Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 May 2023, 12:44 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Denmark : Inuit (Greenlanders)

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Denmark : Inuit (Greenlanders), 2008, available at: [accessed 23 May 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Three-quarters of the immense land surface of Greenland is covered by permanent ice and is unsuitable for permanent settlement. The majority of the island's population are Greenlandic, comprising three linguistic groups: Kalaallit along the west coast; Inughuit in the north (the world's most northerly indigenous inhabitants); and Iit on the east coast.

Greenlanders generally call themselves collectively Kalaallit and refer to their land as Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenlanders' Land).

Historical context

The first groups of nomadic migrants came to Greenland about 4,500 years ago; early settlers were mainly hunters of land mammals, but later migrants also harvested sea resources.

European settlement began in about CE 985. In the eighteenth century small trading stations were established along the west coast, and in 1776 the Danish government formed the Royal Greenland Trade Company, which had a monopoly on Greenland trade until 1950. The Inuit population was converted to Lutheran Christianity in the eighteenth century, but records remain of Inuit cosmology and moral codes. A complex series of taboos ensured regulation of human activity in relation to the environment.

The early Danish colonizers were paternalistic and protective towards their Inuit subjects, enabling most Inuit to retain their small-scale subsistence economy. Economic modernization partly began as a result of climate warming during the early nineteenth century, which made a transition from hunting to commercial fishing possible.

In 1953 Greenland's colonial status was abolished, and it became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark. A large-scale development programme began. Inuit were encouraged to migrate from 'unprofitable' settlements in the outlying areas to west coast towns. Rapid urbanization resulted in the break-up of Inuit kinship and other customary networks, as well as in increasing immigration of Danes and growing Inuit politicization and demands for home rule.

The Greenland Home Rule Act was passed in 1978 and implemented in 1979. The right of the Danish Parliament to decide Greenland affairs was transferred to the Greenland Landsting, an elected legislative authority composed almost entirely of resident Greenlanders.

Current issues

Administrative functions are delegated to the Landsstyre, the government body. Home-rule government areas of responsibility include economic affairs, trade and industry, education, health, social affairs and the environment. The Danish government maintains control of defence, foreign affairs, policing and the administration of justice. In 1994 the Greenland Home Rule Administration set up the Greenlandic Legal Commission to review and recommend revisions for the territory's justice system. The Greenland authorities aspire to greater independence from Denmark generally.

The official language of the territory is West Greenlandic (Kalaallit), an Inuit language. It is taught in schools and used in broadcasting, administration, church services, literature and newspapers. Both Danish and West Greenlandic are official languages of instruction, and Greenlandic is not in danger of disappearing. Radio Greenland, run by the Inuit, broadcasts in Greenlandic.

As a result of the achievement of home rule, a national Inuit identity has emerged. Yet Inuit face a range of economic, social, health and environmental problems. While they enjoy constitutionally protected rights, their traditional way of life is threatened by both economic modernization and international campaigns led by animal rights activists against their traditional forms of subsistence hunting, which remain crucial in the north and east. The impact of global warming is also posing a serious danger to the Inuit way of life. Rising sea levels, melting ice and the disappearance of animals which the Inuit rely on to sustain them, are just some of the effects that are already apparent. In February 2007, a delegation of Inuit from Greenland, US, Canada and Russia, argued before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights that the US's failure to contain greenhouse gases, put it in breach of its obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights.

Greenland's real per capita GDP is roughly half that of Denmark and many Inuit are unemployed. In the mid-1980s over-fishing caused serious problems for the economy. Danish subsidies are needed to buy Danish commodities and to pay the Danes who do the skilled work. Inuit also suffer from high rates of suicide and psychological disorder, and have an infant mortality rate five times higher than in Denmark. Changing dietary habits may account for many of their health problems. Substance abuse is common, especially among younger people, as is alcoholism and the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are a matter of increasing concern.

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