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Indigenous and independent

A key part of Greenland’s independence process involves its people defining who they are
Declaring their indigeneity (Photo: Leiff Josefsen)

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The societal and political development Greenland has undergone during the past century has not only been swift, it has also been quite remarkable in all respects.

Democracy was officially introduced in 1953, when the country was integrated into Denmark as a county. But integration was never enough for Greenlanders, and even the current status of self-rule, which the country received in 2009 is still not sufficient for the majority of the population.

Since the mid 20th century, the question of independence has been a pressing issue. The most common questions lawmakers are asked (or perhaps raise themselves) are when and how Greenland should become independent. The answers and discussions are highly controversial – especially for Greenlandic (and Danish) lawmakers.

SEE RELATED: Why is Greenland a part of the Danish kingdom?

Calls for a swift declaration of independence often come from outspoken and inexperienced politicians and equally often with a poor (if any) assessment of the underlying, economic principles and consequences. This approach is often an electoral tactic, as it appeals to parts of the population.

This is, however, not the focus of this article. For me, the interesting question is, how do we position ourselves before we become a state? If Greenland can become economically independent from Denmark, there would be nothing to impede an actual independence process. Then what would happen? How would Greenland act as an international entity?

The geographical location and sheer size of Greenland make the country a subject of interest internationally. The Arctic in general has in recent years become increasingly attractive in international law and geopolitics for several reasons, among them: trade, maritime sea routes, mining and not least international security matters. The scenario of an independent Greenland is thus relevant to a wide range of states and international organisations. Most of all, it is an appealing and desired scenario for Greenlanders themselves, which is why it is necessary to discuss how Greenland could position itself internationally, and for what reasons.

The state of Greenland
In international law a state is defined as an entity that has a permanent population, a defined territory, a functional government and has the ability to interact formally with other states internationally. Before we can talk about Greenland as a state, we first need to talk about what kind of independence Greenland would have. Here, there are at least two questions to ask.

First, would Greenland choose to become a sovereign state or would it choose a lesser option, such as integration or a free-association agreement with Denmark? This is part of the discussion in Greenland and a question that would be imperative to answer first.

The next question, and the question this article focuses on, is how Greenland would position itself as a state. Being a post-colonial people with an on-going question of whether Greenlanders are an indigenous people, it is important also to establish the proper structure and status and discuss this before making any rash decisions.

Why is it an issue whether Greenland was a colony?
Before the annexation of Greenland as a county in Denmark in 1953, there was no real talk about whether Greenland was a colony of the Kingdom of Denmark. In 1721, the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede came to Greenland to convert the Inuit people to Christianity. It was here the first colonisation took place and proceeded until the beginning of the 20th century, when the first Greenlandic self-rule movements emerged.

The fact that the Danes considered Greenland as a colony is well documented in numerous Danish historical sources, such as topographic descriptions from 1921, which were made commending the 200th anniversary of the colonisation. When then-PM Thorvald Stauning visited Greenland in 1930, he described his endeavours in a travel memoir with multiple references to Greenland as a colony and the Greenlandic people as a “nature people” with distinct cultural differences, which were ideally to be replaced with the Danes’ higher cultural standards. As a partial conclusion I can therefore establish that Denmark at a recent time before the annexation in 1953 publicly recognised Greenland as a colony.

After the two world wars in the beginning and middle of the 20th century, the controversy of colonialism became explicit in international law and context. States were defined and became international personalities – that is legitimate actors – and a difficult discussion about the determination of peoples arose. It became an important issue to determine peoplehood.

This is an issue I find equally as important to discuss about Greenland for two reasons. First, it is important to acknowledge that Greenland had a status as a colony and therefore is now a post-colonial people. Even though it might not be an issue for everyone, there seems to be an open question about it. It is important to determine this fact because a post-colonial people has appropriate civil and political rights if the desire is independence. It is, for example, not possible to claim independence as an indigenous people according to international law. The United Nations Declaration of Right of Indigenous Peoples (Undrip) states that all indigenous peoples have a right to self-determination, but not independence. This is a right that has been declared for colonial people since early(-ish) in the UN’s history.

SEE RELATED: A tale of three outfits

In recent years there has been an emerging discussion about whether the Greenlandic people are indigenous. The Inuit Circumpolar Council adopted, in 2009, a Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic (CIDSA), which stated that the Inuit populations living in the Arctic are an indigenous people. So, how can Greenland benefit in an international legal point of view if Greenlanders claim to be an indigenous people?

With the political, social and administrative advancement the country has undertaken during the past century, it seems that little can be gained from the protection of the Undrip. However, indigenous peoples have in some regard more elaborate rights, for example, culturally, that could be of significance to Greenlanders. If Greenland pursues statehood, the appropriate question could be if Greenland would benefit from disclaiming indigenousness. Because if Greenland becomes a state, the state of Greenland would enjoy the equal rights of all states as an international entity, and one could then argue that the protection of indigenous values, culture and dignity would no longer be necessary.

Should we then denounce our rights as an indigenous people over all and retire from our involvement with the indigenous communities?

The answer to that is no, and I will briefly explain why. According to the UN, an indigenous people is defined as the following:

• Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
• Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
• Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
• Distinct social, economic or political systems
• Distinct language, culture and beliefs
• Form non-dominant groups of society 
• Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

(Source: UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Fact Sheet Who are Indigenous Peoples?)

If Greenland is to become independent, then the issue about whether the Greenlandic people is an indigenous people becomes obsolete. However, taking a closer look at the demography, it is clear there are indigenous minorities within its borders. The Inughuit population in the far north-west and the people living on the eastern coast are people whose ways, lives and languages distinctively separates them from the rest of the country.

Compared with the larger cities, especially the capital Nuuk, these communities could be considered indigenous. These communities are located remotely and are challenging to govern from a cultural, social and political aspect. They tend to need more support compared with people living in cities and their communities could therefore benefit from the sort of protection that Undrip seeks to provide. On that note one could argue that Greenland is a post-colonial nation with indigenous communities in its north-western and eastern regions. Recognising these respective communities as indigenous would be an aesthetic move for Greenland to make, not least in the eyes of the international community.

This article sought to illuminate a few of the possible questions Greenland needs to answer before claiming independence. It is clear that there is a lot to be decided upon, and I have only addressed one or two topics.

Independence for Greenland is thus far more than an economic issue. As I have established there is the important matter of self-determination that needs be addressed before we can talk about engaging in further international relations. It is part of a difficult discussion and the outcome is crucial to the deciding matters of which fora to enter and to which treaties we should accede. More importantly though, Greenland has major societal issues that would be imperative not only to address before deciding upon independence, but also engage in the entire independence process to keep the focus on building the country up from inside out rather than vice versa. 

Regardless, the end-result, the independence of Greenland, is going to be a benchmark development for not only post-colonial communities, but for the world in general.