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Greenland, Victim Of Denmark's Linguistic Colonialism

Tiniteqilaaq, Greenland, Denmark
Tiniteqilaaq, Greenland, Denmark
Noa Agnete Metz

COPENHAGEN — In the picturesque Danish capital, it's easy to overlook the men lying on public benches with a beer in hand, or assume they're immigrants from Southern Europe. Listen carefully, though, and you'll notice that they speak fluent Danish, a task almost impossible for foreigners. These men, it turns out, are Danish citizens; indigenous Inuit people from the Danish territory of Greenland.

Inuit in Copenhagen mainly live among themselves and are marginalized from broader Danish society, with its emphasis on gender equality and the welfare state. These men are from a culture very different from the one that surrounds them. Danes even have an expression for it: being "drunk as a Greenlander." The homeless Inuit who live on the streets of Danish cities are a symbol of Denmark's failed colonial policy that, although it never resorted to blatant violence, has been anything but successful.

Greenland has high levels of unemployment and suicide rates; life expectancy is 10 years lower than in mainland Denmark. The enormous North American island has significant autonomy, but the Danish central government provides 500,000 euros a year ($536,000) to Greenland and manages its security, judicial system, and foreign policy. Most jobs in Greenland that require training and education also require applicants to speak Danish, making life difficult for locals who don't speak the language. Such a requirement also contributes to a greater Danish presence on the island.

In 1952, the Danish government's Greenland Department went about implementing a radical set of policies to "civilize" the Inuit and to allow them to survive autonomously.

Eleonora is an Inuit woman in her 50s who lives in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Under these policies, the state shipped her 4,000 km away from her family to Denmark to study Danish. She was 13 years old at the time.

"We wanted to go and so did our parents. You have to understand that, in those days, we aspired to become exactly like the Danes: tall, beautiful, and efficient," she says. "Life was not too bad in Denmark. But it was difficult to be so far away from my siblings, and I was shy when seeing my mother again a year later. After returning to Greenland I never lived at home again, and we were placed in boarding schools with other children who learned Danish, so we spoke little Inuit."

They don't teach you how to hunt. They don't tell you our stories.

After attending university in Denmark, Eleonora returned home but things were never the same. "When I went to see my family in the summers during boarding school, often I couldn't understand what they were saying," she says. "We grew apart."

Language politics

The Danish government's language policy was a key element in its plan to "open up" Greenland to the outside world. In the 1950s, Copenhagen also embarked on a radical experiment to create a Danish-educated Inuit "elite" who could act as a bridge between Greenland's population and the Danish government. In 1951, the government selected 22 children between the ages of 5 and 8 from Greenland — with varying degrees of consent from their parents — and sent them to Denmark to learn Danish language and culture.

The policy was a disaster and none of them went on to form an Inuit elite. Instead, they forgot their mother tongue and their cultural and emotional attachment to the island. Half of the children died in their youth, their lives destroyed by frequent moves between orphanages and Danish foster homes. In 2015, the Red Cross, which had participated in the policy, made a formal apology to the children and their families. The Danish government, on the other hand, has merely called the policy an "error."

In the 1960s, Copenhagen replaced the policy with one to two years of mandatory Danish language courses in Denmark for Inuit children aged 8 and above. This program, which Eleonora took part in, continued in different forms until the 1990s.

"The problem is that when you don't see your loved ones often, you lose your sense of family. I learned Inuit again while studying Inuitology at university in Copenhagen," says Eleonora. "My generation lost some of its identity because when you live with other children in boarding school you lose your roots. They don't teach you how to hunt. They don't tell you our stories."

Denmark's language policies caused a rupture in Greenland's cultural fabric and generated a social crisis that continues to this day. Today, children are no longer shipped to the mainland, but the island's pressing issues remain unresolved.

For Eleonora, the new policies aren't much better than the old ones. "Young people now speak Inuit well but traditional Inuit life barely exists anymore," she says. "And if they can't speak Danish well, how are they going to find a job in Greenland?"

Just like their parents and grandparents 60 years ago, people in Greenland today must still learn their former colonizer's tongue to succeed at home.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

A "Third Rome": How The Myth of Russian Supremacism Fuels Putin's War

Tracing the early roots of the concept of the "Russian world" that sees the Russian state as eternal and impervious to change. Its primary objective is the establishment of a robust national state, a realm of expansionism where autocracy is the only form of governance possible.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives a gala reception at the Grand Kremlin Palace

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives a gala reception at the Grand Kremlin Palace

Alexei Nikolsky/TASS/ZUMA
Vazhnyye Istorii


Looking back at the start of the 16th century, the Grand Duchy of Moscow had emerged victorious over its Orthodox rivals, including principalities such as Tver and the Novgorod Republic. At the time, a significant portion of the eastern Slavic lands was under Catholic Lithuania's control.

So, how did Moscow rise to prominence?

On the surface, Moscow appeared to fill the void left by the Mongolian Golden Horde. While Moscow had previously collected tributes from other principalities, it now retained these resources for itself. There was an inclination for Muscovy to expand further eastward, assimilating fragments of the Genghisid empire. However, aligning the descendants of ancient Rus’ with the heirs of Genghis Khan would necessitate a fundamental shift in the state's identity. This was particularly complex due to the prevalent ideology built around religion, with the Tatar khans, unlike the Russian princes, adhering to Islam.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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In the early 16th century, a Pskov monk named Philotheus introduced a new idea: that Moscow represented the "third Rome."

According to Philotheus, the first Rome had succumbed to Latin heresy (Catholicism), and the second, Constantinople, had fallen to Turkish conquest. He believed Moscow was now the capital of the only Orthodox state remaining in the world. Philotheus presented his worldview to Grand Duke Vasily III, advocating for the unification of all Christian kingdoms into one.

The descendants of ancient Rus’ sought to trace their lineage back to Prus, the legendary brother of the first Roman emperor Augustus Octavian, establishing a link between Russia and the first Rome. Even though historical evidence doesn't support these claims, Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, proudly asserted his connection to Augustus Octavian. He took the concept of the third Rome very seriously and became the first Russian ruler to take on the title of the tsar.

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