On October 6th 2014, Kirstine Løvdal Nielsen saw Daniel, a homeless Danish-Greenlandic man, laying passed-out drunk on his back by the Amagerbro metro station in Copenhagen. Nielsen immediately phoned for help, yet it took over 45 minutes for anyone to arrive at the scene. The man died just minutes before the ambulance arrived. The case caused a media storm as outrage grew over how long it took for help to arrive, especially considering that five people other than Kirstine also phoned the authorities. The official response was that human error and misunderstanding at the scene were the cause of the delay.
However, in December the audio file of Kirstine’s phone called was released, revealing the second question asked: “Is he Danish or Greenlandic?”
To an outsider, the question may not appear prejudicial, but in the context of Denmark and its colonial history with Greenland, the question carries significant meaning. The release of the phone call resulted in an inquiry being launched by Den Uafhængige Politiklagemyndighed—the Independent Police Complaints Authority—on January 16, 2015. Members of the Greenlandic Parliament expressed extreme concern about the incident and promised to follow up with Mette Frederiksen, the Danish Minister of Justice.
The colonization of Greenland began with the arrival of the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede in 1721. As such, the relationship between the Denmark and Greenland was founded on the same power disparity and cultural supremacy that has characterized most interactions between colonial powers and their indigenous subjects. As the colonial ruler, Denmark has defined and written the dominant narrative of the Greenlandic people’s history.
As with most indigenous groups, the Greenlandic people were defined by the Danes as closer to nature, the wild and childlike in stark contrast to modern Danish civilization. During the colonial period economic extraction (i.e. of whale and seal products) and religion were key elements of the imposition of Danish rule. Yet the main assimilation and Danishification process was launched when the constitution was amended in 1953, transforming Greenland from a Danish colony into an equal territory within the Danish state. The goal was to transform Greenland from a self-sufficient hunter society to a modern, urbanized wage-earner society.
As has been the case with many indigenous groups, the Greenlandic people were subjected to assimilation attempts in the name of modernization. One such attempt, as described in I den bedste mening (With the Best Intentions) by Tine Bryld, was the forcible shipping of 22 Greenlandic children– aged 5 to 8 and with “as high an IQ as possible”— to Denmark in 1951 to be re-educated and cultured. Danish foster families adopted 8 of the children; the remaining 16 were sent back to Greenland. Not to their families, but to grow up at an orphanage where they were only allowed to speak Danish. It was not until the 1990s, when Bryld researched the experiment that the majority of the 22 children came to understand why they had been removed from their families.
Despite significant moves towards Greenlandic self-governance over the past 60 years, stereotypes still abound in Denmark. A 2012 study by Greenland’s Tourist Council asked Danes ages 18 to 74 about their attitudes towards people from Greenland. 40 percent of the respondents associated Greenland with drinking, abuse and social problems. Danes view Greenlanders as alcoholics who neglect their children, come from small settlements, sail in kayaks, and catch baby seals. Such essentialized perceptions are often off base—in fact, ethnic Danes over the age of 14 drink on average 86 more beers per year than ethnic Greenlandic individuals. Additionally, most survey respondents assumed that the majority of Greenlandic individuals living in Denmark were living off of government support; the actual figure is 12 percent.
From Nepal to Bolivia, Denmark places high priority on indigenous rights in its work with international development work abroad. Yet Denmark has yet to truly make amends for many of its own disastrous, colonial policies in Greenland, refusing to take even the symbolic step of apologizing for the 1951 forced assimilation attempt (Save the Children Denmark issued an apology in 2010 for any role they played). Though the recent moves towards self-governance for Greenland have been positive, Denmark’s long-term commitment to Greenlandic independence remains questionable. Denmark’s December, 2014 assertion of sovereignty over the North Pole, due to it being connected to the continental shelf of Greenland, clearly indicates the geopolitical benefits of continued Greenlandic dependency. Though Denmark’s commitment to indigenous rights abroad is commendable, it would hold more weight if the Danish government prioritized them equally at home.