At the end of the previous interview with the Moroccan writer Mahi Binebine, I advised you to dress warmly… now you understand why! Today we will set out to discover the legendary land of Arctic ice: Greenland.
Life and death. A dualism that Greenlanders know very well. A false step and one passes beyond a boundary established by nature itself. In this wild and extreme context, the Greenlanders have managed to survive with tenacity and ingenuity for thousands of years. There are many cultures and stories that have come together in this place dominated by ice. The name itself gives us a prime example of the many curious facts that have this distant land as a background: Greenland. It is very strange that this island, 80% covered by ice, gets its name from the green color. Strange, but possible thanks to the astute Erik the Red, a Viking who gave its name to this great Arctic island, after being exiled there for committing several murders. That name, synonymous with fertile pastures, was supposed to attract European settlers to allow the Viking murderer to have company. A sort of medieval marketing operation which, in fact, was effective. From that moment, the lineage of Erik the Red began to coexist, not always with respect, with the indigenous, the Inuit. Many would naturally call them Eskimos, but we will see that this term is offensive to the natives and, therefore, must be deleted from our vocabulary. European settlers, mainly Danes, brought Christianity, monogamy and iconic colorful wooden houses: red for shops, black for police stations, blue for fishmongers, yellow for hospitals. They also brought with them the typically colonial arrogance which, we will discover later, will also have dramatic repercussions, such as ‘’nobody's child’’ on many id cards of the sons of Greenlandic mothers. But the various colonial waves were not able to erase a strong culture rooted in respectful coexistence with nature. Dialects, legends, crafts, music, hunting, fishing and navigation were the pillars that ensured the survival and preservation of the great Greenlandic culture. It is into this fascinating world that I would like to lead you today. Accompanying us on this Arctic expedition, will be a woman who is very proud to open the doors of her big island to us: Dorthe Katrine Olsen, director of the Sisimiut Museum, the second largest town in Greenland.
Dorthe Katrine, what does Sisimiut offer from the cultural tourism point of view?
Sisimiut is not only one of the most beautiful areas in Greenland, but it is also a destination that offers countless exciting experiences throughout the year. Sisimiut is home to the Destination Artic Circle, which is Greenland's only road to the ice cap, which connects the city with Kangerlussuaq International Airport. This route is undertaken with the help of traditional dog sleds and during the ride to the Arctic Circle, you can do many activities, such as river fishing and heli-skiing around the Eternity Fjord - for non-sportsmen like me, it is the practice of off-piste skiing and freeride which uses a helicopter as a means of ascent. Dog sledding, cross-country skiing, hiking, hunting, fishing and kayaking are all activities deeply rooted in local history and form the basis for some of the unforgettable experiences that can be had in Sisimiut. It is certainly the ideal destination for those looking for an unspoiled culture and environment and for those who want to experience a true Arctic adventure. Furthermore, Sisimiut is a city that has had contact with many different cultures throughout its history. Its inhabitants love to tell their stories and are very hospitable. It is very important for them to take care of nature and talk about it when travelers come.
You are the director of the Sisimiut Museum. It is not a conventional museum, but a widespread museum, that is a system of paths and physical spaces that branch out over the territory. How and when was this widespread museum on the Arctic route born?
I am the first museum director born and raised in Sisimiut, so I am very proud and I take my work seriously. Telling the story is a great responsibility, but it is essential to critically understand our past and try to shape our future. The Sisimiut Museum was founded in 1986 and later other buildings were added becoming part of the historical heritage of the city. Since the 1970s, the enterprising citizens of Sisimiut had worked hard to open a museum area that would collect and preserve all the testimonies and noteworthy buildings. One example is Bethel Church, also known as the Blue Church, the first church in Greenland paid for entirely by the people of Sisimiut. This building was ordered in Copenhagen in 1771 and was paid for with 60 barrels of fat from four whales. In addition to this church, there are also several buildings dating back to the colonial era (18th - 19th century) which reflect the history and development of Sisimiut.
The first timber-framed houses and log houses were built in Denmark and Norway, dismantled, shipped and, finally, rebuilt in Greenland. Our museum houses several buildings that have been moved several times. The conservation work of these buildings continued for most of the 20th and 21st centuries. Establishing an overview of the buildings, monuments and historical-cultural areas that are subject to conservation legislation is not always an easy task. Many of the ancient buildings are not structurally predisposed to house collections or exhibitions. For this reason, many of the finds are sent to Nuuk or Denmark. We would very much like to have suitable and fixed spaces where our citizens can benefit from our historical and cultural testimonies.
Which peoples were the protagonists of the history of Sisimiut and, in general, Greenland? Is there historical evidence of their passage and influence on the indigenous culture of Greenland?
The area around Sisimiut has been inhabited for several thousand years. From 2400 BC to 500 BC the area was home to the Palaeo-Inuit Saqqaq people. Subsequently, the population of Dorset - a county in southwestern England - lived on the coast of West Greenland until the end of the 1st century BC. Then the area remained uninhabited until the arrival, between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of the Thule people, the ancestors of the modern population of Greenland. The testimony of the presence of these ancient populations has reached us through the findings of ancient common winter houses and finds attributable to caribou hunting or other wild animals. There are seven key locations along the coast from Nipisat (in the west) to Aasivissuit (in the east, near the ice cap) that are rich in archaeological sites, historic buildings and artifacts associated with the history of human occupation of the landscape. Furthermore, nature itself with its morphology and various ecosystems, give us an idea of life in ancient times. The intangible cultural heritages of the Inuit are associated with the traditional knowledge of the environment, time, navigation, shelters, food and natural medicines.
The Saqqaq were a Paleo-Inuit people from Siberia who emigrated to northern Greenland and colonized the western coasts. Until a few decades ago, the origin of this people was shrouded in mystery. Many scholars believed that the Saqqaq were the inhabitants of the northern area of the American continent, but the discovery in northern Greenland of a frozen tuft of hair, dating back to the second millennium BC, has finally shed light on the case. Research conducted by the evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen revealed that the first humans to inhabit Greenland belonged to three Arctic peoples of the Siberian Far East: the Nganasans, the Koryak and the Chukchis. Furthermore, the analysis of the genome of Inuk (the name given to the owner of the hair), allowed the scientists to create a DNA-based profile of the male Saqqaq. Inuk most likely had brown eyes, dark skin and hair, anterior shovel teeth (common trait in Asian populations) and blood type A (relatively common in northeastern Siberia). Furthermore, his metabolism was regulated for life in very cold climates. While it is true that the Bering Strait disappeared 5,500 years ago, Inuk's ancestors must have reached Greenland by sea kayaking or walking on the winter ice pack. This remains to be demonstrated at the moment, just as the set of causes, probably of an environmental nature, that led to the extinction of the Saqqaq culture still remain mysterious.
Genetic and archaeological studies have attested to the ancient origins of your culture. After the extinction of the Saqqaq, Greenland was inhabited by the native Thule people, the ancestors of the Inuit. Do you feel you have a connection with your ancestors? Do you believe there will be future discoveries?
It is very exciting to feel part of a story that has more than 4,500. Belonging to a culture that has survived in an Arctic country makes us proud. Greenland is the largest island in the world and certainly there are many other places to dig and as many sites yet to be discovered. For the moment, we should focus on what we have found, such as the Qilakitsoq mummies which are probably one of Greenland's most famous treasures. Their discovery dates back to 1972 when two brothers during a grouse hunt found mummies under a spur of rock. The bodies, which enjoyed a good state of preservation, were found at an ancient Inuit settlement on the Nuussuaq peninsula on the west coast of Greenland, about 450 km north of the Arctic Circle. Today the mummies are hidden in a corner of the Greenland National Museum & Archives.
Greenland also has its mummies and mysteries. As Dorthe explained to us, the discovery of the eight Qilakitsoq mummies happened by chance, but it was an unparalleled opportunity to learn more about the life and traditions of the native people of Greenland. The mummies, which thanks to the freezing climate and long polar nights have maintained an excellent state of conservation, were found in two tombs about a meter apart, stacked on top of each other with the help of layers of animal skin. Thanks to dental analysis and the use of X-rays, archaeologists were able to establish its age and dating, that is, the end of the fifteenth century. They consisted of two women aged between 20 and 35, two aged 50, a teenager, a 4-year-old child and a six-month-old baby. The numerous blue and black tattoos on the women's faces and 78 items of clothing provided proof that they were Inuit. While a substantial amount of digested food was found in the intestine, bone analysis revealed that these individuals had suffered from malnutrition, as well as other diseases, including the avascular necrosis of the femoral head of the newborn (Calve Perthes disease). But the most interesting, or perhaps shocking, finding is that the newborn was buried alive. This is confirmed by the ancient Inuit tradition which required that at the time of the mother's death, her youngest children were buried with her. This apparently brutal evidence must be contextualized in an extremely practical reality. In fact, Inuit cultural norms dictated that a tribe could kill a child if they couldn't find a woman to take care of him.
The descendants of the Thule are the Inuit - literally "the people" in the Inuktitut language - the native inhabitants of Greenland. The term Eskimo is often used to indicate them. Why does this word have a derogatory meaning?
The term Eskimo is an obsolete and disrespectful name used for the Arctic peoples of Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska and northeastern Siberia. It is a colonial name used since the mid-1800s and imposed by non-indigenous people. Eskimo derives from a word that means "raw meat eaters", while Inuit means "people". Since 1977, the term Inuit has gained more and more ground, also thanks to the official cooperation of indigenous organizations in the Arctic.
By the way ... let's dispel the myth of the Eskimo kiss, a false belief linked to the first European explorations. It seems, in fact, that the first European settlers when they first ventured into the Arctic regions, saw people rub their noses as a form of greeting to avoid getting stuck mouth to mouth due to the cold. Hence the false myth that many still believe today ...
Here in Sisimiut we don't waste time with this Eskimo kiss, but we kiss a lot, especially with the people we love very much!
Now let's talk about another fundamental aspect for the understanding of every culture. There are three dialects in Greenland: Inughuit, West Greenland and East Green. Can you understand each other?
I use the West Greenlandic language, but I can understand the Eastern dialect and qaanaaq - Inughuit. If you don't usually speak these dialects on a daily basis, understanding can be difficult at first, but eventually we can understand each other. Ours is a quite unique and surprising language that tries to make itself understood by the other languages of the world. We rely heavily on facial and body mimicry rather than speech. Non-verbal language, for example gestures, distance from the interlocutor and the degree of eye and body contact, is of great importance. I think we should be committed to preserving it because it is part of our culture.
Greenlandic is a language belonging to the Inuit language family. It is called polysynthetic, so a Greenlandic word can be very long and can mean what corresponds to an entire sentence in other languages. Another peculiarity is that no loans from other languages are used. Two concrete examples: computer is qarasaasiaq, which literally translated means "artificial brain", while potato is called naatsiiat, which actually means "something for which one waits a long time to grow".
Nature plays a fundamental role in Inuit culture. It is no wonder that the Thule people personified it and made it tangible and alive in various popular stories. This heritage was passed down orally until the Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen decided to write these stories in the book "Myths and legends of Greenland". One of the most famous stories sees the orphan Kaassassuk as the protagonist. What does this myth tell? What are the moral principles and norms of behavior that are taught through these legends?
Once upon a time there was a married couple who lost their children immediately after birth. After much misfortune, they had a son who survived. Happy to finally have a child to love, they named him Kaassassuk and gave him all their love and care. The irony of fate wanted both parents to become seriously ill. Both died in a short time. The little orphan was removed from the community and forced to live on the edge of the camp. On those rare times that he was accepted inside a house, he was only given hard walrus skin. Furthermore, for trivial acts such as trying to dry his boots inside the house, terrible punishments were inflicted on him, such as pulling his teeth or lifting him from his nostrils. By dint of punishments, his nostrils became so large and developed that they allowed him to enter the ice to smell the presence of food. During one of these hunts, he met a giant, or the Lord of the Force. The two became friends and the giant gave the orphan Kaassassuk his enormous strength. At that point he was free to return to the camp where everyone had punished him. The bottom line is that you can't hurt other people because they can take revenge one day. Another very popular legend is The Mother of the Sea, a fantastic tale that tells how the animals of Greenland were born and that makes us reflect on our responsibilities. Legend has it that one day the Mother of the Sea, annoyed by the bad actions of the Inuit against nature, decided to make all the animals that the Inuit used to hunt disappear into the depths of the abyss. When men realized that the Mother of the Sea had punished them, they understood the importance of respecting the environment. At that very moment, the Mother of the Sea untied her hair and brought all the animals of Greenland back to earth. All these fairy tales have been adapted for children and are still told and handed down today.
Another legend that is told to children is Qallupikuk, the water monster. Feared by all Inuit, this humanoid monster with sharp teeth and claws lived in the depths of the sea, ready to drag anyone who came too close to the frozen water into the abyss ... Inuit parents told this story to prevent children rushed carelessly into the dangerous waters of the sea.
Eqqumiitsuliorneq, art in Greenlandic. It is very curious that the literal translation is "to create things that seem strange". What is the relationship between Greenland and art? Is it the traditional meaning that we give to this term, or rather of craftsmanship?
Our ancestors have always been extraordinary craftsmen. To survive in this context, it was necessary to develop functional techniques both on land and at sea. Our ability to do this is unique in the world. Art in the conventional sense arrived in Greenland after European colonization. Although Greenland's population is around 57,000, there are many talented artists, actors, painters, singers, musicians, writers and poets. Sisimiut also has its artists and we are very proud of them.
Inuit societies did not have a class structure and there were limited property rights. Objects that made the difference between life and death were considered shared property. Among these traditional objects we must undoubtedly mention the clothes made of animal skin, the hulk, a woman's knife and all the hunting and fishing equipment, including the kayak. The qajaq, original version in Greenlandic language, was invented by the Inuit and is still a widely used tool today. The Inuit were also very skilled in working with soapstone, a material they still use to build tupilak, a statuette that served to protect its owner from enemies or evil spirits.
To date, around 80% of Greenland's population is of Inuit or mixed Inuit / Danish descent. Have there been tensions between indigenous inhabitants and European colonizers throughout history? What were the main reasons? Can we speak today of an awakening of the Greenlandic national identity?
Reproduction is essential for survival. Polygamy has been practiced throughout history, since having several wives ensured the participation and collaboration of more individuals during the hunt. This plural marriage union clashed with Christian doctrine and, therefore, with the precepts of the Norwegian and Danish missionaries. The inhabitants of Greenland were not immediately convinced by the arguments of Christian Europeans, but from the mid-18th century monogamy became part of Greenlandic customs. This also happened because, in the meantime, the colonists had learned the language and, therefore, had become very good at arguing and presenting Christianity. The attack on polygamy was not always received peacefully. There are examples of polygamists who reacted by questioning the missionary's authority, using violence to show their dissatisfaction with colonial interference, or choosing to leave the colony. From 1750 the Greenlanders were Christianized and this ancient tradition was lost. Jointly, many Greenlandic women married the European settlers. At the time, there was a rule that stated that in the event of a marriage between a settler and an indigenous woman, the European could no longer return to the continent. I myself have Norwegian origins, but my family has always lived in Sisimiut. Colonization has had many consequences, as has the modernization of Greenland since the 1950s. Many Europeans came to Greenland and then left. Many women did not know who the father of their child was. Legally, it is defined as 'fatherless' - we would say N.N., nomen nescio. The Danish state and the Greenlandic parliament are working together to try to map the history of these people. It is very important to know our own history, since our identity resides in it. Unfortunately, second-tier nations exist. Decolonization seems the only way out. It is necessary to study and understand the past, in order to then be able to build an independent nation. You need to take responsibility and work for a better future.
I have a curiosity to ask you: is it true that in Greenland there are no roads, obviously excluding those inside the inhabited centers?
Yes, it's true. To move from one city to another you have to use the ship or plane ... so no train to the nearest city! For some it may be a problem, but we are skilled navigators during the summer and in winter we have snowmobiles and dog sleds. Construction is underway on a road between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq - where the airport is located. We are used to this. For example, my ancestors come from Sarfannguaq, a UNESCO area, my father's mother was born in Qerrortusoq and my mother in Kangaamiut. My great-grandfather, built part of the buildings in our museum… it is not a problem for us not to have land connections, indeed, it is fun to know that we work in a place that our family has helped to build.
The question arises ... Sisimiut, which is the second largest city in Greenland after the capital Nuuk, has about 5,500 inhabitants (Nuuk 18,000). What relationship do you have with the concept of time?
Greenland is an extraordinarily large country and the entire coast is uninhabited. However, there are several towns and settlements. Also, there are many who have a cabin in the fjord and love to get away from the busy everyday life. It is a completely different pace from a big city in Europe where there is a lot of traffic and where time is money. Here you are more than obliged to accept things, as the weather can change very quickly and you may not be able to travel to the nearest city. React calmly and accept the state of affairs because nature is in charge. You cannot control nature, you have to accept and respect it.
I would like to dedicate the last question to climate change and the reflections of the great British naturalist Attenborough. We, Mediterranean people, are not fully aware of it because we do not see its immediate effects. You, on the other hand, have it in front of your eyes. What is really changing? Can climate change pose a threat not only to naturalistic but also cultural and human heritage?
It is very important to understand that people living in the Arctic can experience these real climate changes with their bodies. We see every year, unfortunately now every day, that there are more and more changes. We see it in the temperature, in the ice and in the sea. It is the Greenlandic hunters who are now endangered. They are truly experiencing climate change. In just ten years, a third of them stopped hunting and using sled dogs. Many are forced to find other funds to support their families, for example by becoming tour guides. Icebergs are usually not seen in the waters of Sisimiut. They are usually found either in the north or south of Greenland. Last year, however, we saw many of them pass near our coast. Locals are wondering what is really changing ...
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I really thank Dorthe Katrine Olsen for taking my invitation very seriously. It was interesting, surprising and, above all, fun to be confronted with such a different, unique reality. Before working on this interview, I never thought that Greenland, the land of ice, had such an ancient and rich culture. But world and humans always know how to positively surprise us. I hope it was a pleasant and unexpected discovery for you too.
In the next interview we will head to Eastern Europe, to discover another reality, closer, but equally unknown. A reality known only for the Chernobyl disaster and for the decorated wooden eggs ... another opportunity to prove that the world and all cultures, without distinction, deserve to be explored. See you soon!