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 HISTORY and CULTURE
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History
 

Greenland's history would read something like this: 'Nothing much happened, nothing much happened, nothing much happened. A couple of blokes arrived but left pretty much straight away. Several decades went past - nothing much happened - and then another bloke with red hair arrived and stayed a bit longer but then after that, for about four centuries, things got really quiet and nothing much happened.' As an historical entity Greenland lacks the Grand Narratives: it's light on when it comes to all-out bloody wars, pukka colonels with muttonchop whiskers, tinpot dictators, throne-wrestling and other Shakespearian dramas. (You just know Merchant and Ivory won't be making a film of Greenland's history any time in the near future.) The lack of big dates and bloody wars can be put down to two things: a minuscule population spread over a vast area; and the effort of surviving under hostile conditions that left precious little time for politicking.

Greenlandic history is something of a slippery beast; an amalgam of legendary sagas, anecdotal evidence, scientific fact and supposition. Best guesses are that, 5000 years ago, there were two distinct tribes that either melted into each other or sequentially died out, although not much is known about either of them. They were followed by the Saqqaq tribe of which a little more is known because they left behind a plethora of artifacts that were subsequently dug up and fussed over by the archaeologists. Scientific data and hypotheses have failed to explain why they also died out.

Time passed...and then a bit more time passed...and then in the 10th century Greenlandic history lumbered to its feet again when the Thule culture arrived on the scene and rapidly spread eastward. This is when, culturally and historically speaking, things really got going. The Thule were relatively sophisticated, responsible for introducing those two Greenland icons, the

Greenland did not have sustained contact with Europeans until Eric the Red, the legendary Viking, used it as a home-away-from-home during his years of exile. It was Eric the Red who called the country Greenland but the naming proved to be more lyrical than factual; most of the time Greenland was anything but. This did not deter the boatload of Icelanders who promptly set about colonising the land and for a couple of centuries the colonists herded, farmed and hunted while the country slipped back into its usual comatose state. Norway got 'round to annexing the country in 1261, but it was a futile attempt at control; 130 years later a big chill set in and by the time the country thawed out and the outside world made contact again, the colonists had gone, either fully acculturated into, or killed by, the Thule.

Greenland slipped out of mind for another three hundred years until a combination of interest in a passage between Europe and the Far East, the lure of money to be made in whaling and missionary zeal put it back on the map. The conversion rate for the missionaries was fairly high: to the Inuit any religion that punished wrongdoers by sending them into a warm climate had a lot going for it.

Norway had lost its claim on Greenland in 1605, when Denmark sent an expedition to claim the country in the king's name and then sent over the zealous missionary, Hans Egede, as their seat warmer. Shortly after this it became the focal point for mad dogs, Englishman and Americans, as every explorer worth his salt raced toward the farthest point north. The history books record American overachiever Robert Peary as the first person to reach the North Pole, although his claim remains largely unsubstantiated, and there is enough doubt about the veracity of the trip to suggest that Frederick Cook may have beaten him to it. The Inuit reserve their admiration for a non-western explorer, a Greenland-born expeditionist by the name of Knud Ramussen. Not only was he a skilled explorer possessed of enormous stamina and survival skills, he was genuinely attached to the Inuit and their culture. He spent as much time collecting songs, literature and mythology as he did geological specimens.

Although Danish sovereignty was established in the 1600s, in 1924 Norway made an ambitious claim for it based on the Icelandic colonists of the second century. The claim was lost and in 1953 the international court ratified Denmark's sovereignty over Greenland. This state of affairs lasted for another 20 years before Greenland agitated for, and received, more autonomy. In 1979 the Danist parliament granted Greenland home rule, and in 1998 the right to full, uncontested independence, if they want it.




Culture
 

Although modern life has well and truly caught up with the Inuit in the form of warm-climate foods, computers, luxury cars and outboard motors, as little as 40 years ago Greenlanders were still practicing a traditional way of life that revolved around the hunt. They believed that humans were shades - more of the dead than of the living - and it was only the techniques and rituals of the hunt that kept them within the realm of the human. Any error in judgement would mean falling back into the earlier animal world. Harmony with the land, respect for the dead and due homage to the animals that sacrificed themselves for the good of humanity, were the hallmarks of a good hunter and kept the world from falling off its axis. Inuit folklore also told of a time when men could speak to animals; the words were shamanistic in character and delivery and held a tengeq or intrinsic power. If the words were uttered heedlessly they immediately lost their power. This belief may account for the Inuit's almost legendary reluctance to indulge in idle chitchat. Their brevity makes most non-Inuits look bold and brash.

Tupilak, once carved out of bone, skin and chunks of peat, are small grotesque-looking figures that wouldn't look out of place in an Evil Dead film. They originally worked as catalysts for misfortune and death, although the carver had to be careful that the victim's juju was weaker than his own to avoid a fatal backlash. These days tupilak are sold as souvenirs and are carved from caribou antler, soapstone, driftwood, narwhal tusk, walrus ivory and bone, and the only thing they conjure up is the tourist dollar.

It has been said that Greenlandic language looks like the efforts of a two year old let loose on a typewriter; long strings of mega-syllabic words held together by repeating vowels and quite a few more 'q's than a westerner is used to. If it looks formidable to learn that's because it is. Conversational matters aren't helped by the Greenlandic habit of spontaneously abbreviating the monster words to a more respectable length, but in ways that are far too enigmatic for the average foreigner with a phrasebook.

Traditional Greenlandic food is of the bloody and freshly killed kind: walrus, seal and whale. The tastiest parts of the kill (the eyes, kidney and heart) were traditionally set aside for the head hunter and the other sections distributed according to a very strict hierarchy. Every part of the animal was used. One traditional delicacy described by Jean Malaurie in The Last Kings of Thule combined partridge droppings and seal fat; another consisted of narwhal fat and water, mixed with walrus brain and digested grass from the first stomach of a reindeer. Despite the culinary trend toward mix'n'match global cuisine, you'd have to think twice before trying to rehabilitate traditional Greenland fare. It's difficult to imagine either of these dishes, or any variation of them, ever appearing in Vogue Cuisine. These days supermarket aisles have largely taken over the hunt. Even tropical fruits are put on the shopping list, but prepackaged whale steaks and seal meat are still available in the frozen goods section.


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