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A Closer Look at Greenland
Researching the influence of colonization, the Cold War and climate change in current events
By Courtney Suciu
The news cycles so quickly these days that it’s almost impossible to keep up, let alone get an in-depth grasp on the hows and whys behind trending topics before the next big story breaks.
Case in point: On August 15, 2019, The Wall Street Journal1 was the first to report on U.S. President Donald Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark located between the Northern Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Circle. While people around the world were still reeling from this seemingly out-of-the-blue development, the same publication2 reported just days later that such a deal wouldn’t happen (Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called such a possibility “absurd”) and Trump subsequently cancelled his trip to Denmark scheduled for September 2019.
While this unexpected development seemed to be quickly resolved, speculation about what inspired the U.S. president to entertain such a notion continued to make headlines.
Then news broke that U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) told White House correspondent Eliana Johnson that it was he who, after meeting with the Danish ambassador, initially suggested the acquisition of Greenland to Trump.
Cotton told CNN3:
In the last few years, China has repeatedly tried to gain a strategic foothold in Greenland, by offering to buy a former US military base there and through a financing scheme for airport construction. Purchasing it would keep it out of the hands of both the Chinese and the Russians. It is rich in national resources with untold economic potential and already extremely important to US national security.
Cotton’s explanation provides critical insight into Greenland’s desirability not only among today’s global superpowers, but also among those of the past. In order to understand the ongoing battle for control of this region – and the consequences these efforts – we turned to ProQuest One Academic.
Searching this single platform, we discovered President Trump’s interest in Greenland wasn’t an isolated event that happened in a vacuum. Rather, it’s part of a long, complex history involving colonization, the Cold War, indigenous rights and climate change.
Early colonization of Greenland
Greenland’s colonial phase “began in 1721, when the Danish-Norwegian Lutheran priest Hans Egede established a mission and trading activities in the area of the present-day capital Nuuk,” according to Søren Rud, author of Colonialism in Greenland: Tradition, Governance and Legacy4.
From this time until the 1950s, Denmark’s Royal Greenland Trading Company controlled trade and administration of country. Seal hunting was critical to Greenland’s indigenous Inuit population and with it, the Royal Greenland Trading Company saw an opportunity for profit.
Rud explained, “the financial success of the colonial project had come to depend on a supply of fur and blubber ‘produced’ by the Greenlandic hunters.”
Colonial authorities feared outside influences would hamper the skill of the indigenous hunters, so they were motivated to “protect” the native culture – particularly their traditional hunting methods – thereby ensuring an abundant supply of fur and blubber for trade.
In this way, “the notion of an authentic Greenlandic tradition was used tactically by the colonial authorities,” Rud wrote.
According to Rud, the most successful seal hunters were rewarded with some degree of power. In each colonial district, the best hunters were nominated for election by their peers to serve on a board governing local matters.
These board members, the paarsisut, were also meant to act as “local eyes of authority, watching over the conduct of their fellow Greenlanders,” he wrote. The paarsisut kept records of all local residents, reflecting those “who behaved straight, and set a moral, industrious example to be followed”– and those who did not.
As part of their policing responsibilities, the paarsisut were meant to make sure their constituents adhered to indigenous tradition – that is, to make sure that Greenlanders acted in accordance with the Danish ideals of Greenland traditions. Out of this system, a new social hierarchy emerged.
According to the author, the seal hunters were held up by the colonial authorities as the embodiment of authentic Greenlandic culture, and “Greenlanders who did not hunt seals were accordingly seen as ‘less Greenlandic.’”
Greenlanders who lived in remote communities where all food and resources were shared prior to colonialization now found themselves under escalating pressure to compete for survival.
Greenland and The Cold War
Danish efforts to isolate Greenlandic culture from other Western influences persisted into the 20th century. But in 1940, when Denmark fell under German occupation during World War II, the U.S. was given access to the territory, according to Ronald E. Doel, Kristine C. Harper, and Matthias Heymann, editors of Exploring Greenland: Cold War Science and Technology on Ice5.
The 1941 establishment of U.S. Thule Airbase in Greenland not only protected the Danish colony from Nazi invasion but “made possible the forceful and fateful Allied push into France and Western Europe after 1944,” they wrote in the book’s introduction. However, “many Danes became wary after the USA remained firmly entrenched in Greenland after World War II ended in 1945.”
Denmark’s concerns further escalated in 1946, the editors explained, when the administration of U.S. President Harry S. Truman sought to purchase the island because of its militarily strategic location. Truman’s Secretary of State offered a price of “$100 million (3.1 billion 2015 USD), hoping that Denmark would welcome the boost its treasury would receive.”
Then, as now, Denmark refused the sale.
While during the Cold War Denmark “remained firmly aligned with the West,” according to Doel et al, the Danish people and many politicians were uncomfortable with the increasingly audacious liberties taken by the U.S. in Greenland.
For example, in 1959-1961, when the U.S. celebrated the construction of the nuclear-powered Camp Century (“carved into an icecap”) as a “technological achievement,” it “irritated the Danish people, who believed their country had embraced a no-nuclear policy at home.” Additionally, “Danish leaders had suspected, but never felt certain, that the U.S. military had been storing nuclear weapons on its territory. This indeed was the case,” according to the editors.
The U.S. considered “Greenland, indeed the entire Arctic, as a potential theater of war,” they wrote, noting:
Veteran polar explorer Richard Byrd argued that if the USA failed to take advantage of Greenland for possible air attacks against the Soviets and to defend against Soviet attacks, “it is my opinion that this Nation is courting military disaster.”
For Western researchers, Doel et al explained, “understanding the physical environment of Greenland and the larger Arctic was essential to successfully employ the new weapons systems of the early Cold War…including (by the late 1950s) nuclear-powered submarines.”
The challenges of rapid development
Meanwhile, amid Cold War tensions and covert U.S. military activity on the island, the constitution of Denmark was amended in the 1950s to abolish colonial rule. Greenlanders were now considered Danish citizens and received two seats in the national parliament. (They would be granted “Home Rule” in 1979, giving them autonomous control over education, health, environmental policy and other domestic issues.)
The 1950s marked a turning point in Greenland’s economy and culture. As seal populations declined, commercial cod fisheries became the main source of livelihood for much of the country. To bolster production, policies discouraged traditional fishing methods and instead urged “a transition from kayak to dinghy and motorboat fishing,” scholar Kimberly Wolfe Derry wrote in her dissertation, New Risks, New Strategies: Greenlandic Inuit Response to Climate Change6.
Social and economic reforms were also enacted to urbanize the population. These efforts included “assimilation of the Danish language and cultural norms,” Wolfe said, along with relocating populations from remote villages into concentrated fishing towns. This involved programs designed to “improve” living conditions, such as replacing self-built huts with prefabricated houses which required purchase with loans, generating “a new type of economic obligation for family heads.”
As a result of these changes, it’s been an enduring struggle for indigenous Greenlanders to balance their traditions and identity with the demands of westernization.
In the 2002 documentary Indigenous People7, Greenlandic politician Asii Narup explained, “Being a Greenlander means being part of the Arctic Eskimo people [of] Canada, Alaska and Chukotka. When we meet other Eskimos – we get a great sense of fellowship that doesn’t exist in relation to Denmark.”
But under Home Rule, Greenlanders have inherited a system that is often contradictory with this shared culture and the people of Greenland’s experiences. Narup said the system doesn’t reflect who Greenlanders are, or what they want or need.
We haven’t given ourselves time to formulate the way we want to use the Home Rule Government. We’re creating a society for which we’re unqualified. It’s a society whose administrative and economic systems require personnel who’re not us but imported from Denmark. Lawyers, economists, teachers, nurses, doctors etc. Somehow we’ve managed to create a society that’s not on our terms.
For many Greenlanders, these developments have come with a tremendous feeling of loss – and insecurity. Furrier Ortoroq Moller lamented, “Living conditions have changed so much. Of course, unfortunately things get lost. A sense of community and being able to live off the land have also been lost. Because we can’t all live off what nature provides. Because its limited, unfortunately.”
Lars Sorensen, mayor of Paamiut, a town in southwestern Greenland, also expressed concern about the limitations of nature to provide for the people of Greenland.
“Paamiut developed very quickly solely based on cod fishing,” he said. Then, the “cod vanished from one day to the next in the late 1980s. The entire stock depleted in the course of just a couple of years.”
With the fish went the main source of employment for so many Greenlanders. Sorensen said it’s unclear what caused the cod to disappear. Overfishing? Climate change? A combination of various factors?
Whatever happened, the fish aren’t the only natural resource in Greenland impacted by environmental issues. Which brings us back to President Trump and other global leaders who are eager to expand into the region.
What’s next for Greenland?
In early August 2019, the latest reports revealed that Greenland’s ice sheets were melting at an alarming rate. During an “extreme melt” that week, the country “lost from 12 billion to 24 billion tons of ice per day, which was about 6 to 18 billion tons above the typical rates seen on these dates during the period from 1981-2010,” according to Andrew Freedman of the Washington Post8.
The melting ice is the consequence of “a combination of natural climate variability, such as a pattern of atmospheric pressure known as the North Atlantic Oscillation, plus long-term global warming has led to a much warmer than average summer melt season in Greenland and throughout the Arctic,” Freedman wrote.
Because the Atlantic and Arctic oceans surrounding Greenland were previously dense with ice, navigating this region was one of the world’s biggest maritime challenges. As a result, the country’s abundant and desirable mineral resources were out reach. But the melting ice sheets have changed that, and global leaders are clamoring to take advantage of the increased accessibility.
Following the announcement of Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland, the Washington Post9 reported that China and Russia have already expanded into the area, with China seeking to establish a “’Polar Silk Road’ in which goods would be delivered by sea from Asia to Europe.”
In addition to opportunities for trade and mineral mining, increased accessibility in the region is also favorable for the tourism industry. Luxury cruises through the North Pole are in demand, with people eager to pay handsomely to experience the Arctic landscape and its wildlife, while they still can.
For these reasons, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) was among those who supported Trump’s potential acquisition of Greenland. According to the Post, Manchin acknowledged how climate change has affected Greenland, and why it’s important for the U.S. to have a presence in the country: “We have a very strategic air base [in Greenland]. And I understand the strategy for that in that part of the world [with] the Arctic opening up the way it is now.”
As it seems (for the time being, anyway) the U.S. won’t be purchasing Greenland, this story will likely be fading from the headlines. But it’s clearly not over. To the contrary, developments in Greenland, including the melting ice sheets, global expansion into the region and the rights of the country’s indigenous people, offer critical insights to the future – as well as the past – that will likely impact all of us.
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- Salama, V., Ballhaus, R., Restuccia, A., & Bender, M. C. (2019, Aug 15). President Trump Eyes a New Real-Estate Purchase: Greenland; in Conversations with Aides, the President has—with Varying Degrees of Seriousness—Floated the Idea of the U.S. Buying the Autonomous Danish Territory. Wall Street Journal (Online). Available from ProQuest One Academic, Global Newsstream, ProQuest Central.
- Salama, V., & Restuccia, A. (2019, Aug 17). U.S. News: Greenland Isn't for Sale, Island Tells Trump. Wall Street Journal. Available from ProQuest One Academic, Global Newsstream, ProQuest Central.
- Cohen, Z., & Warren, M. (2019, Aug 23). Sen. Tom Cotton Says He Floated the Idea of Buying Greenland to Trump. CNN Wire Service. Available from ProQuest One Academic, Global Newsstream, ProQuest Central.
- Rud, Søren. Colonialism in Greenland: Tradition, Governance and Legacy. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Ebook Central.
- Doel, R. E., Harper, K. C., & Heymann, M. (Eds.). (2016). Exploring Greenland: Cold War Science and Technology on Ice. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Ebook Central.
- Derry, K. W. (2011). New Risks, New Strategies: Greenlandic Inuit Responses to Climate Change (Order No. 1497947). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global; ProQuest One Academic.
- Sejsbo, M. (Director), & Christensen, A. (Producer). (2002). Indigenous People [Video file]. Danish Broadcasting Corporation. Available from Academic Video Online: Premium database and ProQuest One Academic.
- Freedman, Andrew. (2019, Aug. 8). Greenland is on track to lose most ice on record this year and has already shed 250 million tons. The Washington Post.
- Sonmez F. & Newmeyer T. (2019, Aug. 18). Trump Confirms He’s Interested in Buying Greenland. The Washington Post. Available from ProQuest One Academic, Global Newsstream, ProQuest Central.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu