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.
Inuit wearing traditional dress in Greenland — Photo: Dave Walsh/ZUMA
"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."
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.
In Tiniteqilaaq, Greenland — Photo: Patrick Pleul/DPA/ZUMA
"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.