[Home.] [Maoism.]

Why Communists Should Care About Greenland.

Originally posted on Medium on October 6, 2019.

This work was written before we reached political maturation, and so doesn't quite fall within our current ideal parameters for discussion about this sort of thing. However, it's an important topic and the argument is still important, so I'm posting it here. Hippolyta.

First as tragedy, second as farce. The tragedy of American expansionism and settler colonialism in the 19th century left a trail of blood and corpses all across the world: the genocide of the First Nations that resulted in some 100 million dead; the enslavement of tens of millions of Africans; the destruction of Hawai’i as an independent nation-state for the purposes of growing pineapples; the wars fought in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to bring them under the jackboot of American capital.

Now, in the 21st century, settler colonialism is still going very strong, and the power of expansionism has again reared its head, but this time as a farce: President Trump’s Twitter tantrum with the Prime Minister of Denmark because he wants to purchase the island nation of Greenland, calling it no more than “a real estate deal”. The Danish PM, Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen, completely rebuffed the idea, saying that “Greenland is not Danish, Greenland is Greenlandic,” and that “Thankfully, the time where you buy and sell other countries and populations is over.” (Ironic coming from a party that campaigned on, and in response to the resulting outcry dropped, a promise to expropriate the belongings of refugees.) The Premier of Greenland, Kim Kielsen, also outwardly rejected the notion, saying that “Greenland is not for sale”. Trump responded with the ominous statement, “You don’t talk to the United States that way. At least under me.”

The bourgeois presses have done an abysmal job of covering this issue, as is to be expected. In an article published August 21, the Editorial Board of the New York Times simultaneously condemned Trump’s latest expansionist venture as nothing more than silly, but also made apologetics for him, saying that, “To be fair to the president, acquiring Greenland would be nice for the United States. The island sits atop a trove of rare-earth metals…” It goes on to say that Trump wouldn’t be the first president to buy other territories and nations, nor is the first to try and buy Greenland (Truman tried in 1946), and doesn’t paint that as a bad thing. Reuters also heavily downplayed the colonialism aspect of the dispute and instead used it to depict how Trump was alienating NATO allies.

The trend has been to treat this whole affair as a joke, something out of an Onion article, and not something to be taken seriously. But the subtext that so far everyone has been missing is the long history of Danish imperialism in Greenland, and the horrors it has brought onto the people of that nation.

Kalaallit Nunaat, or what is otherwise known as Greenland, is the world’s largest island. It is also the world’s least-densely populated nation, with a total population of around 57,000 people, a third of those in the capital of Nuuk. 89%, or about 51,000 Greenlanders, are Greenlandic Inuit. There are three major ethnic groups of Greenlandic Inuit: the Kalaallit of the western island, who speak Kalaallisut; the Tunumiit of the eastern island, who speak Tunumiit oraasiat; and the Inughuit of the far northern island, who speak Inuktun. Kalaallisut is the island’s official language and what is analogous with “Greenlandic” from here on out. Most of Greenland’s inhabitants across time have stuck to the southern, western, southwestern, and southeastern fringes of the island; these are at latitudes further south than even Iceland and are, indeed, green. The interior of the island has historically been uninhabited, due to being covered by the only permanent ice sheet outside of Antarctica.

The first people to come to Greenland were who are now referred to as the Saqqaq, after the present-day settlement where much archaeological evidence was found. They are thought to have inhabited the southern and western coasts of the island from around 2500 BCE to around 800 BCE. They coexisted with the Independence cultures of the far northern coasts of the island, and both came from the same ancestor people of the present-day Inuit. The arrival of the Dorset peoples came towards the tail end of both the Saqqaq and Independence II cultures and lasted until about 1000 CE. The Thule, or proto-Inuit, arrived in Greenland from Alaska around the time the Dorset died out; there’s no real evidence to support contact between the Dorset and Thule. The Thule brought with them sled dogs, toggling harpoons, slate knives, and quickly spread across the previously inhabited crescent of the island, from the western coast and south. They primarily fished and hunted big marine mammals.

The Norwegians had established a permanent foothold in Iceland by the 10th century CE and so decided to make expeditions to the west. They landed in Greenland and had established colonies on the eastern coast by the mid-900s with the purpose of being a fishing and trade outpost, as well as a launchpoint for Norwegian exploration crews to North America. They ventured to Helluland (Baffin Island) and Markland (Labrador) for timber and other resources, but most famously to Vinland (Newfoundland), where they established the only permanent European colony in the pre-Columbian era, even though it lasted for only a few years. The Norwegians were at a significant disadvantage to the native Beothuk people, who had successfully been able to farm wheat and the famous grapes for which the land got its Norse name. At first, Norwegian-Beothuk relations were mostly related to trade and commerce, but eventually mutual misunderstandings led to rapid souring of the relationship. After several clashes between Norwegians and Beothuk that left people of both sides dead, the former packed up and went back to Greenland. The term skrælingjar was used to refer to the Native nations that the Vikings encountered. The term is Greenlandic Norse and its origin is unfortunately unclear, meaning that there are several theories about what it meant; some say it meant ‘brawl’ or ‘yell’, and others that it simply meant ‘foreigner’, or more derogatory things.

The Norwegians only fared slightly better on Greenland than they did on Vinland; they lasted for several centuries, leaving some direct writings about life there. Famines were common, as were infections. Back home, Norway was hit hard by the plagues of the 14th century to a severe extent and became a subjugate vassal state of Denmark; the Danes then took control of Norway and all of Norway’s overseas possessions. Without support from the parent state, and despite founding a fledgling society, the Norwegian Greenlanders fell vulnerable to the pandemic and lower global temperatures. By the 15th century, the few remaining alive Norwegians retreated to Iceland. In their stead, the Thule settled across the island, including the old Norse colonies in the east, by 1500 CE. With the Norse settlements extinct, the Inuit could expand where they needed to.

In between the 16th and 18th centuries, the North Atlantic experienced what is now referred to as the Little Ice Age. Through a combination of weather shifts, ocean current changes, and the mass die-offs of the Black Death pandemic and the mass extermination of North American First Nations in the early parts of the age of colonialism, the northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean saw the formation of large sheets of ice that came as far south as the southeastern coasts of Greenland, cutting off the old Norwegian colonies, and the little inhabitable space on the island, from the rest of the world. This saw two hundred years of de facto Greenlandic independence.

Denmark, having not forgotten that they technically ‘owned’ Greenland after absorbing the Norwegian state and rebel Norse colonies, sent expeditions in the 17th century. They largely failed, due to two reasons: partly because the English navigators they hired were inexperienced in the Arctic conditions, and partly because the Eastern Settlement they were looking for was inaccessible due to the southward drift ice. Denmark tried again in the 18th century to re-establish contact and succeeded in 1721. A combined mercantile/clerical expedition established a colony, Godthåb or Good Hope, on the island’s southwestern tip; this is now the capital of Nuuk. Neither the Danish government nor the settlers had any idea if the original Norse settlers were still alive somewhere on the island. (They weren’t, but some ruins of their old settlements were.) Greenland was settled, opened to Danish merchants, and shut off from everyone else. When the Danish-Norwegian union was dissolved in 1814, all of Norway’s overseas possessions, including Greenland and Iceland, were transferred to Danish authorities, a decision that was upheld in 1933 by an international court ruling.

Danish colonialism began in full stride by the 19th century by forcibly converting the Inuit to Christianity with brutal consequences if refused, and the introduction of alcohol to the Inuit, primarily as a form of currency but also fully with the intention of using it to destroy them. This would have apocalyptic effects on the Inuit that still resound to this day. Greenland has some of, if not the, highest rates of alcoholism and suicide of any nation on Earth; this was not fully discovered until Greenland gained home rule in 1979, because prior to that Greenland was just counted as part of Denmark, rather than on its own. Denmark maintained a strict monopoly on Greenlandic trade and fishing rights, only engaging in small-scale troaking with some Scottish whalers.

World War 2 marks the first large administrative shuffle in relations between Greenland and Denmark. Denmark was invaded and occupied by the Nazis; in a move to keep the Nazis away from Greenland, Denmark cut off Greenland and the island went under American occupation. After the war, Harry Truman tried to buy the island (as well as Greenlandic mineral and fishing rights) from Denmark for $100 million; Denmark refused. In 1951, however, Denmark and the US signed a treaty that gave the US a military base on the far northern coast, Thule Air Base, which it maintains to this day. (The US would store nuclear weapons here for six years in the 1960s, which the Danes wouldn’t find out about until 1997.)

In 1953, the new Danish constitution marked the second major shift in Greenlandic relations. The island was ‘upgraded’ from colonial possession to amt, or county, of the Danish realm. On one hand, this gave Greenlanders Danish citizenship. On the other, it marked the beginning of an intense period of cultural extermination, dubbed ‘de-Greenlandification’. Danish was the only permitted language for use on the island, and Greenlanders wanting post-secondary education were forced to go to Denmark for it. Many Greenlandic children were shipped off to boarding schools in southern Denmark, highly redolent of the boarding schools used in the US and the residential schools used in Canada to culturally exterminate entire nations. Greenlandic culture and language were in severe danger of being lost, but a new Greenlandic cultural and intellectual elite kept them alive through a bourgeoning independence movement that rapidly gained popularity through the classes of Greenlandic society, culminating in the 1970s.

In 1979, a referendum borne out of the incredibly popular Greenlandic independence movement sailed through that saw the third change in Greenland’s status, that from ‘province’ to ‘home rule’. Greenland obtained its own parliament, the Inatsisartut, and control over most internal matters, although Denmark still maintained control over law enforcement, the courts, natural resources, military affairs, and foreign relations. Danish remained the official language. This period lasted for precisely thirty years, when the Danish parliament officially honored the results of a 2008 referendum (which also passed by an overwhelming amount) with the Act on Greenland Self-Government. This gave the Greenlandic government control over law enforcement, the courts, and the coast guard; it also established Greenlandic as the sole official language of the island, which was inaugurated in a special ceremony. It also established the slow diminishing of the block grant that Denmark gives Greenland that comprises a quarter of Greenland’s GDP and 66% of its annual budget; this is to encourage the development of a Greenlandic economy that can support itself in full independence.

The future of Greenlandic independence remains in question, but whether independence is the goal is not up for any sort of non-farcical debate. Four of the seven parties with current representation in the Inatsisartut, combined for an outright majority, have independence as a plank in their programmes. The only parties against independence are the Danish-dominated parties. In a 2016 independence poll, 68% of Greenlanders are in favorite of independence, but that drops to 22% if it meant a decrease in the living standard. And this is where we come to the two factions of the independence movement.

The two largest parties, the social democratic Siumut, which has dominated Greenlandic politics since 1979, and the left-nationalist, formerly socialist, Inuit Ataqatigiit, have established themselves as the leaders of these two factions; Siumut of the “slow-independence” side, and IA of the “now-independence” side; Siumut’s current coalition with the Democrats, traditionally Greenland’s unionist (and Danish-dominated) opposition party, seems to confirm this. The divide ultimately comes down to the question of Greenland’s block grant. The path seems solidly in the slow-independence camp for now, but now-independence campaigners are pushing for independence in 2021 — the 300th anniversary of Danish colonialism.

Which brings us to the present day. Not only does Trump’s imperialist ambitions fly straight in the face of what many Greenlanders have fought for, but it also completely erases the people who live there — which is not surprising; if Trump, and every other American president, has failed to see the First Nations within American settler colonial borders as people, why would he see Greenland’s Inuit as such? But the deeper lesson of this is that we should take this as an opportunity to make loud and clear our staunch support for the Greenlandic independence movement, and not just the Greenlandic independence movement, but the national liberation struggles waged being waged by all the colonized peoples on this continent against the crying evil of settler colonialism.