Greenland Culture Values Essay

Greenland, the world’s largest island, lying in the North Atlantic Ocean. Greenland is noted for its vast tundra and immense glaciers.

Although Greenland remains a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the island’s home-rule government is responsible for most domestic affairs. The Greenlandic people are primarily Inuit (Eskimo). The capital of Greenland is Nuuk (Godthåb).

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Arctic Ocean

…Siberian, Laptev, Kara, Barents, White, Greenland, and Beaufort and, according to some oceanographers, also the Bering and Norwegian seas—are the least-known basins and bodies of water in the world ocean as a result of their remoteness, hostile weather, and perennial or seasonal ice cover. This is changing, however, because the…



More than three times the size of the U.S. state of Texas, Greenland extends about 1,660 miles (2,670 km) from north to south and more than 650 miles (1,050 km) from east to west at its widest point. Two-thirds of the island lies within the Arctic Circle, and the island’s northern extremity extends to within less than 500 miles (800 km) of the North Pole. Greenland is separated from Canada’s Ellesmere Island to the north by only 16 miles (26 km). The nearest European country is Iceland, lying about 200 miles (320 km) across the Denmark Strait to the southeast. Greenland’s deeply indented coastline is 24,430 miles (39,330 km) long, a distance roughly equivalent to Earth’s circumference at the Equator.

A submarine ridge no deeper than 600 feet (180 metres) connects the island physically with North America. Structurally, Greenland is an extension of the Canadian Shield, the rough plateau of the Canadian north that is made up of hard Precambrian rocks.

Greenland’s major physical feature is its massive ice sheet, which is second only to Antarctica’s in size. The Greenland Ice Sheet has an average thickness of 5,000 feet (1,500 metres), reaches a maximum thickness of about 10,000 feet (3,000 metres), and covers more than 700,000 square miles (1,800,000 square km)—over four-fifths of Greenland’s total land area. Layers of snow falling on its barren, windswept surface become compressed into ice layers, which constantly move outward to the peripheralglaciers; the Jakobshavn Glacier, often moving 100 feet (30 metres) a day, is among the world’s fastest glaciers. The remaining ice-free land area occupies the country’s coastal areas and consists largely of highlands; mountain chains parallel the island’s east and west coasts, rising to 12,139 feet (3,700 metres) at Gunnbjørn Mountain in the southeast. These highlands notwithstanding, most parts of the rock floor underlying the Greenland Ice Sheet are in fact at or slightly beneath current sea levels.

Long, deep fjords reach far into both the east and west coasts of Greenland in complex systems, offering magnificent, if desolate, scenery. Along many parts of the coast, the ice sheet fronts directly on the sea, with large chunks breaking off the glaciers and sliding into the water as icebergs.

The climate of Greenland is Arctic, modified only by the slight influence of the Gulf Stream in the southwest. Rapid weather changes, from sunshine to impenetrable blizzards, are common and result from the eastward progression of low-pressure air masses over a permanent layer of cold air above the island’s icy interior. Average winter (January) temperatures range from the low 20s F (about −7 °C) in the south to approximately −30 °F (about −34 °C) in the north. Summer temperatures along the southwestern coast average in the mid-40s F (about 7 °C) during July, while the average in the far north is closer to 40 °F (about 4 °C). Greenland experiences about two months of midnight sun during the summer. Average annual precipitation decreases from more than 75 inches (1,900 mm) in the south to about 2 inches (50 mm) in the north. Large areas of the island can be classified as Arctic deserts because of their limited precipitation.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, scientists posited that global warming was profoundly affecting not only Greenland’s climate but also its physical geography. A number of scientists noted that Greenland’s vast ice sheet was shrinking at a highly increased rate. In 2012, for example, satellites revealed that at midyear 97 percent of the ice sheet showed some signs of melting, whereas in most years the melt affected only about half of the ice sheet. Researchers were uncertain, however, if the abrupt ice loss represented a long-term trend, but in 2016, as global warming pushed the planet toward the hottest January, February, March, April, and May in its history (according to NASA), Greenland also experienced a series of record early spikes in the melting of its ice sheets.

The country’s plant life is characterized mainly as tundra vegetation and consists of such plants as sedge and cotton grass. Plantlike lichens also are common. The limited ice-free areas are almost totally devoid of trees, although some dwarfed birch, willow, and alder scrub do manage to survive in sheltered valleys in the south. Several species of land mammals—including polar bears, musk oxen, reindeer, Arctic foxes, snow hares, ermines, and lemmings—can be found on the island. Seals and whales are found in the surrounding waters and were formerly the chief source of nourishment for the Greenlanders. Cod, salmon, flounder, and halibut are important saltwater fish, and the island’s rivers contain salmon and Arctic char.


Nearly nine-tenths of Greenlanders are principally of Inuit, or Eskimo, extraction. They are very strongly admixed with early European immigrant strains. More than one-tenth of the people are Danish, most of them born in Denmark.

The official languages of the island are Greenlandic (also known as Kalaallisut, an Inuit language belonging to the Eskimo-Aleut language family) and Danish (a Scandinavian, or North Germanic, language); English is also spoken.

Evangelical Lutheranism is the official religion. It is followed by nearly two-thirds of the population; about one-third of Greenlanders follow other forms of Christianity. Traditional beliefs, including shamanism, are still practiced by a small minority.

The population of Greenland is widely dispersed. The large majority of people live in one of the island’s 18 municipalities. The remainder live in villages.

Because of emigration levels, Greenland’s population growth rate was about zero at the start of the 21st century. Life expectancy is comparable to the world average, with males typically living into their mid-60s and females generally living into their early 70s.


Greenland’s economy has long been based on fishing. Seal hunting, once the mainstay of the economy, declined drastically in the early 20th century and was supplanted by the fishing, canning, and freezing of cod, shrimp, and other marine life. The island’s dependence on the fish industry, which is susceptible to problems of overfishing and fluctuating prices, became a growing concern in the late 20th century. Greenland therefore attempted to diversify its economy, and much emphasis was placed on the tourist industry. Since the 1990s, revenue from tourism has grown significantly. The government, which receives substantial financial aid from Denmark, continues to play a leading role in the economy. Nearly half the labour force works in the public sector.

Agriculture is possible on about 1 percent of Greenland’s total area, in the southern ice-free regions. Hay and garden vegetables are the main crops grown. Commercial sheep farming began in the early 20th century. Reindeer also are raised for meat, and polar bears are sometimes caught for their meat and pelts. However, sea mammals—seals, walruses, and whales—are still the most important source of meat.

Deposits of cryolite, lead, zinc, silver, and coal were mined at various times in the 20th century, and the island’s first gold mine opened in 2004. Exploration has uncovered deposits of iron, uranium, copper, molybdenum, diamonds, and other minerals. Climatic and ecological considerations had long limited the exploitation of these resources; however, global warming has not only melted sea ice and made oil and natural gas exploration more accessible but also opened tracts of land for mineral exploitation. The manner in which increasingly interested foreign firms were allowed to undertake exploration and mining became a pivotal political issue in Greenland in the early 21st century.

Oil drilling in the Arctic waters around Greenland began in mid-2010. Licensing agreements were delayed, however, as environmental concerns grew in response to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that year. Scotland-based Cairn Energy began drilling in 2010 but has yet to discover commercially viable sources of oil or natural gas off Greenland. In the late 20th century the island opened its first hydroelectric power plant.

Besides supplying domestic needs, fish (mainly halibut) and crustaceans (mainly shrimp) constitute Greenland’s principal exports. Seal pelts are tanned and used domestically as well as exported, but, due to import bans on seal fur, the international price level is at a minimum. Greenland’s chief trading partner is Denmark, although it does conduct trade with other countries as well.

Roadways in Greenland are limited to short stretches within town limits. Although dogsleds and snowmobiles are used on ice-covered coastal areas and inland, shipping and air service are the principal means of transport. Greenland has a sophisticated digital telecommunications network, as well as a military communications network associated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American radar defense system. The rates of cellular telephone and Internet use rose during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, though usage rates remained lower than those in nearby Canada and in the Nordic countries.

Government and society

In 1979 the Danish government granted home rule to Greenland. Under this agreement, Greenland remained part of the Danish realm, and each Greenlander was a Danish citizen, enjoying equal rights with all other Danes. Denmark retained control of the island’s constitutional affairs, foreign relations, and defense, while Greenland maintained jurisdiction over economic development, municipal regulations, taxes, education, the social welfare system, cultural affairs, and the state church. Mineral resources were managed jointly by Denmark and Greenland. It was perhaps this last point that inspired Greenlanders to vote overwhelmingly in 2008 to increase their autonomy from Denmark, and Greenland is now officially designated a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark. Under the expanded home rule agreement, which took effect on June 21, 2009, Greenland retained a greater percentage of oil and mineral revenue. It also managed virtually all domestic affairs, including criminal justice, and Greenlandic supplanted Danish as the official language of government. Denmark, in collaboration with Greenlandic political leaders, continued to manage the island’s foreign relations and defense.

The centre of power in Greenland is the Landsting, a parliament elected to four-year terms by all adults age 18 and older. A number of parties have been represented in the Landsting. Among them are Siumut, a social democratic party that favours self-determination while maintaining close relations with Denmark; the Demokratiit party, created by a breakaway faction of Siumut; Atassut, a more conservative party that has supported Greenland’s historical relations with Denmark; and Inuit Ataqatigiit, which calls for full independence from Denmark. The Landsting elects the prime minister as well as the other members of the Landsstyre, a council that assumes the island’s executive responsibilities. The prime minister is typically the leader of the majority party in the parliament. Greenland’s voters also elect two representatives to the Danish parliament (Folketing). An official known as the high commissioner represents the Danish government in Greenland.

Using financial grants from Denmark, Greenland’s government provides its citizens with a wide range of welfare services. Free health care is available to the island’s people as well. These social services have greatly improved Greenlanders’ health and living conditions.

Nine years of education are free and compulsory for Greenlandic children. The island’s school system historically had an insufficient number of teachers who were native Greenlandic speakers, and consequently it hired many Danish-speaking and Danish-educated teachers. By the end of the 20th century, however, the number of native Greenlandic-speaking teachers was increasing. Greenlandic is the principal language of instruction in the schools, but Danish also continues to be taught. Greenland offers a large selection of vocational and teacher-training programs, and there is a small university, Ilisimatusarfik (founded as the Inuit Institute in 1983). Nevertheless, many students attend university outside Greenland, especially in Denmark.

Cultural life

Despite the Western influence exerted by the Danish presence in Greenland and, more recently, by increased access to international mass media, the practice of traditional Inuit (Eskimo) cultural activities is still of importance. Folk arts such as soapstone carving and drum dancing remain popular, as do kayak building and sailing. The island features a number of museums, including the Greenland National Museum and Archives in Nuuk. Katuaq Cultural Centre, also in Nuuk, hosts concerts, art exhibits, and other cultural events. Numerous sports are played in Greenland: football (soccer) is very popular, as are skiing, badminton, handball, table tennis, tae kwon do, and volleyball. Kalaallit Nunaata Radio (KNR), the island’s broadcasting company, offers radio and television programs in Greenlandic and Danish.


The Inuit (Eskimo) are believed to have crossed to northwest Greenland from North America, using the islands of the Canadian Arctic as stepping stones, in a series of migrations that stretched from at least 2500 bce to the early 2nd millenniumce. Each wave of migration represented different Inuit cultures. Several distinct cultures are known, including those classified as Independence I (c. 2500–1800 bce), Saqqaq (c. 2300–900 bce), Independence II (c. 1200–700 bce), Dorset I (c. 600 bce–100 ce), and Dorset II (c. 700–1200). The most recent arrival was the Thule culture (c. 1100), from which the Inugsuk culture developed during the 12th and 13th centuries.

In 982 the Norwegian Erik the Red, who had been banished from Iceland for manslaughter, settled on the island today known as Greenland. Returning to Iceland about 985, he described the merits of the newly discovered land, which he called Greenland, and in 986 he organized an expedition to the island that resulted in the development of two main settlements: the East Settlement, near present-day Qaqortoq (Julianehåb), and the West Settlement, near present-day Nuuk (Godthåb). These settlements may have reached a population of 3,000–6,000 on about 280 farms, suggesting that temperatures at that time may have been as warm or warmer than they are today. Christianity arrived in the 11th century by way of Erik’s son Leif Eriksson, who had just returned from the recently Christianized Norway. A bishop’s seat was established in Greenland in 1126.

Beginning sometime in the 13th century, the Norse (Scandinavian) settlers began to interact with the expanding Inuit Thule culture that had appeared in northern Greenland about 1100. But in the 14th century the Norse settlements declined, perhaps as a result of a cooling in Greenland’s climate. In the 15th century they ceased to be inhabited.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch and English whalers frequently traveled in the seas around Greenland, and occasionally they interacted with the local population. However, no further attempt at colonization was made until 1721, when Hans Egede, with the permission of the united kingdom of Denmark-Norway, founded a trading company and a Lutheran mission near present-day Nuuk, thus marking the real beginning of Greenland’s colonial era. In 1776 the Danish government assumed a full monopoly of trade with Greenland, and the Greenland coast was closed to foreign access; it was not reopened until 1950. During this period Denmark tried gradually to acclimatize the Greenlanders to the outside world without exposing them to the danger of economic exploitation.

Greenland fell under the protection of the United States during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II and was returned to Denmark in 1945. Following the war, Denmark responded to Greenlanders’ complaints over its administration of the island. The monopoly of the Royal Greenland Trading Company was abolished in 1951, and, after Greenland became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953, reforms were undertaken to improve the local economy, transportation systems, and the educational system. Denmark granted home rule to the island on May 1, 1979.

At the start of the 21st century, there was growing support in Greenland for greater control of its foreign affairs. This arose partly in response to a 2004 agreement allowing the United States to upgrade its missile defense system at Thule Air Base. Inuit who had been forcibly removed from the area surrounding the base in the 1950s sued for the right to return, airing their grievances at the European Court of Human Rights. Some Greenlanders were wary of continued U.S. involvement because the United States had stored nuclear bombs on the island during the Cold War without Greenland’s knowledge, despite a Danish ban on such weapons; additionally, in 1968 a U.S. military aircraft carrying four hydrogen bombs had crashed near Thule.

There were calls for an independent Greenland, and parties campaigning for greater autonomy scored electoral victories in the first decade of the 21st century. In November 2008 more than 75 percent of Greenlanders who voted approved a nonbinding referendum calling for greater autonomy. The proposal, which was formulated by legislators in both Greenland and Denmark, had the tacit approval of the Danish government even before the referendum was held. It would increase the responsibilities of Greenland’s government in foreign affairs, immigration, and justice, among other areas, while also granting it the rights to the potentially lucrative hydrocarbon and mineral resources that have become increasingly accessible as a result of the island’s melting ice cap. It was widely believed that this potential revenue would free Greenland from its economic dependence on Denmark, which many saw as the final stumbling block to complete independence. Snap elections held in June 2009 saw Siumut removed from power for the first time since home rule was granted in 1979. The opposition Inuit Ataqatigiit captured more than 40 percent of the vote, and party leader Kuupik Kleist worked quickly to form a coalition government prior to the expansion of home rule later that month.

In elections in 2013 Siumut returned to power at the head of a coalition presided over by Greenland’s first female prime minister, Aleqa Hammond, whose government placed a moratorium on granting licences for oil exploration and began requiring royalty payments from foreign concerns before they began mining. (Kleist’s government had planned to allow foreign firms to defer payments until some startup costs could be recouped.) Hammond’s government also announced its willingness to allow the mining of some radioactive minerals, notably uranium, which had previously been prohibited.

In October 2014, with her government having narrowly escaped a vote of no confidence, Hammond temporarily stepped down amid accusations of having misused government funds and was replaced by Kim Kielsen. When the parliamentary opposition engineered a snap election at the end of November, Kielsen led Siumut to the polls, where it captured about 34 percent of the vote, compared with about 33 percent for the chief opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA). Both parties were awarded 11 of the 31 legislative seats, but Kielsen arranged a new governing coalition with two smaller partners, the Demokratiit party (four seats) and the Atassut Party (two seats).

Rasmus Ole RasmussenThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica


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 Nunaat—meaning "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 icebergs—many of monstrous size—are 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 4,500–5,000 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

A person collecting ice for drinking water in Qaanaaq, Greenland. In Greenland's subarctic climate, temperatures average only fifty degrees at the height of summer, and only along the southwest coast.

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 Greenlandic—not Danish—criminal 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 problem—common in many isolated Arctic communities around the world—is 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 historical—and present-day—concerns 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

Laundry hanging at a farm in Jakobshavn. Most Greenlandic homes are constructed of stone, sod, or wood.

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.

Communities are typically tightly clustered, and solitude is considered totally undesirable.

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.

Also read article about Greenland from Wikipedia

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