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The History & Culture of Greenland

Language: Greenlandic, Danish, English (unofficial)
Religion: Lutheran (Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church), Inuit spiritual beliefs
Ethnicity: 88% Inuit, 12% Danish & other

Despite Greenland’s massive size, the population is relatively small, with just over 56,000 inhabitants, most of whom have Inuit heritage. This Inuit patrimony has had a major influence on the culture & history. Any visitor to Greenland will see this ancient culture thriving, even in the big cities and towns like Nuuk.

A brief history of Greenland
Greenland’s first pioneers arrived to this icy landmass around four or five thousand years ago via a land bridge that used to exist between North America and Greenland. When they arrived, their lifestyle was largely based on hunting and gathering as they established a more permanent society. There have been six waves of Inuit migration to Greenland, and the biggest cultural influence has been the sixth and final wave, the Thule Inuit, which came to the region in the 9th century.

As told in the Icelandic sagas, this was the same period when the Norse Vikings were arriving on the shores of Greenland. Starting with Eric the Red in 982 CE, Norse settlers established communities all around Greenland and maintained a strong presence for close to 600 years. However, around the 16th century, for reasons still not entirely understood, they left Greenland. Their 6-century reign of the region can still be seen in the fascinating ruins they left behind around Nuuk and other parts of South Greenland.

After the Norse settlers had left, England and Norway sent expeditions to Greenland throughout the next three centuries, through the 1700s. In the 18th century, whalers were the most common visitors of Greenland, but in 1721 Hans Egede brought Christianity to the island nation. His conversion of the Inuits to the Lutheran Evangelical church was so successful that it is still their main religion in the country to this day.

Art has always been an important form of expression in Greenland. Throughout the past centuries, several artists stand out:
  • Aron from Kangeq (1822-1869) – early pioneer of art in Greenland with watercolors
  • Johannes Kreutzmann (1862-1940) – woodcarving.
  • Hans Lynge (1906-1988) – Known for a style similar to European expressionism.
  • Jens Rosing (1925-2008) – Followed Lynge’s footsteps with paintings of animal and nature.
  • Aka Høegh (1947-) and Anne-Birthe Hove (1954-2012): Represented our human connection with nature as a way to politicize the art and send a message that the Arctic is a land for all to enjoy as their own.
Recently, a new group of Greenland artists are seeking to establish their own identity in this region’s long history of talented artists.
Music has evolved along with art in Greenland. Drum dances and choral music both have a significant part in the country’s cultural heritage as a way to celebrate, ward off evil spirits, or thank God. In contemporary history, rock groups with influence from all around the world have become common.

Traditional dress can still be seen in Greenland during holidays and festivals. Originally, the early Inuits wore animal hides to protect against the frigid temperatures. When European settlers arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought with them new materials that impressed and inspired new developments in the national costume. Glass beads, silk, and wool all became a part of the vibrantly colored traditional clothing.

The flavor of Greenland is nothing if not fresh! Since hunting has always been an important part of the culture, you can count on some excellent dishes like freshly caught halibut & other seafood and game animals like deer and elk. Berries are also a common treat in the Greenlandic diet. Unlike many parts of the world, where factory farms and growth hormones are all too common, the animals raised in Greenland enjoy open ranges and feed on natural grass, ensuring that their meat is of the highest local quality.

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