In some places it is estimated to be 11,000 ft (3,355 m) thick. Due to the enormous weight of the ice, the interior of the island has sunk into a vast concave basin that reaches a depth of 1,180 ft (360 m) below sea level.

Greenland's coasts are home to numerous glaciers, extensions of the interior ice cap. In the 1990s, Jakobshavn Glacier, located on the west coast, was found to be moving down from the ice cap at a rate of 100 ft (30 m) per day. Large icebergs break off from the glaciers into the sea and float mostly southward.


Oceans and Seas

An island, Greenland is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean, Greenland Sea (to the northeast), Denmark Strait (to the southeast), and the Atlantic Ocean. Baffin Bay and Davis Strait lie between Greenland and the northeast coast of Canada. Many smaller islands lie off the coast of Greenland, the most important of which is Qeqertarsuaq.

The Coast and Beaches

Deep fjords and glaciers line the coasts; in many areas the great ice sheet runs directly into the sea. Disko Bay is located on the western coast, and Ilulissat is the largest town in this area. A few harbors include Nanortalik, Qaqortoq, and Nuuk (Godthåb), the capital city. Uummannarsuaq (Cape Farewell) is located on the southernmost point of the island, and Cape Morris Jessup is the northernmost point. The Tunulliarfik (Eriksfjiord) flows in the southwest, and is the site of early settlements by Nordic settlers.



Greenland's climate is arctic, but is relatively mild along the coasts, particularly in the west and south. The northern region of the country and much of the interior rarely sees temperatures above freezing, never for prolonged periods. Temperature changes can be sudden in any one locality.

Winters are generally severe throughout the country. Even in the far south, the temperature often reaches –4°F (–20°C) or even lower. In the northern regions and on the ice, winter temperatures can plummet to –40°F (– 40°C) for weeks. Maximum daytime temperatures in the summer, in the south, average between 50 and 64°F (10 and 18°C), and in the north, between 41 and 50°F (5 and 10°C).

Rainfall and Snow

Precipitation, mostly snow, is moderately heavy around the coast. It increases from north to south, and ranges between 10 and 45 in (25-114 cm). The northern part of the ice sheet receives less snow than the western and southern regions. Snow can, and usually does, fall during any month, throughout the country.


Lowland areas exist in the south, and in late summer, wild berries and wild flowers, including Arctic poppies, dandelion, harebell, and chamomile, grow in abundance. Not many trees exist on Greenland, but deciduous trees, such as alder, dwarf arctic birch, and willow, grow in the south in sheltered fjords.


Greenland's population is grouped in a number of scattered settlements, which vary in size. Most of the population lives on the west coast. The eastern, northeastern, and extreme northern areas are almost completely uninhabitable.


Greenland is known to possess reserves of zinc, lead, iron ore, coal, molybdenum, gold, platinum, uranium, and cryolite. Oil and gas are suspected to be present. The extreme climate has prevented exploitation of most of these resources. The economy depends on the harvesting of fish, seals, and whales from the surrounding ocean, as well as subsidies from the Danish government.


Dupre, Lonnie. Greenland Expedition: Where Ice is Born. Minnetonka, Minn.: North Word Press, 2000.

Greenland Tourism a/s. (Accessed March 18, 2002).

Lepthien, Emilie. Greenland. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989.

Swaney, Deanna. Iceland, Greenland & the Faroe Islands – a travel survival kit. 2nd ed. Berkeley: Lonely Planet Publications, 1994.


Above the Arctic Circle between late May and mid-July, the sun never entirely sets. This phenomenon is known as the midnight sun. Conversely, for much of the winter the sun does not come above the horizon.


views updated May 11 2018


Basic Data
Official Country Name:Greenland
Region:North & Central America
Language(s):Greenlandic, Danish, English, Inuit
Literacy Rate:similar to Denmark proper

Greenland (Kalladliit Nunaat ) is a very particular post-colonial country. Its size is like a continent, and it is completely covered by ice. There are approximately 60,000 inhabitants spread on the long coastline in small communities. The country is strongly influenced by the climate and geography; at the same time it has a rather modern society. Eighty percent of the inhabitants are Inuits (Eskimos; their origin is closely related to Canadian, Alaskan, and Siberian people, but they have their own Inuit mother tongue. The remaining twenty percent is mainly Danish, some settled, some temporarily working, since Greenland is not self-supplying in terms of the work force. The Inuit language is now the main official language, but all administration and public communication is bilingual. Greenland is under Danish sovereignty but has a local government, Gro nlands Hjemmestyre, which, since the 1970s, has gradually taken control of all administration and public services except territorial defense and foreign policy. There has been a move towards increasing the degree of home rule to include international representation in matters of interest specific to Greenland. The local government receives a block grant from Denmark covering a substantial part of public expenditure.

The education system is regarded as a strategic tool to secure sustainability and a self-supplying labor market. It is similar to the Danish educational system but there have been strong efforts to "Greenlandize" it, in terms of staff, language, and adaptation to local circumstances. The instruction is mainly bilingualbut in many specialized domains Inuit speaking teachers are sparse and instruction materials only exist in Danish. There is a full general school system including upper secondary education in three locations as well as vocational education in main crafts. The school system is quite centralized in relation to the very widespread population. There is a teacher training college, a school for social work and pedagogy, marine schools of navigation and engineering, and also a small university offering language, cultural, and social studies on a basic university level, as well as specialized research with a local focus. However, advanced higher education and specialized professional education still relies on studies abroad, mainly in Denmark.

Henning Salling Olesen


views updated May 18 2018


Basic Data

Official Country Name:Greenland
Region (Map name):North & Central America
Language(s):Greenlandic, Danish, English
Literacy rate:similar to Denmark proper

Greenland is the world's largest island, but more than 80 percent of its area is covered with ice, not surprising for a region located between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean.

As a division of Denmark, Greenland's print media enjoys broad freedoms but independent radio stations are subject to tighter regulations. There are no daily newspapers in Greenland, but the country does support two national weekly publications. Grolandsposten/Atuagagdliutit was founded in 1861 and publishes on Tuesday and Thursday. Sermitsiak, founded in 1958, appears every Friday in print and online. Both are printed from Nuuk, the capital, and are written in Greenlandic and Danish.

There are five AM and 12 FM radio stations serving 30,000 radios. One publicly owned television station broadcasts to 30,000 televisions. There is one Internet service provider.

Greenland came under Danish rule in the fourteenth century, and it remains a part of Denmark today as a self-governing overseas administrative division. Greenland's chief of state is the Danish monarch, represented locally by a High Commissioner. The government is headed by a Prime Minister who is elected by a unicameral, 31-seat Parliament, or Landstinget.

The population of Greenland is approximately 56,000. Most inhabitants live in settlements along the coast. The official languages are Dutch and Greenlandic, a type of Inupik East-Eskimo language. The literacy rate is 98 percent. Fish exports drive the economy, but seal and whale hunting is also important. Tourism plays a minor role, limited mostly by climate and location.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "Greenland." World Fact Book 2001. 2001. Available from

Freedom House. 2002. Available from . 2002. Available from

Sermitsiak. 2002. Available from

Jenny B. Davis


views updated May 23 2018

Greenland World's largest island, in the nw Atlantic Ocean, lying mostly within the Arctic Circle. It is a self-governing province of Denmark; the capital is Nuuk (Godthåb). Permafrost covers more than 85% of Greenland, with an average depth of 1500m (5000ft). Settlement is confined to the sw coast, which is warmed by Atlantic currents. Most of Greenland's inhabitants are Inuit. Its European discovery is credited to Eric the Red, who settled in 982, founding a colony that lasted more than 500 years. Greenland became a Danish possession in 1380, and was incorporated into the kingdom in 1953. Following a referendum, Greenland achieved home rule in 1979 and self-government in 1981. In 1985, it withdrew from the European Union. Greenland's economy depends heavily on subsidies from Denmark. Fish forms the basis of the economy. Lead and zinc are mined in the nw, and the s has untapped reserves of uranium. Tourism is increasing. Area: 2,175,000sq km (840,000sq mi). Pop. (2000) 60,000.