Colonisation then and now in Avanersuaq

How does colonialism affect the Inughuit People of Avanersuaq today? In October and November 2021, I went to Qaanaaq, Ilulissat and Nuuk to find out.

I had written my masters thesis on the colonisation of the Inughuit and now I wanted to see for myself. Although I had interviewed Greenlanders about my research, I had not before been able to travel to the region owing to the pandemic. Although the weather created some challenges, in the end I stayed for 3 weeks in Greenland, listening to local people.

I had been told in Nuuk about the kindness of the Qaanaarmiut; they could not have been more right. During this trip, I met brilliant and generous people, who shared their thoughts with me through formal interviews as well as informal chats. I visited the school, the museum, a sewing workshop, the hunters’ association headquarters, the local radio station, and families’ homes.

In my thesis, I argued that the legal and political history of Avanersuaq is marked by colonial projects that defined the Inughuit as ‘primitive’ West Greenlanders. I found that this definition historically justified the exclusion of the Inughuit from political power. This continues today, with power still maintained by Greenlandic and Danish authorities. I believe that this exclusion partly explains the economic and cultural difficulties the Inughuit are confronted with today. However, I needed to hear what people thought in Avanersuaq. Their perspectives and stories confirmed what I had found in my research, and provided valuable insights into Avanersuaq’s history as well as its future.

First, they highlighted that foreigners have historically misused the Inughuit. Locals’ stories highlighted that foreigners treated their forefathers poorly, stealing from them and abusing their generosity to serve their own interests. For example, several Qaanaarmiut told me how Robert Peary used the Inughuit to steal from them a 31-ton iron meteorite he then sold to the American Museum of Natural History. It still lies in the New York museum. I also learned that Knud Rasmussen gained international fame thanks to the help of Inughuit people, such as Arnarulunnguaq. His Thule expeditions would never have been possible without the Inughuit support. Stories I heard about Knud Rasmussen portrayed a man that brought many benefits to Avanersuaq, but that was also somewhat manipulative, using his privileges to assert his dominion. One local told me a story of Rasmussen allegedly killing an Inughuaq that had witnessed Rasmussen eating the rationed fooçd of the whole crew on an expedition to East Greenland. Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen’s mission to bring Christianity to the Inughuit forbade traditional cultural and spiritual practices (e.g. drum dance). Because of this history, I was told that people are still shy or afraid to perform their traditional culture in public today. Finally, I learned that Canada used the knowledge of an Inughuaq man, Nukagpianguk, to claim sovereignty over Ellesmere and Devon Islands. Nukagpianguk drew a detailed map of the islands’ coasts for the Canadian police, which returned him to Siorapaluk when they had no more need of him. But Canada used the map to assert its sovereignty over these islands. Canada sent some money for Nukagpianguk in payment for his work but it went to the Thule Trading Station manager. Nukagpianguk never received anything.

Secondly, it appears that this misuse, combined with the exclusion of the Inughuit from political power, still has consequences today. As I talked about my research with one Qaanaarmiut, he argued: “foreigners still decide for the Inughuit”. Another told me that those who take the decisions “don’t understand us”. Consequently, the Inughuit live in a system that discriminates against them. For example, Inuktun, or Qaanaarmiutut, is not recognised as a language by the authorities and is classed only as a dialect. There is no official written version and there are no books. Today it is considered as ‘definitely endangered’ by UNESCO. Many of its speakers think it will disappear in the next generations.

The hunting culture of the Inughuit is also threatened by this exclusion. Following the 9/11 terrorist attack, the Inughuit have been unable to hunt over their traditional territory on Ellesmere Island (now Canada). If they do so, they risk being arrested and jailed. These restrictions have been described to me as “unfair”, “ridiculous”, “shocking”. Being able to hunt across the Pikialasorsuaq would really help the hunters, but Avannaata’s mayor, based in Ilulissat argued this was not necessary. Inughuit hunters therefore cannot access their traditional territory. This situation violates their rights.1 The quota system also directly endangers the subsistence of the hunters. The modern system completely ignores Inughuit knowledge of the animals. One local told me that the system is so harmful “the hunters today do not want their children to become hunters.” In Qaanaaq, hunters have not had any income between August and November, when I visited.

Despite these difficulties, and the shortness of my trip, I saw that the Inughuit are resourceful people. For example, even though it is very hard to be a hunter today, some young people still become hunters. I have seen that others, who have finished their secondary education in Nuuk or Denmark come back to Qaanaaq to live and work in their community. In school, a teacher told me that he uses Inuktun when possible to continue the transmission of this language. I also heard that the hunting and fishing organisation had asked for new fish surveys in the area, hoping that new fishing opportunities will help the region’s economy. The local radio is currently expanding its broadcast capacity to Avanersuaq’s small settlements in order to reach the whole community. Very recently, 23 locals from Qaanaaq, Siorapaluk and Qeqertat graduated from a tourism-guiding course. This shows that Inughuit find and pursue their own goals for personal and community development if given the opportunities.

I only spent 4 days in Qaanaaq. In this short period, I encountered a community that has suffered from past abuse and injustice. Today, still, there are clear hardships in Avanersuaq. However, despite these difficulties, what I remember is a lively, welcoming and resilient community. I remember a community that was proud of its unique culture, and eager to share it with a Qallunaaq like me. Inughuit are ready to take on responsibility for their own community and seek more decision-making power.

1. United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007, article 26; ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples 1989, Part II.

Read more about the whole research project here

About Martin Binachon

Martin Binachon is a French student in Polar Law at the University of Akureyri. Formed as a political scientist, Martin now focuses on the Arctic, with a special interest in climate change and indigenous empowerment.

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