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Greenland's message for Trump and Denmark: Stop treating us like chattel

I see how Trump treats his own native population, and nothing he has ever said or done makes me believe that we would be treated any better.
Author Aka Niviana.
Author Aka Niviana in Greenland, home to some 55,000 people who shouldn't be ignored by President Donald Trump and Denmark in their dispute over the island.Emil Asmussen

The island I live on has been discussed in the international media various times throughout my life. There have been stories about the starving polar bears and the melting ice. Now, it’s that U.S. President Donald Trump wants to buy Kalaallit Nunaat, also known as Greenland, from Denmark.

Everybody seems to have an opinion on these issues, but in few cases is it informed by what the people who live here think. We, the Greenlandic population, are seldom given a voice or a platform to speak for ourselves. This time is no different. The big conversation seems to be between the United States and Denmark. The big question seems to be, “Does Denmark want to sell Greenland?”

We, the Greenlandic population, are seldom given a voice or a platform to speak for ourselves.

I want to make it completely clear: We are not for sale. We are not goods, we are people; this is our home, and we are not up for negotiation.

Foreigners have asked me several times over the past week whether I was surprised about the wish to buy Greenland. Unfortunately, my answer has been no. I am not surprised that in 2019, we are still talking about people as if we were cattle on the auction block.

I am especially not surprised to hear it from the U.S. president because he has made it clear that the lives of indigenous peoples, and in general those of every race other than his own, have no significant value to him. I have been asked if I can see any possibility of positive consequences if the U.S. were to buy my home; as you may have guessed, I cannot. I see how Trump treats his own native population and nothing he has ever said or done makes me believe that we would be treated any better.

The worldwide reaction to Trump’s interest in my island has been massive, making Greenland, a country more than three times the size of Texas with a population of around 55,000, one of the top trending topics on the internet this week. The discussion has obviously been very intense here as well. While it has been difficult at times, it has brought up important questions that Greenland needs to confront, particularly whether we want to “stay with Denmark” — and what our future would look like if we don’t.

The Danish colonization of Greenland began in 1721 when the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede came to the shores of Nuuk, now our capital city. He wanted to make the Inuit population Christian, and he succeeded despite objections from the people already living there. For centuries afterward, Greenland was a colony under the kingdom of Denmark. In 1979, we were granted home rule and, in 2009, self rule, which meant we had more power over our own land and people but not that we were independent.

When Trump expressed his wish to buy Greenland, the reaction was also strong on Denmark’s side. A lot of Danes were outraged and found it ridiculous that it was even up for discussion. To me, their response highlighted an important aspect of this issue: Denmark still doesn’t see itself as a colonial power.

The ongoing discussion between the Greenlandic and Danish populations, in which the former try to make this reality clear, receives mostly rationalizations from the side of Denmark. “We only did it to help,” they say. Or, “We treat our colonies better than other colonial powers.”

While to some extent that can be true — the Danes didn’t massacre the native Greenlanders like the Spanish did when they arrived in the Americas — the attitude still erases and silences the people that were affected by this colonial history. It makes it seem as though there were no negative consequences from the Danish occupation of Greenland, though it is common knowledge in both Greenland and Denmark that, for example, children were taken away from their families and brought to Denmark to learn how to be “civilized.”

If you come to Nuuk, you will see a gigantic statue of Egede on top of a hill by the harbor. While many see it as a reminder of our common history with Denmark, I see it as a symbol of the still very present and unequal power dynamic between Greenland and Denmark, with Denmark as the winning party. (To be clear, my critique is about the structure and power relationship with Denmark, not a personal attack on every Dane or people with Danish roots.)

The relationship between Greenland and Denmark is a very sensitive topic in our society, because after so many years of Danish presence, many of their descendants were born and raised here and see themselves as Greenlandic. But it’s a topic we must address for the sake of all the indigenous inhabitants like me who deserve to control our future.

Part of the reason we need this conversation is because of the complexities involved, and how we as a society — and as individuals — need to work through them if we want to change our status.

I myself have mixed feelings. As an indigenous woman, I have a strong wish for independence so I can have the opportunity to be a part of the decisions regarding my people. And being controlled by a country so different and so far away is illogical to me. At the same time, I am also very aware that the process following independence would be a difficult one. There are many new issues and responsibilities we as a people would have to take on.

Being controlled by a country so different and so far away is illogical to me.

We will only be ready by having these conversations in a nuanced and sensitive way. At the same time, we have to be honest about the fact that Greenland, like other colonies and former colonies, has been heavily affected and is still affected by the outsiders who took over. For Denmark to forget that, or act like it never happened, won’t move us forward, because without acknowledging these realities, we won’t be able to solve the underlying issues.

If there’s anything good that can come out of Trump’s absurd ambition to buy Greenland, it is that it can spur this discussion forward by highlighting to both Denmark and the United States that we are still being treated like a possession when we deserve to be treated as the people we are.