Just below the Arctic Circle, on an island off the coast of Western Greenland, you’ll find the small town of Maniitsoq, formerly known as “Sukkertoppen” in Danish. It was founded as a Danish colony around 1755 and is still part of the Danish reign. But in recent years, the discussion about Greenlandic independence has grown stronger. Still, children in the only school on the island have to learn Danish and English, which is why I have been here for little over a month now, as a teacher.
Maniitsoq is a small society, centered around hunting and fishing. Whales are seen (and caught) in the waters just around town, as are harp seals, crabs and shrimps. Peek down into a container, and you may look into the eyes of a dead seal. On land, local tables serve muskox and reindeer – you may come across a front garden, where people cut up their latest prey. If you don’t own a rifle or boat, you can find black berries out in the mountains.
Home to about 2700 people, the island also has its own tiny airport. Here, three planes or so a week land on a short runway carved into the rock. There’s also a hospital, school, church, four or five grocery stores, as well as other basic services. Some call Maniitsoq the “Venice of Greenland”, due to the canals that cross throughout town. But the place is extremely rocky, with long wooden staircases leading to strings of private homes scattered over the hills.
Most houses are of the colourful, typical, wooden Greenlandic style. But there are also a few huge concrete apartment blocks, built by the Danes some 50 years ago. Today, these buildings are often in a very poor state, and reflect the harsh living conditions of the Inuit people. A walk around the churchyard will also tell you that not all live very long and happy lives. However, the graves are often beautifully decorated with artificial flowers and white wooden crosses.
The things that are done differently
Sometimes, as a European, you are surprised to see how things are done differently here. In late August, I went to the opening match at the new football stadium, and saw how the ‘seats’ were simply the surrounding rocks. If you want a good view, you have to climb high! Small children jump over cliffs and climb around freely in mountains. That would be the nightmare of many concerned European parents, but accidents seldom seem to happen.
In recent years, Maniitsoq has seen much unemployment, but tries to rebrand the place as a whale watching destination. I can recommend a 2019 documentary called Håbets Ø (English title: Winter’s Yearning), if you’d like to know more. It features the stories of three locals, and hey, I have actually met one of them (which isn’t very hard, when you all live within a few square kilometres).
In a world where cities tend to grow larger and larger, and people ask more and more from life, Greenland may face huge challenges, even with a total population of some 56 000 inhabitants. Will it be possible to offer acceptable living conditions to the young, or will they move away to Denmark or elsewhere? Will independence be possible, and how should a welfare society be funded? Someday, the children, who now play around happily in the mountains of Maniitsoq may have to be the ones to work all that out.
Greenland faces a chronic economic challenge. Its foundation is built on three unstable pillars: fishing, tourism and mining. And with the polar ice melting away at a crazy pace, the people of Greenland are getting caught in a global chess game of military and geopolitical interests.
One day, Greenlandic independence will come, with a draft for a constitution as the next waypoint. And Greenland has already increased their self-rule back in 1979 and 2009. However, a major problem seems to be the need for educated personnel of all kind. Then there’s also the chronic economic challenge: how can you base an economy on the unstable pillars of fishing, tourism and mining?
A global chess game of geopolitics
At the moment, a mad race to win the hearts and minds of Greenlanders is underway, with US officials visiting both smaller and larger towns like Maniitsoq, including our school. As most will know, US President Donald Trump has recently offered to buy Greenland. That includes its 56 000 people, who are formally Danish nationals. The Danish Premier, Mette Frederiksen, turned down this idea at once. At the same time, Russia and especially China are eager to build new airports and invest in mining projects. The polar ice is melting away at a new and crazy pace, and may soon give commercial shipping new, shorter routes to follow.
Whatever the future may bring, one thing is becoming clear: the Greenlandic people will be caught in a global chess game of military and geopolitical interests.
This story was written by Henrik. He is a Danish teacher that has recently moved to Maniitsoq, Greenland.