• 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

Central Issues

This section takes up issues that are of importance to the indigenous peoples in Greenland:

Social issues
Justice administration
Economic solidarity
Language and education
The sealing controversy


For the time being, the most important issue of concern to Greenlanders is the question of future self-government. Towards the end of the 20th century, many Greenlanders felt that the Home Rule arrangement had served its purpose and no longer matched with reality. In 1999, the Home Rule Government therefore established a Commission on Self-government to investigate the possibilities for taking over more responsibilities from the Danish state, thereby developing a more independent Greenland. Core issues were foreign affairs, security matters, economic development and language policy. The commission's report was published in spring 2003.

This report was presented to the Danish government with the result that a Danish-Greenlandic Commission was established and inaugurated on Greenland's national day, 21 June 2004. With an equal number of representatives from the Danish and the Greenlandic sides, the Commission is chaired by the Speaker of the Home Rule parliament. The commission has the following mandate: The Commission shall, with reference to Greenland's constitutional position and in conformity with the Greenlandic peoples' right of self-determination in accordance to international law consider and suggest ways by which the Greenlandic authorities can assume further control where this is constitutionally possible.

The mandate of the Commission is thus clearly to suggest self-government for Greenland – within the Danish realm. However, the mandate also states: There is an agreement between the Danish government and the Greenlandic Home Rule government that it rests with the Greenlandic people to decide if Greenland wants independence. Some Greenlandic politicians feel strongly that the constitutional framework established for the Commission restricts their political aspirations. Some of these politicians are now pushing strongly for a 'free association' between Greenland and Denmark.

There seems to be widespread popular consensus among Greenlanders that Greenland should be as independent as is possible for a country with little more than 50,000 inhabitants. Among the limiting factors is the fact that Greenland depends on annual financial block grants from the Danish state. Although these transfers have made it possible to establish a modern society, they have also resulted in dependency and passivity. The comparatively low educational level in Greenland is another restricting factor because it means that not all positions can be filled by Greenlanders. However, while the aims might seem clear, the ways and means by which to create new economic, social and cultural realities have been much disputed. One of the most disputed cases has been the abolition of the system that had, since colonial times, set fixed prices on a number of products such as water, electricity and daily consumer goods in all communities in Greenland.

In connection with the Home Rule parliamentary elections of 2005, much attention was given to Greenland’s future constitutional status. The work of the Danish-Greenlandic Self-government Commission revealed a number of divergent viewpoints among Greenlandic politicians. These disagreements relate to the future relationship between Greenland and Denmark as well as to the strategy to be adopted. However, the Home Rule parliament's election campaign in the autumn also revealed that the vigorous campaign for independence, as advanced by some politicians from Siumut and Inuit Ataqatigiit (and challenged by the Democrats) and reflected in the written media, did not match the immediate concerns of the general public. The future destiny of small and remote settlements, the decision by the Home Rule parliament to try to force people to use airplanes instead of ships and boats, and not least social issues such as concern for the social and physical safety of children, seem to be the main issues for ordinary people.

Social issues

Social affairs have always been the responsibility of the Greenland Home Rule authorities. The social system is, to a large extent, a replica of the Danish welfare system, which includes social security, free access to medical treatment, maternity leave, old-age pension, etc. However, despite the fact that the Greenland economy does not allow for social benefits on a par with those enjoyed in Denmark, only comparatively few choose to move to Denmark for this reason.

It might seem paradoxical that, in spite of the welfare system, Greenland society suffers from a number of serious social problems. Alcohol abuse is maybe the most serious, and every year it is the cause of a high number of accidents, violent behaviour and family tragedies. Many children and young people are neglected for this reason and have to be placed in care outside their families. During the debate on self-government or independence, some politicians have mentioned the danger of specifically forgetting this issue in the political debate. The political discussion on self-government vs. independence is often led by men whereas social issues are promoted by women. In light of what seems to be the main concern of the general public, it is perhaps not surprising that women were so successful in the last elections for the Greenland Parliament.

Greenland society also suffers from an exceedingly high suicide rate, not least among young adults. Finally, it should be mentioned that drug abuse is an increasing problem. The press, not least in Denmark, often portray Greenland as a country dominated by social problems. Although social problems such as those mentioned are serious, it is still important to remember that Greenland offers its people a number of social benefits unknown to indigenous peoples in the poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Justice administration

It took 10 years for the Danish-Greenlandic Commission on Administration of Justice to come to an agreement on recommendations for a new system of justice in Greenland. In August 2005, the 2,200 page long report was delivered to the relevant Home Rule minister, who stressed its enormous significance. Greenland is often said to have the best justice system in the world, combining traditional cultural practices with the Western notion of justice. However, the current system was developed shortly after World War II and there has been general agreement that changes are now needed. One reason for this is that criminal offenders with what seem to be almost irreparable behavioural and mental problems, and who cannot be accommodated and dealt with within the framework of current penitentiary and rehabilitation practices in Greenland, are sent as a last resort to prisons in Denmark, far from their relatives and their home country, for an indefinite term pending their behaviour.

The current court system in Greenland is, to a very large extent, built upon lay judges and these have increasingly experienced difficulties in coping with modern legal problems. The Commission's report therefore recommends that the current system of lay judges and lay defenders should continue while at the same time establishing a training system for those involved in the courts. Besides the local and regional courts, the Commission recommends that a judicial court be established to handle complicated legal cases. The Danish High Court will remain the final court of appeal.

People in Greenland are divided as to how much the justice system should remain based upon local tradition and how far they should adopt the practices of Western justice. In cases of serious crime, specifically, there are many people calling for long jail sentences, in other words, looking at the crime itself and not at the person who committed the crime, his/her background, etc. as is the case in the existing system.

Economic solidarity

It has always been seen as a matter of solidarity that water, electricity, petrol and many other products and services should be traded at the same price in all communities along the vast Greenlandic coast. When Home Rule took control of all trade in Greenland, the costs of this system became apparent and they began to compete with other public expenditure in areas of education, health care, etc. For some years now, the system has been under political attack because it is no longer considered an expression of solidarity but rather a pretext for doing nothing to develop the small communities, who are the main beneficiaries. The matter is still being heatedly debated but, starting in January 2005, differentiated prices were introduced, heralding significant changes in the future economy of Greenland. In the longer term, the aim is to introduce a pricing system for each community that corresponds to the cost of providing the products and services (water, electricity) or importing them. It may force some communities to develop new initiatives to save money and it may also change the demography and lead to the depopulation of other communities. However, it may also lead some communities to expand their potential for economic development.

The controversy has revealed deep inconsistencies between the politicians' desire to promote the interests of their own constituencies and those of the fishing companies operating on the world market for fishing products. The dominant Greenland fishing company, Royal Greenland, is owned by the Home Rule authorities and the politicians on the company's Board are often more interested in promoting their own communities than in working for company profit.

Language and Education

The language question arises time and again. It was the cause of ruthless debate when a member of parliament in Nuuk suggested that Greenlandic should be the only language spoken in parliament. At that time, in early 2000, there was only one Danish and non-Greenlandic speaking member of the parliament (he has since left the country) but obviously the suggestion could have had a number of political ramifications and was not adopted. There is the question of protecting a (Danish) minority but there is also the fact that a number of Greenlanders and children of Danish-Greenlandic couples have problems in mastering Greenlandic. The question of the working language of parliament has often been merged with the much broader issue of the position and use of Danish in all corners of society and many, primarily but not exclusively Danes, have taken this as a frontal attack on the Danish minority.

The language of administration is often Danish due to the substantial number of people recruited from Denmark. It is often a focal point of criticism and frustration that one criterion for obtaining a job is fluency in Danish although knowledge of Greenlandic is never a demand for Danish staff. Furthermore, the high turnover among persons recruited from Denmark is an economic as well as a social burden. To this should be added the cultural dominance that follows the preferential use of a certain language. To some, this has become a symbol of Home Rule's failure to put an end to Danish dominance and to implement the promised Greenlandisation.

The most heated and longstanding dispute, however, concerns the integrated primary schools. The first language of instruction is Greenlandic, which is not usually mastered by Danish children, who often only stay in Greenland for a limited number of years.

The language debate reveals a number of dilemmas that many indigenous groups might face during a self-determination process. It has always been a prominent goal of Home Rule Greenland to promote the indigenous Greenlandic language and, subsequently, way of thinking in all aspects of life. However, this comes hard up against the need to increase the educational standard of all Greenlanders, a goal that can only be achieved through increased knowledge of foreign languages, in this case Danish, and by allowing students access to specialised education outside of Greenland. This dilemma becomes even more acute when it is noted that there are, among the group of well-educated Greenlanders specifically, a substantial number who do not have a perfect grasp of Greenlandic. Although a small minority, they are in possession of much needed skills and, in a stressful situation, they could feel marginalized due to lack of language ability. Whatever the reason, the fact is that many Greenlanders do not return home after having finished higher education in Denmark.

The sealing controversy

Hunting of seals is important for the subsistence economy of a great number of families in the country. The meat is an important and healthy food item and the skins are sold on the world fur market. To this should be added the fact that sealing, eating the meat and using the skin, is a crucially symbolic part of being a Greenlander.

When Greenpeace and animal protection organisations protested against the hunting of baby seals of the migrating harp seal off the Canadian coast, this had enormous negative consequences for the Greenlandic hunters even though they do not practice this type of hunting. The attack from these organisations made some countries ban imports of seal-skin furs, with serious consequences for the hunters in Greenland. These anti-sealing campaigns not only revealed an enormous lack of knowledge of indigenous Arctic cultures but also a lack of tolerance and an ethnocentricity that is disastrous for indigenous peoples.


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

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