“Essentially, it’s a large real estate deal.”
In the middle of August, the world was witness to yet another media circus surrounding Donald Trump, after he acknowledged his long-standing interest in buying Greenland.
An investigation by the Wall Street Journal first brought light to Trump’s real estate fantasy, revealing that he has, for over a year, been asking aides about the feasibility of the United States acquiring Greenland. Right away, Greenlandic and Danish politicians asserted the simple fact that the island is not for sale. The president was disgruntled by this resounding rejection. Within a few days, he had taken to Twitter both to insult the newly appointed Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and to announce the cancellation of his upcoming trip to Denmark.
Where does this interest in Greenland stem from? For one, increasing climate change is opening the island up for mining and other forms of resource extraction. Greenland has an area of about 836,000 square miles—roughly three times the size of Texas—of which 81 percent is covered by ice. However, this percentage is diminishing, which means that a growing portion of the island is becoming accessible to the extraction of resources like iron ore, rare earth minerals, uranium, and oil. A few Chinese companies have already gotten involved in extraction projects on the island, making the US especially eager to secure a stake in similar activities. Additionally, the US sees Greenland’s location between the US and Russia as strategically important for countering Russia’s intensifying military activity in the Russian Arctic.
While this is not the first time the president has brought his real estate background into governance and diplomatic relations, this blatant yet nonchalant view of Greenland as property provoked widespread controversy. Greenlanders and Danes were particularly outraged. In the aftermath, however, some have suggested that the outcome was not all bad for the Arctic country.
Greenland, called Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic, is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. The Naalakkersuisut (government) and the Inatsisartut (parliament) have total political autonomy in all matters outside of foreign policy and defense. In other words, the territory is self-governing. Additionally, Greenland has had the right to self-determination since 2009, after the Greenlandic self-government referendum passed with 75 percent approval. If the majority of the 56,000 people living there wished to fully detach Greenland from Denmark, they would have the authority to enact such a change. In short, Greenland is not Denmark’s to sell.
Despite these circumstances, much of the coverage of Trump’s statements and the aftermath framed the sale of Greenland as a bilateral issue between Denmark and the US. Bouncing between Trump quotes and Frederiksen quotes, articles from major European and US publications jumped from one side of the Atlantic to the other, overlooking the ice-covered mass in the middle—the alleged focus of their headlines.
This contradiction was not the fault of the Danes and Greenlanders being quoted, most of whom made efforts to emphasize the autonomy of Greenland in their statements. For example, Greenlandic Prime Minister Kim Kielsen stated, “Greenland is not for sale, but Greenland is open for trade and cooperation with other countries.” Mette Frederiksen, who was in Greenland’s capital Nuuk at the time, made sure to articulate her technically absent authority over the matter: “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland is Greenlandic.”
Once Greenlanders got over the initial indignation, however, some pointed out that the spotlight given to their country by Trump’s unsolicited interest might in fact be advantageous. Thanks to the media flurry sparked by Trump’s comments, many hope that Greenland will obtain a greater level of bargaining power in its relationship with Denmark and the world. What remains to be seen is whether this attention, and the power accompanying it, will last, or if it will fade away as Trump and his hounds move on to new fixations.
Greenland’s history as a colonized territory, as well as its path towards self-determination, are greatly relevant to the discourse postulating the country as real estate with measurable value. Although Greenland is essentially autonomous, there remains a postcolonial dependence that continues to bind the island to Denmark.
Judging by the statements of Danish politicians following the publication of The Wall Street Journal article, Copenhagen is wary of using a colonialist lens in its approach to Greenland. As is evident in the country’s significant political autonomy, Greenland does not retain colonial status today. This does not mean, however, that Greenland was not once the target of Danish state-making, nor does it mean that Danish colonialism has not created hardship for Inuit people and society.
The Greenlandic Inuit make up the majority of Greenland’s inhabitants today and are descendants of the Thule people, who arrived on the island before 1000 CE. Starting in the mid-thirteenth century, Greenland was a tributary colony under Norway. With the establishment of the Kalmar Union by Sweden, Denmark, and Norway in 1397, the three Scandinavian kingdoms agreed to share one single monarch, which was based in Denmark. Norway’s overseas dependencies, including Greenland, were also brought under this monarch. After the Kalmar Union fell apart in 1523, Norway and its overseas dependencies continued to remain under Danish rule.
Following a period of minimal contact, the Danish king sent a mission in 1721 to re-christen the Norse people who had formerly colonized southern Greenland. As it turned out that the Norse had died out, the Danes instead focused their efforts on converting the local Inuit to Christianity. While this period of Danish rule started out with a focus on conversion, Denmark’s colonial motives came to overlap with economic exploitation by the end of the eighteenth century. Danish traders were particularly focused on maintaining a trade monopoly on the island, competing with Dutch whalers and tradesmen. For over a century, economic exploitation of Inuit hunting products like seal and whale blubber was intertwined with governance, evidenced by the Royal Greenlandic Trade Department. Established in 1774, this trading company both oversaw trade and managed the government of Greenland until the early twentieth century.
A more recent instance of Danish colonialism in Greenland is Denmark’s use of education and language to assert dominance over the Inuit. This part of Greenlandic history is reminiscent of North American, Scandinavian, and Russian state efforts to ‘civilize’ the Indigenous people living along their northern borders—borders, of course, that appeared centuries after the targets of their civilizing efforts first settled there.
At the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, these circumpolar states forced native children to leave their families and attend distant boarding schools, combining the goal of assimilation with the calculated breakdown of native culture and language. This policy engendered a deep sense of alienation among Indigenous youth. As explained by a United Nations report called Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools, assimilation efforts involving boarding schools have been associated with “increased violence, increased suicide rates, increased substance abuse, and increased family disintegration” among Indigenous communities around the world. Although educational practices in the Arctic have since changed, the individual and collective trauma that came out of the experience of being colonized and assimilated live on in older generations and still influence younger generations. Greenland, which has high levels of alcoholism and the world’s highest suicide rate, is an example of this phenomenon and its lasting effects.
In an article published by the Danish newspaper Politiken, a woman named Helene Thiesen revisits painful memories of being separated from her family as a seven-year-old. Along with 21 other Greenlandic children, Helene was selected to go to Denmark to learn Danish in 1951. The Danish government hoped that, upon returning home, these children would serve as role models for their Inuit peers. Instead, the major effect was that she lost her native language and became alienated from her culture. She told Politiken, “Even though it’s been a long time, my body still shakes when I talk about it.”
Experiences like Helene’s represent the severity of some of Greenland’s most pressing societal challenges today. According to the Danish newspaper Kristeligt, suicide victims are often young people who have grown up with abuse and alcoholism. Danish colonialism in Greenland shaped the relationships that individuals had with their families, culture, and language, by making Inuit youth lose contact with both their traditional culture and the dominant society. This trauma lives on today, even as the Greenlandic people continue to take on a greater level of authority over their country’s future.
Looking deeper into the context of Greenland’s colonial history shows just how repulsive Trump’s real estate fantasy is. Since 1979, when the Danish government granted the island home rule, Greenland has gained a gradual level of autonomy. Home rule was replaced with self-government in 2009, as Greenland took control of the legal system, law enforcement, and the coast guard. Although there are differing opinions among Greenlanders on the best course toward full independence—some believe the country must first become more economically stable, while others argue that Greenland will not reach economic stability until Denmark is out of the picture—all sides agree that the United States will not play a dominant role in Greenland’s future.
In spite of this, Trump’s interest in Greenland has been beneficial to the country. In an interview with The College Hill Independent, Marc Lanteigne, associate professor of political science at the University of Tromsø stated that positive outcomes of last month’s fiasco have already materialized. A concrete example is Greenland’s tourism sector, which the Greenlandic government has long been interested in developing, taking a cue from next-door Iceland. As the controversy surrounding Trump’s bid unfolded, the country’s official tourism website received so much traffic that it crashed. A boost in tourism would diversify Greenland’s economic base, allowing the country to rely less on seafood exports and Denmark’s financial aid.
Economic dependence is the main factor keeping Greenland in its political association with Denmark. Over half of Greenland’s government revenue comes from the Danish government, in the form of an annual block grant. Most Greenlanders agree that the country’s economy would collapse without the 3.4 billion Danish Kroner it receives from Denmark per year.
More important than providing an increase in tourism, however, Lanteigne believes that the attention given to Greenland by Trump has placed the island in the international spotlight. This spotlight has provided the country, at least temporarily, with geopolitical momentum. Voicing similar sentiments, Denmark’s former foreign minister Martin Lidegaard believes that Trump’s interest in Greenland has served as a wake-up call for Copenhagen. In an interview with the Danish newspaper Berlingske, he stated, “One can safely say that we fell asleep at the wheel, when it comes to the Arctic.” While global superpowers like China and Russia have been fighting for sway in the Arctic in the last decade, Denmark has been too preoccupied with complaining about Greenland’s price tag to tune into the geopolitical rivalries playing out in the region.
Sofia Geisler, a member of Greenland’s Inatsisartut for the socialist party Inuit Ataqatigiit, expressed similar views. In an interview with The College Hill Independent, Geisler said that she had not been surprised to hear about Trump’s interest in buying Greenland. What did surprise her was the blatant disrespect on the part of a world leader for a country that has its own international law regime. In line with this, she was content to see that the Trump controversy forced the world to comprehend that there are actually people living in Greenland. Additionally, Geisler appreciated the focus that the media eventually placed on the question of Greenlandic independence.
In January of this year, a poll showed that 67.7 percent of all Greenlanders were in support of independence. Both Lanteigne and Geisler pointed out, however, that Greenland still has a ways to go before moving forward with this aspiration. According to Lanteigne, “full Greenlandic independence would under the right circumstances be a very positive step for the country,” as it would “allow Greenlanders to have a greater say in their domestic and foreign affairs at a time when the Arctic is under so much global scrutiny.” However, he states that there may be reason to wait until the country is more economically diversified and stable.
When asked how she feels about Greenlandic independence, Geisler stated firmly, “All peoples have the desire for an independent country. We are no exception.” In order to achieve this, however, Geisler believes that her country must first build up an economic sector that creates value for society and that is larger than the Danish block grant. While she acknowledges that the disconnect between her country’s large dimensions and small population will always generate the need for foreign labor, her biggest hope for Greenland moving into a new decade is to get more people through the education system. With a more educated local population, fewer Greenlandic jobs will go to foreigners.
While Trump has not pushed Greenland closer to achieving independence, his unsolicited interest did unintentionally provide the country with a timely spotlight. What we can glean from the insight of Geisler, Lanteigne, and others is the shared hope that this attention will translate into better education, more jobs, and economic growth. Down the line, perhaps these factors will add up to independence. At the very least, Denmark has received a jolting reminder that Greenland has a lot more going for it than the block grant.
As Greenlanders strive for a firmer grip on their own futures, the Greenlandic identity is in a state of transition. Against this backdrop, President Trump’s real estate bid for the country could not have come at a worse time. Simultaneously, though, his timing was opportune. The Greenlandic Inuit are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, making this an important moment for the world to see the Arctic for more than its changing landscape and economic potential.
The treatment of Greenland as real estate by countries like China and the US highlights the ways in which colonialism lives on through resource extraction. The Arctic has traditionally been imagined as an empty, wild, and uninhabitable place. At the same time, it is seen from the outside as the center of current and future economic activity. Greenlanders are sitting on resources coveted by the rest of the world.
However, ironically enough, the key to Greenland’s independence might in fact lie in resource extraction. By allowing players other than Denmark into their country, Greenlanders can get closer to breaking the dependence that continues to tie them to their postcolonial overseer. Ultimately, there remains hope in knowing that this future and these decisions are up to none other than Greenland itself.
Last month’s media frenzy was disillusioning, as the common narrative focused more on Danish and US leaders than Greenland itself. Despite this, there is value to be found in newly-learned lessons in geography, history, and cultural respect. The Arctic is more than an empty sea of melting ice. Greenland is inhabited. Though it once was, it is no longer possible to buy a country without first consulting its people.
EMILY RUST B’22 hopes you enjoy her arcticle.