Language identity is a very important part of culture here. Greenlandic is one of the few Arctic people’s languages that is still used as the predominate language of communication by a large group of people. There is a wide array of publications in Greenlandic including all of the ‘classic’ books translated to Greenlandic, a significant body of Greenlandic literature and poetry, and the existence of Greenlandic publishing houses, all of which is indicative of the vitality of the language. Though classified as ‘endangered’ by the U.N. permanent forum on indigenous peoples due to the fact that it has only about 50,000 speakers (roughly the size of its population), Greenlandic is not considered endangered by most linguists. Greenlandic, it seems, is actually being spoken by an increasing number of people each year, and though the total population is small, the rich literature, strong recruitment of young speakers in the population and the transition to the use of Greenlandic as the official language under the Greenlandic Self-Rule government are all securing the language’s future as a part of culture here. Illustrating the challenge of maintaining one’s culture in an ever-modernizing global environment, most Greenlanders are at least bilingual, if not fluently trilingual. Greenlandic and Danish are taught concurrently in elementary school, with English becoming their third language sometime around gymnasium (high school). It is amazing that most people, especially young people, can communicate with us very fluently in English yet be able to switch back to Greenlandic or Danish in an instant. I think that we are all thoroughly impressed!
One of our meetings today was with Carl Christian Olsen (Puju), the head of the Self-Rule government’s Language Secretariat, charged with maintaining the integrity and proper use of the Greenlandic language. He was able to share with us some of the history of the Greenlandic language, where it is currently used, and the standardization-of-script process which allows for Greenlandic to be preserved. It is clear how important this language is to the vibrant Greenlandic culture.
We also had the opportunity to meet with Innuteq Holm Olsen, Greenland’s Deputy Foreign Minister, who graciously answered all of our questions. We began the discussion around the new Self-Rule government that was passed on June 21st, 2009. In the Self-Rule government system, Greenland has assumed responsibility for self-government of judicial affairs, policing, and natural resources, while Denmark still maintains control of foreign affairs and is responsible for defense matters. The enactment of the Self-Rule government has allowed the Greenlanders to become recognized as separate people from the Danish under international law, and Greenlandic is now the official language of Greenland. Despite the increase in autonomy, there does not seem to be any animosity towards the Danish and so far, the Denmark-Greenland relationship seems to be a rare example of a peaceful decolonization transition.
Greenland still receives a large subsidy of 3.4 billion Danish Kroner ($630M) from the Danish government to support the social structure and Self-Rule government, and will not be able to gain full autonomy until the need for this subsidy is removed. In order to gain more revenue, Greenland needs to develop new market sectors, which Innuteq expects will take at least 20-30 years. One of the obvious potential new sectors is resource extraction, which is becoming more and more plausible with Arctic warming due to climate change. Most people, including Innuteq, are in favor of resource extraction as a way to gain full autonomy, but are not willing to damage the environment in the process. At this point, there is only a market-based demand to extract these resources. Therefore, many companies are coming to Greenland with a strong desire to set up mines while the Greenlandic government is hastily trying to create a comprehensive review process for evaluating these endeavors as well as gather sufficient scientific advice on which avenues to pursue. As a group, this is where we might be able to help Greenland. I think that most scientists dream of a situation in which their research may contribute to the greater good, and we are no different. Giving our knowledge back to Greenland is a priority. This meeting was truly informative as well as thought provoking, and we owe a big “Thank you” to Innuteq Holm Olsen for the experience.
This afternoon, we had the privilege to meet up with a number of graduate students from the University of Greenland to talk a bit about their research, as well as about life in Greenland. Even though our research interests were not necessarily similar, we had a great conversation about what it is to be Greenlandic, to be an academic, and what it is like to live here. Throughout this trip we have been able to gather many perspectives of Greenland’s political and ideological landscape, and it was great in this meeting to gain some perspective from the young people. Later this evening we had three of our friends, Hanne, Upaluk, and Avijaja, over to our flat for dinner and great conversation. Everyone here has been so kind, friendly, and willing to share with us that it is making it hard for us to want to leave this great country next weekend.