The Struggle against Colonialism and Imperialism in Kalaallit Nunaat

Kalaallit Nunaat’s Incorporation into Hyperempire

The world’s largest island is situated high in the northeast corner of Turtle Island (imperialistically known as North America), half the size of Europe, covering 2,166,086 square kilometers (836,109 sq. mi.). Named Grønland (Greenland) by the Norsemen, the mountainous, ice-covered landmass is referred to as Kalaallit Nunaat (meaning “Land of the Kalaallit”) in Kalaallisut (closely related to the Inuktitut language).

It was originally populated by a pre-Dorset Culture around 2,000 BCE. By the twelfth century, the population numbered some 10,000 Norsemen and Inuit — the pre-Dorset and Dorset Cultures having disappeared. Today, more than 90 per cent of the island’s population of 56,361 (July 2006 estimate, CIA Factbook) live along the west coast. About 88 per cent of the people are Kalaallit (an Inuit people) or Kalaallit Nunaat-born Caucasians; the remainder is mainly Danish-speaking settlers and newcomers, a decline from 20 per cent in the 1980s. More than half of the people still depend on the traditions of harvesting seals, walrus, whales, foxes, birds, polar bears, and fish for their survival.

Yet, the Kalaallit do not enjoy sovereignty over their territory. Norwegian Vikings were among the first people to explore and inhabit Kalaallit Nunaat. Initially, they thrived, but the settlements petered out later, leaving the Kalaallit to carry on. Scandinavian political intrigues, however, did not relinquish sovereignty claims to the northern landmass.

Imperialistic wars and the geo-strategic significance of Kalaallit Nunaat attracted the covetousness of the United States. The colonizing authority Denmark could do little but make way for its hegemonic ally. Kalaallit Nunaat was drawn into the militaristic embrace of the United States, thereby transforming itself from being a remote Arctic island to a missile target for any potential enemies of the US. The Kalaallit found themselves completely marginalized between imperialistic interests in their own land.

The civilizing hand of western society regarded the Kalaallit as backward people, culturally and intellectually inferior, and unable to exploit the mineral resources of Kalaallit Nunaat. This ethnocentric view has been challenged. The United Nations charter recognizes the right to self-determination and followed up with a mandate for decolonization. That Kalaallit Nunaat still finds itself under Danish dominion begs the question as to how all this happened and even more why it still persists?

Historical Genesis

During the Dark Ages, groups of outlaws and farmers took to the sea from the northernmost reaches of Europe. These seafaring marauders became known as the Vikings. Some of these outcasts among the Vikings were to achieve historical distinction indirectly through dubious means. Born in Norway, young Erik Thorvaldsson, better known as Erik the Red because of his red hair and beard, wound up on Iceland because his father Thorvald Asvaldsson had been banished for murder.

Erik, himself, would be banished for three years from Iceland for murder. This led Erik to the east coast of the large island. Erik proceeded around the southern tip to the west coast and settled there, naming the land Greenland to attract people to it; at this time, Greenland was climatologically in a warm spell. After serving out his exile in Greenland, Erik returned to Iceland.

In 985, Erik left overcrowded Iceland with 25 ships of colonists, of which only 14 of the vessels reached Greenland. The colonists established two settlements, with a total of about 450 people. The settlements flourished and grew. Viking seamanship, however, continued to probe further offshore.1

Greenland had already been partially settled before the Vikings arrived by a group of people archaeologists refer to as the Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos because their remains first appeared in a collection at Kinngait (Cape Dorset) on Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island).2 The Dorset people are likeliest the Tunit of Inuit legend. The Tunit were an “ancient race of strong, gentle, and rather simple people” who lived in the Arctic territories (presently claimed by Canada and Denmark) before the ancestors of the present Inuit arrived.

The relatively warm climate of a millennium ago generated the grazing and hunting conditions that attracted the Norsemen and Inuit contemporaneously to western Greenland. The westward migrants were the Thule Inuit,3 so named because their remains were first identified near a settlement now called Thule in northern Greenland. The whale-hunting prowess of the Inuit favored them over the Dorset people who eventually disappeared in the Arctic.4 Much as competition favored the Inuit over the Dorset people, it also seems that the Inuit were better predisposed to life in Greenland than were the Viking people.

However, in 1386, Greenland would again return to the European domain, becoming part of the Norwegian monarchy. In 1397, Denmark gained control of Sweden, Norway and the colonies under the Kalmar Union. But the Greenland settlements disappeared. Evidence suggests that worsening climatic conditions led to a famine during the fifteenth century’s Little Ice Age.5

In 1815, Denmark attained sole possession of Greenland through the Treaty of Kiel.

The Militarization of Kalaallit Nunaat

Although a small imperialist nation, Denmark has a colonial past. Until the nineteenth century, imperial Denmark had possessions in India and the Gold Coast, both sold to Britain in mid-century. Denmark also ruled Norway, Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands. Denmark, which had sided with the losing French side in the Napoleonic Wars, lost Norway to English ally Sweden in 1814. Iceland became a sovereign country in 1944. The Faeroese and Kalaallit have struggled for national self-determination for decades.

Explorations by Americans Robert Edwin Peary and Matthew Henson between 1891 and 1909 formed the basis of a later claim by the United States to northern Kalaallit Nunaat, which was dropped when Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the US in 1917. In 1921, Denmark, against Norwegian protests, declared sovereignty over the entire landmass. The Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague adjudicated this in Denmark’s favor in 1933, condemning the court as an organ for colonization. In 1940, the occupier became occupied when Germany’s army stationed itself in Denmark, and the fate of Kalaallit Nunaat became unclear. Denmark’s official in Washington, Henrik Kauffmann, was forced to accept that Kalaallit Nunaat came under the auspices of the Monroe Doctrine encompassing Turtle Island. The US had thereby achieved a pretext for World War II intervention without declaring war.

During World War II, Kangerlussuaq (Søndre Strømfjord) on Kalaallit Nunaat’s west coast and Keflavík, Iceland, served as air traffic control centers and “stepping stones” for pilots who ferried fighter planes across the North Atlantic. Patrol aircraft based at Keflavík Naval Air Station, aided by Underwater Sound Surveillance (SOSUS) systems, swept adjacent seas looking for enemy surface ships and submarines.

The US thus allowed Kalaallit Nunaat to be returned to Denmark on the condition that US and NATO forces would be allowed continued military use of the island; the negotiations were finalized in 1951. The 1951 agreement “concerning the defense of Greenland” gave the US extensive extra-territorial powers. It established “defense areas” that the US was entitled “to improve and generally to fit … for military use.” No substantial restrictions were included.6 A similar neo-colonial treaty, the 1951 Defense Arrangement, was negotiated with Iceland (US base at Keflavík near the capital of Reykjavik), turning the newly independent island republic into what Icelanders began to call the US aircraft carrier in the mid-Atlantic.7

The revelation, in 1995, that contrary to official policy, the Danish prime minister, H.C. Hansen gave the Americans a “green light” to station nuclear weapons in Kalaallit Nunaat in 1957 has been the source of much public debate in Denmark.

Crucial to the US’s designs for Kalaallit Nunaat was the Pentagon’s choice of a coastal site in northwest for the establishment of the Thule Air Force Base and radar. On 9 July 1951, a US armada of 120 ships, with about 12,000 men, arrived at Uummanaaq (Thule) in what was called the largest operation since the invasion of Normandy, code named Operation Blue Jay.8 Danish imperialism was subjected to the dictates of US imperialism. Consequently, the Kalaallit were effectively living under two imperialisms.

It was not until 1 May 1979 that Kalaallit Nunaat was granted limited home rule. But the Danish monarch remains Kalaallit Nunaat’s head-of-state, and defense, foreign affairs, justice, and currency fall under Danish jurisdiction. Confronted with a tiny imperialistic nation under the sway of the hyperempire, achieving full independence for the Kalaallit has been and continues to be a gargantuan struggle.

Thule’s Role in the Global Garrison

The famous Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen explored the Thule area in 1903-04. In 1908, the area was prepared for settlement. In 1909, a missionary and a storehouse were erected. In 1910, Rasmussen and his colleague Peter Freuchen returned to the area and named the tiny village “Thule,” from the Latin word with the same spelling meaning “northernmost part of the inhabitable world.” The Inughuit occupying the northern area called it Uummannaq. Freuchen managed the trading post that served as a base for scientific expeditions as well as supplying equipment and food. The world’s northernmost community was to change radically from its humble trading post origin.

During World War II, Denmark came under German occupation. Therefore, on 9 April 1941 Danish Ambassador Henrik Kauffmann and US secretary-of-state Cordell Hull signed an agreement on the defense of “Greenland” in Washington. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved it on 7 June 1941. US military interests stated that the US had generously agreed to take over the security of Kalaallit Nunaat. Once the US entered the war, the allies erected weather stations at Narssarssuaq airport, Kangerlussuaq (Søndre Strømfjord; Bluie West-8), Ikateq (Bluie East-2), and Gronnedal (Bluie West-9). In 1943, the Army Air Corp set up weather stations at Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund; Bluie East-3) and Qaanaaq (Bluie West-6) to be operated by Danish staff. The Kalaallit Nunaat weather stations were credited with giving the allies a strategic advantage over the Germans in battle planning and having provided a “decisive factor in D-Day.”9

In 1946, a Danish-American radio and weather station was established in the Royal Greenland Trade Department Building at Pituffik. Pituffik means “place where they tie their boats.”

Kalaallit Nunaat was an important part of US ambitions to establish a system of modern air bases around the globe after World War II. Kalaallit Nunaat gained increasing importance after the difficulty of transporting atomic bombs between US or Canadian bases and European objectives became manifest. Indeed, the shortest route from the US to critical targets in the Soviet Union was over the North Pole, and Thule is strategically located midway between Moscow and New York. Thule’s importance was both offensive and defensive: Strategic Air Command bombers flying over the Arctic gave the US increased no-detection time; Thule is well situated for intercepting bomber attacks along the northeastern approaches to Turtle Island.

Operation Blue Jay, the secret construction of Thule Air Base (Pituffik), started in 1951 and finished in 1953. Descriptions of the construction are staggering. According to the Strategic Air Command (SAC):

The construction of Thule is said to have been comparable in scale to the enormous effort required to build the Panama Canal. The Navy transported the bulk of men, supplies, and equipment from the naval shipyards in Norfolk, VA. On 6 June 1951, an armada of 120 shipments sailed from Norfolk, VA. On board were 12,000 men and 272,158 tons (300,000 imperial tons) of cargo. They arrived at Thule 9 July 1951. Construction took place around the clock. The workers lived on-board the ship until quarters were built. Once they moved into the quarters, the ships returned home.10

Thule Air Base’s initial purpose was as a forward staging base for SAC bombers and tankers — with a fuel storage capacity of approximately 380 million liters (10,039,000 gallons; the largest in the US Department of Defense — built to support mid-air refueling of the B-47 bombers). The base was constructed to accommodate 12,000 personnel, for which 137,000 hectares (338,534 acres) were reserved. Originally, Thule was comprised of a main base of 1,052 hectares (2,600 acres), 132 kilometers (82 miles) of road, 38 fuel tanks, 10 hangers, 122 barracks, 6 mess halls, a gym, service club, officer’s club, hobby shop, library, base exchange, post office, theater, chapel, hospital, 63 warehouses, a laundry, a bakery, two primary power plants, and 4 auxiliary power/heating plants.

To accomplish all this, the Inughuit of Uummannaq were forcibly relocated 105 kilometers (65 miles) to the north, on Red Cliff Peninsula: Qaanaaq. SAC indicated that the relocation was because the Inughuit’s game had been frightened away from Thule Air Base, so to protect their cultural survival the Inughuit “moved so that hunting and fishing could continue without disturbances from the activities of the modern air base.”10

The Global Garrison of Hyperempire

Although the US cites the Cold War as its main pretext for occupying Kalaallit Nunaat because of its geo-strategic position as a staging base for nuclear bombers, the genesis of its occupation lies in American geopolitical considerations laid out before World War II.

The American scheme was embodied in the Declaration of Panama on 23 September 1939. It proclaimed a so-called Neutrality Zone covering the entire western hemisphere, averaging 483 kilometers (300 miles) in breadth, excluding the territorial waters of Canada and the undisputed colonies and possessions of European countries within those limits. Notwithstanding this semantic formula, the neutrality zone was intended in practice to cover Canada and the European-held possessions in the Western Hemisphere.

Under the pretext of “hemispheric defence,” “inter-American solidarity,” and later “the joint struggle against Hitler,” the US during World War II further expanded its Atlantic sphere of naval-military operations northwards to Newfoundland and Labrador, Iceland, and Kalaallit Nunaat, while at the same time moving to establish military bases within the British sphere of influence in the Caribbean (Jamaica, Antigua, St. Lucia, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba and Surinam (Dutch), Guyana, Ascension, and Barbados). On 10 April 1940, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt invoked the Monroe Doctrine, declaring Kalaallit Nunaat a part of Turtle Island and part of the US sphere of “vital interests” and reached an agreement with an individual Danish minister in Washington that permitted the establishment of US military bases and meteorological stations. In 1942, the US took Kalaallit Nunaat and Iceland under so-called “protective custody,” replacing Canadian troops, well after Nazi Germany had occupied Denmark in 1940. As well, the US moved into Iceland, replacing British troops, and establishing the US base at Keflavík — an ongoing issue.

To further these ends, the Americans were granted the right to maintain and operate landing fields, seaplane bases, radio and meteorological stations, to install fortifications, and to take any measures need to insure their efficient operation, including the improvement of harbors, roads and communications.

Like Kalaallit Nunaat, Iceland was purportedly “necessary for both the security of the US and for the projection of its postwar military operations.”

But the American troops “protecting” Kalaallit Nunaat did not leave with the defeat of Germany and the liberation of Denmark.

Part 2: the dangers of stationing nuclear weapons in Kalaallit Nunaat.

  1. Farley Mowat, West Viking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America (McClelland and Stewart, 1965). Without a doubt, the Genovese navigator Christopher Columbus was not the first European to reach the shores of “North America.” Generally, the Vikings are considered the first Europeans to do so although there is a case for a Celtic settlement of Iceland and Greenland that predates the Vikings. There is archaeological evidence of a short-lived Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. There are at least two credible accounts of Vikings reaching continental Turtle Island late in the tenth century. Bjarni Herjolfsson is thought to have reached landfall in Vinland (probably Avalon coast from Cape Race to Cape St. Francis of Newfoundland) after riding out a polar nor’easter in 985. (405-417) In the summer of 982, Erik Thorvaldsson explored Vestri Obygdir — what is believed to be the Western Wilderness of Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) — where big game for hunting was bountiful. Mowat contended this marked the first European “of whom any record still exists, to discover what was for all technical reasons, the continent of North America.” (66) []
  2. In staying with the principle that recognizes the right of first and continued settlement, the present series shall accord preference to the place-name designations of the Original Peoples followed by colonial designations in parentheses. []
  3. or more specifically: Inughuit []
  4. Robert McGhee, “Arctic History,” Canadian Museum of Civilization. []
  5. Mowat, op. cit. By the mid-fourteenth century the Norse settlements in Greenland had collapsed. (300) The last Norseman in Greenland died in 1504. (302) []
  6. Defense of Greenland: Agreement Between the United States and the Kingdom of Denmark,” The Avalon Project, 27 April 1951. []
  7. Defense of Iceland: Agreement Between the United States and the Republic of Iceland,” The Avalon Project, 5 May 1951. []
  8. Jørgen Dragsdahl, “The Danish dilemma,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2001. []
  9. SAC Bases: Thule Air Base,” Strategic-Air-Command.com. []
  10. Ibid. [] []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.

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  1. Frank Duncan said on April 22nd, 2008 at 9:08am #

    I was in Greenland in 1951 as part of operation Blue Jay. Only a private in the army then and with no idea of what we were doing. However I hold some fond memories of that time in my life and like reading the history of the past. I’m 77 now and retired but I sure wsh I could go back there and back to the Canal Zone
    Thanks
    Frank