Wed, Oct 06, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The world of the last Arctic hunters is vanishing

Global warming is having a very visible impact on Greenland’s Inughuit — the sea ice that has supported their way of life is melting and their villages are under threat

By Stephen Leonard  /  The Observer

mountain people

Living in the most northern permanently inhabited settlements in the world, the Inughuit people, or Polar Eskimos as they are often known, have eked out an existence in this Arctic desert in the northwest corner of Greenland for centuries.

The Inughuit are one of the smallest indigenous groups in the world with a population of just 800 people spread across the four settlements that make up the Thule region. More than 1,600km away from the capital, Nuuk, and occupying an unfeasibly remote corner of our world, the Inughuit enjoy their own distinct subculture based on the hunting of marine mammals.

Unlike other Inuit populations across the Arctic, the Inughuit have maintained where possible their ancient way of life, using kayaks and harpoons to hunt narwhal and traveling by dog-sled in the winter.

This unique way of life is now under threat. A tiny society whose basis is just a half dozen families, some of whom are descendants of the polar explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, say they are being “squeezed” out of existence. Draconian hunting quotas have been imposed by politicians in the south, many of whom have never ventured this far north. The hunting restrictions have pushed up the cost of sea mammals and some Inughuit are switching to a Western diet of imported food.

Even if they can afford to eat their traditional diet, certain environmental groups advise them not to do so. The levels of mercury in some marine mammals are thought to pose a health hazard, and the risks of radioactive contamination from the nearby nuclear accident in 1968 when a US Air Force B-52 crash-landed with four hydrogen bombs on board are still unknown.

Speaking Inuktun

Some words and phrases that Stephen Leonard has found useful during his first month with the Inughuit:

qilalugaq qirniqtaq: narwhal (a small arctic whale)

puihi: seal

hila: weather, consciousness, mind

hikuqihuq: the sea is frozen over

qamutik: sledge

anurhaataitsiaqtuq: there is not much wind

taarileqihuq: it is getting dark

kapirlaktuq: the dark season begins

mannighariaqturnialuktuq: goes out to gather eggs

kinnguhaaqtuq: practice capsizing in a kayak

uqautsit: words, language

kaavikuluuq: Greenlandic polka

hagdunngitsorruanga: I am not joking

pinaloqatauhinnarialinga?: May I come hunting with you?

oqauhilerituunga: I am a linguist

takujaartorruagut: see you later

(Inuktun is not a written language and therefore the spelling of words varies.)


The one-price policy that used to operate across Greenland, effectively subsidizing the more remote settlements, has also been abolished, and the result is that the cost of living has rocketed.

Local people believe the government, which has self-rule within Denmark’s small commonwealth, has a hidden agenda to force out the people living in the most remote communities, creating three or four urban centers in Greenland and thus reducing the burdensome cost of servicing such isolated settlements.

My journey to Greenland took me through pretty, picture-postcard Ilulissat in the south. Here, small amphitheaters of ice seemed to go nowhere, just sitting and collecting dirt, before sinking into oblivion. As we skirted the ice sheet, heading northwards, it seemed gray and thinning. Lakes appeared all over the ice, a tragic testament of the all too rapidly changing natural environment.

It is a picture of transition, and a disturbing one at that: It speaks dislocation and a sense of foreboding.

The Inughuit, however, are already a people in exile. Qaanaaq, by far the largest Inughuit settlement, was established in 1953, when the Inughuit people were given three days to leave their ancient homeland in Uummannaq, 150km to the south, to make way for the controversial US air base at Thule. But now these displaced people face a new and unprecedented threat to their culture: global warming.

A local woman who has spent nearly all her life living in Qaanaaq stands in my green prefabricated wooden hut, on the vast polar bear and musk-oxen skins that cover the floor. Dried, pungent blubber sits on the racks outside. Looking out across Ingelfield Bay and the whale-shaped Herbert Island, toward the exploding icebergs that sit like vast lumps of polystyrene in the Murchison Sound, there is a sadness in her eyes.

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