• Indigenous peoples in Greenland

    Indigenous peoples in Greenland

    The indigenous peoples of Greenland are Inuit and make up a majority of the Greenlandic population. Greenland is a self-governing country within the Danish Realm, and although Denmark has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Greenland’s population continue to face challenges.
  • Peoples

    50,000 out of Greenland’s 56,000 peoples are Inuit
  • Rights

    2007: Denmark adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Children's rights

    2010: The Government of Greenland and UNICEF Denmark enter into a partnership agreement to raise awareness of children's rights in Greenland


Greenland has been occupied for thousands of years. Pre-historic people migrated to Greenland from what is today northern Canada. The last waves of migrants into Greenland were the Thule Eskimos (Inuit) who migrated along the whole Arctic coast from Alaska to Greenland. Today's indigenous Greenlanders and the indigenous peoples of northern Canada and northern Alaska are the descendents of the Thule Eskimos. This explains why the Greenlanders and the Inuit people of the enormous coastal regions of northern Canada and Alaska speak very similar languages or dialects.


Greenland was colonised by Denmark in 1721 when the missionary Hans Egede established the first colonial settlement not far from what is today Nuuk, the capital. Within only a few generations, colonial settlements had been established along the vast coast of West Greenland, from Upernavik in the north to Nanortalik in the very south. By the end of the 1700s, real power lay in the hands of the Royal Greenlandic Trade Department in Copenhagen, from where all colonial settlements were ruled for more than 200 years. The settlements of East Greenland and North Greenland did not come under Danish control until shortly before and after the start of the 20th century. From its inception, Danish colonial policy was based on mission and trade.

The missionaries soon learned Greenlandic, and the dialect spoken around Nuuk was used in churches and schools all along the vast coast. When the first newspaper, Atuagagdliutit, was published in 1861, the Nuuk dialect was used and it developed into a new written vernacular used in all colonial districts. The use of a common language created a sense of unity around being a Greenlander, and a Greenlandic identity, Kalaaleq, emerged gradually in the 18th and 19th centuries. The significance of this is that Greenland had been a political reality for a very long time when the demand for Home Rule was first heard in the 1970s.

The political attitude of the Danes toward the colonized people was best characterised as "benign paternalism" or top-down decolonisation. Presumably inspired by the political developments in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, decolonisation and indirect rule became important in the governing of Greenland. The first step was taken in the early 1860s with the introduction of district councils that were quasi-democratic structures made up of elected Greenlanders (male only) and members of the colonial administration. In 1911, elected municipal councils replaced these district councils and two indirectly elected provincial councils were established.

Greenlandic Home Rule

The impact of World War II was significant. For five years, the country was cut off from German-occupied Denmark, and Greenland relied on newly established links with the USA. When the war was over, the colonial system did not remain unchallenged and the protective policy of the Danish authorities was gradually abolished. Greenland became an "open" country, huge US military bases were established and, with the new Danish constitution of 1953, Greenland "lost" its colonial status and became a distinct region within the Danish realm.

From 1953 on, Greenland was divided into two electoral districts each sending a representative to the Danish Parliament. An advisory Provincial Council became more and more powerful and, in 1973, a Home Rule Committee recommended that Greenland's political future be negotiated with the Danish Government. This resulted in the establishment of a Danish-Greenlandic Home Rule Commission. The report from this committee was adopted by the Danish Parliament and confirmed by referendum in Greenland. Home Rule was introduced on 1 May 1979.

Political developments in Greenland in the 1970s were strongly affected by an industrialisation programme promoted by the Danish authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. Heavy Danish investment in the fishing industry and in housing, concentrated in four 'urban' centres, had the demographic implication of causing the presence of Danes to reach about 20 per cent of the total population by the 1970s, and also led to increased urbanisation. In 1950, more than 200 years after the first colonial settlement was established in Greenland, no more than 4.5 per cent of the population were Danes. In this forced development process, the Greenlanders were by and large left behind, and this largely explains their later social and political development. 25 years after the introduction of Home Rule, the percentage of ethnic Greenlanders had increased and the Danes had decreased in both numerical and relative terms.


IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. The Indigenous World 2019.

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand