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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic August 15, 2014 - 9:53 am

Taissumani, Aug. 15

The Expulsion of the Inughuit


The Inughuit live in northwestern Greenland north of Melville Bay. Their traditional territory is a strip of land hemmed in between the frigid waters of the Arctic and the inland ice that covers most of Greenland, a coastal strip 600 km long. They are the northernmost human society in the world.

The Inughuit lived in isolation, from other Inuit as well as from white men, until 1818 when the explorer John Ross came upon them and made their existence known to the world.

But for three quarters of a century after that, their isolation remained almost complete. They were visited periodically by explorers and whalers until 1891, when Robert Peary arrived on the first of his many expeditions, which would end in 1909 when he claimed to have reached the North Pole.

In 1909 Peary left for good. That year Knud Rasmussen arrived with Peter Freuchen to establish the Thule Station, a combined trading post and scientific research station.

This was an unusual type of colonization for it was private rather than state-supported – Denmark was not sure at the time that it owned northern Greenland. Rasmussen’s colonization disturbed the Inughuit very little.

Indeed, it probably prevented them a great many hardships because he provided them with trade goods on which they had become dependent during the 18 years of Peary’s occupation of the region.

Although the Inughuit lived in many scattered camps, their main population centre was Uummannaq, a village on North Star Bay, at the base of a distinctively-shaped, almost flat-topped mountain, which became known as Thule Mountain.

It was near the base of this mountain that Rasmussen built his trading post.  The area was extremely productive in wildlife, a favoured place for hunting seal, walrus, birds, foxes and polar bears.

While the Inughuit continued to live their traditional life, Denmark eventually assumed sovereignty over all of Greenland.

During the Second World War, Denmark was occupied by Nazi forces while, at the same time, the Thule District became of strategic military interest.

With Denmark occupied, the Danish Ambassador in Washington assumed power over Greenland and entered into an agreement with the Americans in 1941 in which he granted the United States the right to operate military and meteorological bases in Greenland. Between 1941 and 1944, the Americans built 17 bases there. One was a weather base built in the Thule District in 1943.

One might have thought that once the war was over there would be no more need for an American presence in Greenland. But the Second World War was replaced by the Cold War — a war of words.

In 1951 Denmark and the United States entered into a treaty on the defence of Greenland. Unfortunately for the Inughuit, Thule played a major role in this new reality. The flat plain around the base of Thule Mountain was an ideal location for a major airfield.

The Americans could hardly wait. Even before the treaty was adopted, a massive airlift took place. Three thousand round trip flights were augmented by a convoy of 120 ships bringing construction equipment to bulldoze America’s way into Greenland. Twelve thousand construction workers inundated the Inuit population of just over 200 people.

By 1952 Thule Air Base covered 320 square kilometres of Inughuit territory, and included quarters for a permanent contingent of between 5,000 and 10,000 men.

In April of the following year, the Americans wanted to place an anti-aircraft battery quite near the Uummannaq settlement. They asked the Danes to move the people.

On May 25, 1953, Danish officials told 27 Inughuit families, totalling 116 people, that they would have to leave their traditional home – immediately. Within days the families were relocated to Qaanaaq, 150 kilometres north, where a new village was established.

The quest for adequate compensation and the right to return to their rich traditional hunting grounds has continued to this day.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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