What causes a society to lose its culture?

Stúdentablaðið/Eydís María Ólafsdóttir

Stúdentablaðið/Eydís María Ólafsdóttir

Translation: Julie Summers

“I explore a lot of different issues in my thesis, and I had all kinds of questions, such as how Greenland is portrayed in the media and what sort of prejudices we as Icelanders have about Greenland. When I told people that I was writing my thesis about Greenland, I got a lot of typical responses, people telling me how society is in Greenland, how everyone there drinks too much, that sort of thing. My goal in writing this essay was to explain the difference between what we think about Greenland and what the reality is,” says Herdís Birna Heiðarsdóttir, who submitted her undergraduate anthropology thesis, titled “Greenland Past and Present: What Causes a Society to Lose its Culture?” in June 2018.

One of the things that drew Herdís to this topic is the relationship between Icelanders and Greenlanders. “I think it’s just crazy how we talk about Danes and Norwegians as our brothers, but we don’t want to be associated with Greenlanders, even though they’re actually much closer neighbors, whereas Greenlanders see us as their brothers and sisters. At the height of the Birna Brjánsdóttir case in 2017, when it came out that she had been murdered by a Greenlander, Icelanders reacted by throwing Greenlanders out of their shops, and several Greenlanders actually moved away from Iceland because of all the prejudice they were facing.

“The people of Greenland talked about how hurtful the reaction from Iceland was. The entire nation took the Birna case very hard and thought it was horrible. They lit candles and mourned with us, but we projected our hate onto an entire nation because of two men, which is completely illogical. These kinds of situations really have a way of bringing our prejudices to the surface, and even though we don’t think we’re prejudiced, we are.”

Greenland and Denmark

Denmark taking control of Greenland had a tremendous impact on the Greenlandic people. The Danes viewed Greenland as a nation they need to save. Greenlanders were taken to Denmark and put on display in Copenhagen as if they were rare artifacts. It wasn’t uncommon that Greenlanders jumped overboard rather than continue to Copenhagen. Herdís says the Danish authorities forbade Greenlanders from preserving their traditions and customs. “Their religion was considered peculiar. They pray to a goddess at the bottom of the ocean, while the forces of evil are in the sky. It makes sense given their way of life; bad weather comes from above, and their main source of food is fish.”

Fighting for recognition

“One thing I realized pretty early on in my research was that Greenlanders only want to write about themselves in Greenlandic, as they’ve been so badly misrepresented by foreign researchers. But it’s a difficult thing to change, because so much of their environment is in Danish, especially at the University of Greenland in Nuuk. They’re doing all they can to try to regain their identity, but it isn’t going particularly well. It used to be that schools in Greenland only taught Danish, but the people succeeded in getting Greenlandic added to the curriculum so that their language won’t be forgotten.

“There are 56,000 Greenlanders, so they are never going to overshadow the Danish language, but it’s a question of making sure their language doesn’t die out and that the people don’t forget all sorts of beautiful traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, like the practice of naming children after a deceased relative so that the relative’s spirit doesn’t get stuck in limbo. Greenlanders also talk a lot about their Sila, one’s connection with their environment, and how afraid they are that people will lose it,” says Herdís. Practical skills that have been passed between generations are being lost, and climate change has also been a powerful factor.

Source material hard to come by

Herdís had difficulty gathering sources for her essay, as so much of the available information about Greenlanders is either in Greenlandic or Danish. After a long search at the National Library of Iceland and online, she decided to try taking another route. “I started talking with Helgi Gunnlaugsson, a criminologist who taught at the university in Nuuk, and my thesis advisor Sveinn Eggertsson, and there was also a retired anthropology professor who helped me a lot. I also found two books at the Kolaportið flea market,” says Herdís, adding that she referred to anthropology classics for her chapter on Greenland’s past.

Greenland today

“Greenlanders know full well what’s best for themselves, and of all the Inuit peoples in the world, Greenlandic Inuits are the only ones who have achieved autonomy. They’re self-governing, and they’re trying to fight for their rights and reconstruct a coherent self-image. They’re not Greenlanders and they’re not Danes, they’re something in between,” says Herdís. These identity issues have caused them a lot of distress; many Greenlanders suffer from depression, and the nation has a very high suicide rate.

“There was a Greenlandic rap video on YouTube about a phone call with the local police. Someone called and said there was a man outside in the freezing cold, totally wasted, and the police officer immediately asked whether the man was a Greenlander or a Dane. If he had been a Greenlander, they were just supposed to leave him there and forget about him, but if he were Danish, then the police would have come to save him.” Herdís mentions this as an example of the discrimination that occurs in Greenland.

“They live in a completely different society than we do. For nine months out of the year, it’s pitch black, which really disrupts your internal clock. Greenland is an independent nation, the people can take care of themselves, and what they do has real weight in their society,” says Herdís, adding in closing:

“What we can do is be aware that what we think isn’t always true, and be aware of our prejudices against people, especially if we think they’re different. They’re on social media just like us, they just live a different life, with longer nights and harder winters. It’s really just a matter of being kind to one another.”