• Indigenous peoples in Greenland

    Indigenous peoples in Greenland

    The indigenous peoples of Greenland are Inuit and make up a majority of the Greenlandic population. Greenland is a self-governing country within the Danish Realm, and although Denmark has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Greenland’s population continue to face challenges.
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    50,000 out of Greenland’s 56,000 peoples are Inuit
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    2007: Denmark adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Children's rights

    2010: The Government of Greenland and UNICEF Denmark enter into a partnership agreement to raise awareness of children's rights in Greenland
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  • The Indigenous World 2021: Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

The Indigenous World 2021: Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) has been a self-governing country within the Danish Realm since 1979. The population is 88% Greenlandic Inuit with a total of 56,367 inhabitants (July 2020).[1] The majority of Greenlandic Inuit refer to themselves as Kalaallit.

Ethnographically, they consist of three major groups: the Kalaallit of West Greenland, who speak Kalaallisut; the Tunumiit of Tunu (East Greenland), who speak Tunumiit oraasiat (East Greenlandic) and the Inughuit/Avanersuarmiut of the north. The majority of the people of Greenland speak the Inuit language, Kalaallisut, which is the official language, while the second language of the country is Danish.

Greenland’s diverse culture includes subsistence hunting, commercial fisheries, tourism and emerging efforts to develop the oil and mining industries. Approximately 50% of the national budget is financed by Denmark through a block grant. In 2009, Greenland entered into a new era with the inauguration of its Act on Self-Government, which gave the country further self-determination within the Kingdom of Denmark. Together with the Danish Constitution, the Self-Government Act articulates Greenland’s constitutional position in the Kingdom of Denmark. The Self-Government Act recognises the Greenlandic people as a people under international law with the right to self-determination. Greenland has a public government and it aims to establish a sustainable economy in order to achieve greater independence.

Greenland’s self-government consists of the Inatsisartut (Parliament), which is the elected legislature, and the Naalakkersuisut (Government), which is responsible for overall public administration, thereby forming the executive branch. The Inatsisartut has 31 elected members. The Government of Greenland adopted the UNDRIP upon its ratification in 2007 and subsequent governments have committed to its implementation. Greenland and Denmark jointly prepare reports regarding good practice on implementation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, as described in the UNDRIP and other international human rights instruments. The Government of Greenland had a decisive influence over the Kingdom of Denmark’s ratification of ILO Convention 169 in 1996, as Greenland has prioritised actions to establish the Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights to land and resources in their territories.

The history of removing Greenlandic children from their families: finally an apology

On 8 December 2020, the Prime Minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, gave an official apology to 22 Greenlanders who, as children in 1951, were removed from their families and sent to Denmark in a social experiment aimed at educating them in Denmark and then sending them back to Greenland to become the leaders of their country.[2] This was an apology that many had long waited for and one that former Prime Ministers had, in their inaction, refused to give. The removal of these children had devastating effects on them throughout their lives. Today, only six of the 22 people are still alive and able to receive the apology. The historical report, published by the Danish government and the Government of Greenland, shows the human consequences in the form of alcohol and other substance abuse, mental disorders, hospitalisation, homelessness and suicide attempts that are recurrent among half of the reports received on these children and their relatives.[3]

Member of Danish Parliament Aaja Chemnitz Larsen (Inuit Ataqatigiit party) suggested in the Danish Broadcast news magazine Deadline[4] that the Greenlandic government should also apologise for its involvement in the decision to remove the children, given the devastating futures many of them had in their adulthood. Aaja Chemnitz also stressed the importance of focusing on adoption practices more generally since the experiment in 1951, and the need for researchers and politicians of both countries to continue to investigate the severe impacts and consequences of these practices for hundreds of other children adopted from Greenland to Denmark.

Some of the children were taken from impoverished families with a large number of children and some were orphans but many adoptions were made anonymously and just after birth. There are testimonies from social workers in Greenland at the time who witnessed mothers signing Danish adoption papers. They were apparently not well-informed regarding the legal terms and, even years after they had given up their child, fully expected them to be coming back home again.[5] Adoption practices in Greenland are different, as is the cultural custom regarding what adoption involves for the child and the whole family. Before 1950 it was widespread social practice that a child could be brought up in a household other than their parents’ and this was an important part of strengthening family ties, creating and maintaining an extended network of generations with openness and respect.[6]

Several articles on the legal basis of adoptions from Greenland from the 1960s on were published throughout the year by the Danish newspaper Information, criticising the questionable legal basis for agreement on which many of the adoptions rested. Politicians and researchers from both Greenland and Denmark are recommending a thorough investigation into the adoption practices.[7]

Decolonisation discourse and events in 2020

The historical relationship between Greenland and Denmark is a complex one and 2021 is a special year. Three hundred years have passed since the Norwegian-Danish priest Hans Egede arrived in West Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat, previously known as Inuit Nunaat = the country of the Inuit/People) in 1721. Godthåb (today called Nuuk, the capital of Kalaallit Nunaat) was established in 1728. The discourse on decolonisation was sparked when, on the night of 21 June 2020, the National Day of Greenland, the statue of Hans Egede in Nuuk was graffiti-tagged with the word “Decolonisation”. Many statues around the world had been falling around that time in a movement against colonisation and prejudice.[8] As a result, a vivid debate ensued among Greenlanders discussing what the Hans Egede statue meant for people in Greenland, and whether the historical and contemporary relationship with Denmark should be broken off after 300 years of colonisation history, for better or worse.

Another part of the decolonisation process is acknowledging pre-colonial traditions such as the celebration of the winter solstice, in Greenlandic called Ullukinneq.

The shortest day of the year is an important day and our ancestors had several customs, including producing new kamiks, clothing and hunting equipment, drum dancing and storytelling. The stars (aassuutit) are central to Ullukinneq; the story about them tells how they drive the sinking sun and send it upwards so the light can return. A story of brighter days and an allegory of renewal. These customs started to fade when Christianity took over.[9] Minister of Education, Culture and Church, Katti Frederiksen, welcomed last year’s revival of Indigenous cultural customs and activities in the municipalities and culture houses, saying: “Ullukineq is an important part of Greenlandic identity”.

ICC’s 40-year anniversary

COVID-19 restrictions affected several events and anniversaries throughout the year, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s (ICC) 40-year celebrations, which had to be held online on Facebook. The Inuit Circumpolar Council is a multinational non-governmental Indigenous Peoples’ organisation representing the 180,000 Inuit, Yupik and Chukchi peoples living in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Chukotka. The President of ICC Greenland, Hjalmar Dahl, highlighted the fact that one of the most important outcomes of the organisation’s work for Indigenous Peoples was the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007. In terms of future ICC leadership, Dahl focused on the importance of involving Greenland’s young people.[10] He expressed concern at the financial developments this year, since the Government of Greenland was cutting the budget for the ICC, with even further cuts expected in 2021.[11]

Speaking of carrying the torch onwards, ICC’s office manager Tukumminnguaq Olsen, a young human rights activist and Inughuit (the northernmost group of Greenlandic Inuit), was appointed by UN Secretary General António Guterres as new Board of Trustee member for the UN Voluntary fund for Indigenous Peoples.[12] Tukumminnguaq Olsen will be representing the Arctic Region from January 2021 to December 2023.[13]

The UN Special Rapporteur’s planned country visit to Greenland

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz,[14] an Indigenous leader from the Kankana-ey Igorot people of the Cordillera Region in the Philippines, visited Denmark from 9 to 19 March 2020, just before the COVID19-lockdown on 18 March. Ms Tauli-Corpuz planned to travel to Greenland afterwards for a special procedure country visit[15] but this was postponed due to COVID-19.[16] However, she was able to meet with young students and several associations for Greenlanders in Denmark on the night before Denmark was shut down. The participants presented her with their daily challenges and struggles as Greenlanders in Denmark, including discrimination and a lack of recognition of the colonial history between Denmark and Greenland. Other topics that were raised were the misrepresentation of:

the Greenlandic people in Danish education materials and the lack of responsiveness in the Danish education system to Greenlanders who come to Denmark to study. All these challenges, apart from the effects already mentioned, have also had a detrimental effect on the mental health of Greenlanders both in Greenland and Denmark.[17]

Ms Tauli-Corpuz stressed the need “to look at the past to have a better future; claiming history – the right history – not the one written by the colonisers. That is crucial. This is what the struggle is all about: knowing your history; making the state address all of these injustices.”

She further stated that: “Denmark is doing a lot for Indigenous Peoples around the world; they should do more here in Denmark.” She also noted that Indigenous Peoples, including Greenlanders in Denmark, need to talk more about pride of their own culture, identity and history – and that Greenlanders have the right to the recognition [...] of negative effects of colonisation. That is part of the rights laid out [...] in the UNDRIP, which is supported by both Denmark and Greenland.[18]

Greenland and COVID-19 in 2020

The story of COVID-19 in Greenland is quite different from in other parts of the world, as Greenland has been spared many of the challenges, partly due to its relative geographical isolation. There are two ways of entering Greenland: by air or by sea. Greenland has two regular flight routes: one is to Denmark and the other to Iceland. This is an advantage for the largest island in the world in that things are relatively easy to monitor. Cities, towns and settlements are far from each other, and the only way to access them is by plane, helicopter or boat. Greenland imposed some restrictions but they were short and relatively few.

The Government of Greenland was effective in ensuring the safety of Greenlanders. Restrictions were placed on how many people could gather in specific locations. The restrictions in Greenland were, however, far less in number than in many other places around the world. There were no curfews. People travelling from overseas to Greenland were required to go into quarantine. Greenland’s Prime Minister Kim Kielsen announced in a press conference in March that school grades 1-10 were closing for 14 days and commercial flights, both domestic and international, would cease to operate on 23 March, also for 14 days.[19] Kielsen stated that the country would gradually open up after that. With regard to the country’s economy, the tourism sector was particularly hard hit and the government therefore provided subsidies to the affected businesses.[20]

 Articles and news in the national media and radio were informative and not intended to create attention-grabbing headlines that could cause panic in the country. People seemed mindful of the quantities of goods in the stores. This was particularly important for a country that primarily imports its goods. There was honesty and solidarity in Greenland.[21]

As of 8 January 2021, there had been 29 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Greenland, of which 28 had recovered and thus a remarkable 0 deaths. There have been 16,170 COVID-19 tests conducted in Greenland.[22] This is a high number of tests for a population of less than 60,000.

On one of the last days of 2020, 29 December, 975 COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Greenland.[23]

Domestic violence escalates during the coronavirus crisis

The consequences of the coronavirus lockdown in 2020 were more concerning for vulnerable children and youth in Greenland. It is known that more women contacted crisis centres due to domestic violence and abuse during the lockdown in the spring,[24] which inevitably affected the children in the families in question. Greenland’s Minister of Social Affairs, Family and Justice, Martha Abelsen, encouraged children with concerns related to the coronavirus crisis or any other issues to contact the social authorities via a direct hotline. Further help for families was also offered on the national medical office website and the government provided additional funds for the healthcare system.

The optimistic hope for the year to come rests on expectations for the Danish vaccination strategy, which also covers Greenland, and for the lives of Inuit living in both Greenland and Denmark. Once the vaccines are rolled out, many anticipate fewer restrictions worldwide and an opening up of international travel. This will open Greenland up once more for tourism, business-related activities and family visits between Greenland, Denmark and the rest of the world.

Joanna Absalonsen has an MA in Cross-Cultural Studies from the University of Copenhagen. She is currently working as an employment consultant at the Youth Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Louis Ilik Papis Chemnitz was born and raised in Nuuk, Greenland. He is currently studying Arctic Social Sciences at Ilisimatusarfik – the University of Greenland. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here



Notes and references

[1] Grønlands Statistik. “Befolkning 2020.” [Population Estimate July 2020.] 2020. https://stat.gl/dialog/topmain.asp?lang=da&subject=Befolkning&sc=BE

[2] Nørrelund Sørensen, Helle. “ Eksperimentbørn: Mette Frederiksen giver officiel undskyldning i brev.” [Experimental children: Mette Frederiksen gives an official apology in a letter.]. Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa, 8 December 2020. https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/eksperimentb%C3%B8rn-mette-frederiksen-giver-officiel-undskyldning-i-brev

[3] Statsministeriet. “Undskyldning til de 22 grønlandske børn, som blev sendt til Danmark i 1951.” 8 December 2020. https://www.stm.dk/presse/pressemeddelelser/undskyldning-til-de-22-groenlandske-boern-som-blev-sendt-til-danmark-i-1951/

[4] DR2 Deadline. “Undskyldning til Eksperiment-børn.” 8 December 2020. https://www.dr.dk/drtv/se/deadline_-julen-er-anbefalingernes-fest_225171

[5] Vaaben, Line. Information. “Øjenvidne: I 1960’ernes Grønland udviklede børneadoption sig til et tag selv-bord.” Information, 28 October 2020. https://www.information.dk/indland/2020/10/oejenvidne-1960ernes-groenland-udviklede-boerneadoption-tag-bord

[6] Jensen, Einar Lund, Sniff Nexø Andersen, and Daniel Thorleifsen. “Historisk udredning om de 22 grønlandske børn, der blev sendt til Danmark i 1951." København: Den danske regering og Naalakkersuisut, 15 November 2020. https://www.ft.dk/samling/20201/almdel/GRU/bilag/21/2299923/index.htm

[7] Vaaben, Line. “Grønlandske adoptioner bør undersøges grundigt.” Information, 30 October 2020. https://www.information.dk/indland/leder/2020/10/groenlandske-adoptioner-boer-undersoeges-grundigt?lst_srs

[8] Sommer, Karsten. “Hans Egede statue over painted during the night.” Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa, 21 June 2020. https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/hans-egede-statuen-overmalet-i-nattens-l%C3%B8b

[9] Government of Greenland, Naalakkersuisut. “Lykønskning ved Naalakkersuisoq for Uddannelse, Kultur og Kirke Katti Frederiksen i forbindelse med Ullukinneq, 21. December.” 21 December 2020.


[10] Kristensen, Marie Kuitse. “Menneskerettighedsorganisationen ICC fejrer 40-års jubilæum.” Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa, 12 August 2020. https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/menneskerettighedsorganisationen-icc-fejrer-40-%C3%A5rs-jubil%C3%A6um

[11] Jacobsen, Marc. “The ICC’s 40th Anniversary: International, regional and local perspectives as seen from Nuuk.” High North News., 17 February 2020. https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/iccs-40th-anniversary-international-regional-and-local-perspectives-seen-nuuk

[12] The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples was established by the General Assembly in 1985 as a response to Indigenous Peoples’ need to participate and self-represent their nations and organisations in the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. See OHCHR. “UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples: 30 years of empowering indigenous peoples to claim their rights.” https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/IPeoples/Fund/BookletVoluntaryFund.pdf

[13] Sermitsiaq AG. “Tukumminnguaq Olsen får bestyrelsespost i FN.” Accessed 8 January 2021. https://sermitsiaq.ag/tukumminnguaq-olsen-faar-bestyrelsespost-i-fn?fbclid=IwAR2q8VErW6ldQfaLTIKF0YH5_3AWbKk-MVPUIoJ9Wspv7r6iBtfe08le2Gk

[14] Ms Tauli-Corpuz has worked on building a movement among Indigenous Peoples and as an advocate for women's rights for over three decades. She has served as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples since 2014. She is the former Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2005-2010) and has served as the chairperson-rapporteur of the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations.

[15] Special procedure country visits are an essential means of obtaining information direct and first-hand, and of assessing the positive developments as well as the challenges and gaps in the protection and promotion of the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Country visits are based on engagement with, and information gathering from, Indigenous representatives and organisations, individuals and communities affected by policy decisions, independent national human rights institutions, members of civil society, academia, international cooperation and international non-governmental organisations as well as UN agencies and entities.

[16] United Nations, OHCHR. “Call for inputs on upcoming country visit to Denmark and Greenland.” 2021. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/SRIndigenousPeoples/Pages/Callforinput_Denmark_Greenland.aspx

[17] IWGIA. “Greenlanders in Denmark voice their concerns to UN Special Rapporteur.” 13 March 2020. https://www.iwgia.org/en/news/3543-greenlanders-in-denmark-voice-their-concerns-to-un-special-rapporteur.html

[18] Ibid.

[19] Schultz-Nielsen, Jørgen. “Kielsen: Schools and air traffic closes.” Sermitsiaq AG, 17 March 2020. https://sermitsiaq.ag/node/220165

[20] Hvid Toft, Mathies, and Andreas Wille. “Naalakkersuisut wants to to prolong more subsidies to the business community.” Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa, 28 December 2020. https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/naalakkersuisut-vil-forl%C3%A6nge-flere-hj%C3%A6lpepakker-til-erhvervslivet

[21] Hyldal, Christine. “Corona, corona and rotten potatoes: here are the year’s most read articles on knr.gl.” Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa, 30 December 2020. https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/corona-corona-og-r%C3%A5dne-kartofler-her-er-%C3%A5rets-mest-l%C3%A6ste-artikler-p%C3%A5-knrgl

[22] Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa. “Coronavirus.” Accessed 8 January 2021. https://knr.gl/da/coronavirus

[23] Dall, Anders, and Marie Kuitse Kristensen. “Covid-19 vaccines arrived in Greenland.” Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa, 29 December 2020. https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/covid-19-vacciner-ankommet-til-gr%C3%B8nland%C2%A0

[24] Schultz-Nielsen, Jørgen. “Martha - øget vold i Nuuk - ekstra pladser på krisecentre.” Sermitsiaq AG, 28 March 2020. https://sermitsiaq.ag/node/220474



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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