Cultures on Display: Ch 7 of Go Greenland

September 30, 2021
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I DID get to see the one and only shopping mall in Greenland. It was called the ‘Nuuk Centre’ and was quite a modern building, opened for shopping in 2012. We also passed by Katuaq, a grand building that was used as cultural centre in the heart of the city and not far from the Hans Egede Church.

The Hans Egede Church was named after a Lutheran missionary. He founded Greenland’s capital Nuuk (as Godthåb) in the 1700s and was credited as re-establishing friendly relations with local Inuit, after a fractured relationship with Denmark. The church was in commemoration of his work, and he is well-known as the apostle of Greenland.

I heard a funny story about Egede. When he began working with the Inuit people and preaching to them, he ran into a classic example of cultural differences. When first reciting the line from the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ the local Inuit had no idea what bread was — it was not in their diet. Hans had to translate the saying to, ‘Give us this day our daily seal’!

There were a few statues to Hans Egede around Nuuk, and I noted with surprise that there had also been a statue of him outside Frederik’s Church in Copenhagen: the one with the marvellous dome. I suppose that ties in with Hans going to university there and living in Copenhagen.

I headed to the National Museum of Greenland in Nuuk, which had an exhibition on about the Inuit people and their traditional ways of life. It covered everything from 4,500 BCE until modern times and was beyond interesting. It wasn’t a massive building or anything, but they sure had a lot of information.

The clothing was amazing. it began as fur and skins sewn together to form the iconic fur hood jacket that many people associate with the Arctic. The Inuit gave us the word ‘Annoraq’ (Anorak in Canadian Inuit), and ‘parka’, which is a traditional fur lined jacket used by the Inuit peoples across the arctic. They had to have been very skilled sewers, because they had to make sure the clothes didn’t freeze and that they were watertight when they went out fishing.

So, it really was another example of their close relationship with, and respect for, the environment and animals they hunted. They used everything from an animal — it provided food, clothing, tools and more. I saw some of the very colourful traditional costumes that people in Western Greenland still wear today. I also saw an article about the crown princess Mary of Denmark and her husband crown prince Frederik, who both donned traditional outfits out of respect for the Greenlandic Inuit culture.

Greenlandic traditional clothing developed over time from fur and skins to become brighter in character once brightly coloured beads began to be imported from Europe. The women were particularly taken with the colourful beads, which are now a significant part of traditional Greenlandic clothing. The boots the women wore were another interesting item. Made usually from sealskin, the boots went all the way up to the mid-thigh and were then tied with string to hold them up. They were painted and decorated in a range of different colours, I thought them to be very trendy and they looked like something from the hippie era. Maybe that’s where the inspiration for thigh-high boots came from!

The exhibition that sparked my interest was the Thule culture, the forerunners of the Inuit. Because of the cold and freezing temperatures, there were a lot of mummified bodies that had been found and preserved in the museum. There were two main cultures who resided in Greenland before the Thule culture. They disappeared from Greenland, and it is believed that simply the weather was too much. Even the Norse people left eventually because of the weather, abandoning the island until the 1700s. It was the Thule culture who developed many of the strategies and ways to manage life in the harsh environment. They developed the kayak, dog sledding and more advanced harpoons for whale hunting. Modern day Greenlandic Inuit are said to be very closely related to the Thule people.

I found it all fascinating! I came all the way to Greenland, which I thought wouldn’t have much of a history at all and found myself absorbed by ancient cultures and mummies in glass.

It was quite interesting the similarities and likeness to other cultures, particularly the other Inuit in Canada and the Native American peoples. I saw an umiaq, a skin boat. It is literally a boat made from the skins of animals sewn together. Archaeologists had found one in the north of Greenland which they called the Pearyland Umiaq, and they reckon it was built around the 1400s, which was just incredible! The boat’s origins are said to be from the Thule culture and just passed on down through generations, all the knowledge about how to make them so they were watertight. That’s one thing I suppose was saddening: the loss of culture and traditions in many of the countries I visited and cultures I saw.

Another traditional mode of transport is the dog sled. No less than 82% of Greenland is ice cap. So, the whole dog sled thing was quite significant. There are no roads in a lot of places to connect villages, so people depend on other means of transport: which traditionally boiled down to a choice of boats in the water and dog sleds on the ice. Even well into the twentieth century the dog sled was important. There was epic case in 1925 in which diphtheria anti-toxin was heroically raced to Nome, Alaska through the depths of the northern winter by teams of dog sledders, in fifty-below conditions, to combat a growing epidemic among the children of the town. But that was really the last hurrah of the dog sled. Within a decade any such crisis would have been handled by plane or — a little later still, and if the distances weren’t so great — by snowmobile. These days, dog sleds exist only for old times’ sake.

I spent a good part of my day wandering around the museum, making a point to read every single article and information board around the place. I found all the staff very polite and was surprised to find out that a lot of Greenlandic people have lost the local language. Many can only speak English or Danish, I think that is absolutely outrageous! Afterwards I wandered around the town a bit more, had a coffee and talked to a few of the locals who were sitting there too. I was surprised to meet a few people from Asia, even Thailand and the Philippines. However, most people seemed to be native Greenlandic people or Danes from Denmark as well as people from other parts of Scandinavia. I learned also that they take it very offensively when people use the term Eskimo, as common as it might be in Alaska.

Eskimo is apparently a word that used to be used by native Americans for their Arctic neighbours, with a meaning that is now unclear. Those who think it means ‘eaters of raw meat’ (true enough on occasion, traditionally speaking) are likely to take offence; though it could also mean ‘wearers of snowshoes’, which doesn’t sound like any kind of an insult. In Greenland and in Canada, anyone who might once have been called an Eskimo is actually an Inuit. So, in those countries people now think the word Eskimo is dated and colonial. On the other hand, the word Eskimo is still used in Alaska as in that state there are two groups of indigenous people with an Inuit-like lifestyle, the Inuit themselves and the Yup’ik, members of an ethnic group that is related to the Inuit but not quite the same, and whose members live on both sides of the Bering straits whereas the Inuit are generally further east. In Alaska, the word Eskimo is used to refer to both Inuit and Yup’ik together.

In Nuuk, I also got to talking to a few of the locals about global warming; and that got me on to reading books about it. I found a book the Canadian Inuit people released in 2016, called “The Caribou taste different now,” which was a reflection of how global warming had affected their lifestyles and diets. That was quite an eye-opener.

Traditionally the Inuit people had two homes — somewhat similar to the Sámi people, who moved around with the herds and seasons and had multiple homes as well. In the case of the Inuit there were generally two types of houses: a summer and winter version. The summer one looks similar to a native American tipi or a Sámi lavvu — a conical dwelling with a frame made from driftwood and antlers, which is then covered in skin, with a hole in the top for ventilation. The winter house is the more distinctive igloo, a snow house made out of blocks of compressed snow and ice that are cut into shape.

The central theme of the museum seemed to be the unity of the Inuit and their relatives across the Arctic from Siberia to Canada and Greenland. All in all, even though they are separated by distance, their cultural identities and characteristics are similar.

Art and music are also things that I am very interested in and familiar with, from cultures I have discovered all over the world. So, it was interesting to see such diversity in the development of traditional arts, crafts and music in the Inuit peoples. Song, poetry and stories seemed to be bound up with most of the Inuit art forms. Drumming and dancing as well as throat singing — which is very similar to the Native American chanting — were all part of the exhibition as well. The Greenland National Museum at Nuuk was incredible: well worth visiting.

There was a wealth of information, and it was perfect to see everything up close! I was glad I had got to see this slice of history and was quite keen to visit other museums and cultural sites.

Go Greenland is available on this website,


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