I just discovered this old report about my filming expedition to Greenland in 1984. I had forgotten all about it and could only recall the various incidences after re-reading my noes. Seems a long time ago!
Flying over Greenland’s unending white shroud, spangled with the scintillating blue, uncut gems of its frozen lakes, impresses upon the visitor the enormity and emptiness of this, the world’s largest island. An aura of peace and undisturbedness is evoked, calming the frayed nerves of those escaping from the hectic life in the ‘developed’ nations.
Descending into Greenland’s only international airport at Sondrestoemfjord this atmosphere is rudely shattered by the noisy arrival and regular departure of big US military planes and the harsh accents of the airmen chatting up the pretty Inuit receptionist in the only hotel here. This is a sharp reminder that Greenland provides the US with one of its chief forward listening posts and constitutes a vital link in its encirclement of the USSR.
Greenland has been a Danish colony since 1721 when the Christian missionary Hans Ehgede came to bring it into the Christian fold. Only since the Second World War when the US built the airport has it been opened up to the outside world.
After Denmark joined the EEC in 1972 the Greenlanders realised the consequences for their very existence – being almost totally reliant on their rich fish reserves – and a campaign for home rule flickered into life. Apart from its fish, Greenland recently discovered that it was also sitting on extensive mineral reserves. The EEC, particularly West Germany, has been responsible for serious over-fishing in Greenland’s coastal waters and now the big multi-nationals are moving in to exploit its mineral reserves.
The island is covered permanently in ice over 90 per cent of its surface and the small Inuit population – 44, 000 of them live – exclusively around the edge of the ice-cap, on thin strip of coast not ice or snow-covered in summer, subsisting on fishing and hinting seals and reindeer.
In 1979, Greenland won home rule from Denmark and in January the flowing year will be quitting the EEC. The home rule campaign bought with it a new sense of national identity and a new commitment to preserve and develop Inuit life and culture after many decades of Danish domination.
Nuuk, the capital, still retains the atmosphere of the old (Danish) Royal Greenland Trading Company settlement it once was, with its tiny wooden houses scattered loosely around the harbour. It is really more a large village than a town with just one high street. Increasingly now, though, totally inappropriate, large, ugly blocks of flats dominate the skyline. There were built to house those Inuit people forced to leave their villages around the coast when the KGH (Royal Danish Trading Company) refused to continue supplying essential items to them and was no longer interested in purchasing their skins and fish.
Christian Egede is one of those who had to move out and now lives with his wife and children on the 6th floor of one of these new blocks. The framed photos on the walls show the village where he used to live and bear witness to his nostalgia for it.
Although living in this tiny flat in the town, he still goes out with his sons fishing in their small boat and sells his fish in the makeshift open market in the town. His neighbours can be seen on their narrow balconies repairing their nets – quite an incongruous sight. Christian’s earnings from fishing are not enough to support the whole family, so his wife supplements the family income by working in the hospital. Despite the contradictions, the family still led a traditionally simple life: they cook and eat the fish they catch, seal, whale and reindeer meat they have hunted themselves; Christian’s wife continues to make traditional beadwork ornaments and still keeps the old whale-oil lamp that she had in the village and which was the only source of light.
The result of forcing people into the town has been a high unemployment rate, social alienation and widespread alcoholism and even a rise in suicides. In 1948 48 per cent of the population lived in very small communities and that is now only 20 per cent.
Danes still occupy most of the skilled jobs and a comprehensive training of Inuit people to fill such positions has still not been implemented. Apart from fish-processing plants, building and service industries, there is little prospect of employment outside the traditional survival activities of fishing and hunting. The big fishing boats are under foreign ownership, like Unilever or Nordsee Deutsche Hochseefischerei and their healthy profits are not ploughed back into the Greenland economy. The mines, too, like the huge Greenex lead and zinc mine at Marmorolik which is Canadian-owned and last year paid out dividends of 150 million Kronor (c. £1 million). An active trade union movement (SIK) has grown up recently and last year organised strikes and demonstrations demanding parity with Danish workers in terms of pay and conditions.
Within the self-rule government, the social-democratic
Siumut party rules in alliance with the small socialist Inuit Ataqatigiit; the pro-EEC Atassut parties, with largely Danish support, forms the opposition. The present government is determined to make self-rule a reality but they are saddled with an enormous ‘debt’ to Denmark and at the same time a total reliance on Danish imports.
Josef Motzfeldt, the newly appointed minister of education, in an interview with us, stressed the need fro crash training programmes so that Greenlanders can become more self-sufficient. In the past, all further education and training took place in Denmark, but they are now establishing professional training centres in Greenland itself and this training, he said, would be tailored to suit Greenland’s specific needs. There is already a sheep-farming school and a fisheries training school and minister Motzfeldt is keen to establish a form of apprenticeship scheme for hunters so that the next generation will not only learn the traditional skills but will supplement these with up-to-date environmental and ecological theory. Motzfeldt is acutely aware of the dangers posed to Inuit society by the impact of the more sophisticated, highly industrialised capitalist
nations. He is no romantic, wishing to cling to outmoded hunting traditions but he is determined to preserve the small Inuit communities which are so rich in social terms. He emphasises how much happier they are than those fishermen who may make money on the big trawlers, but he knows that they can only continue to survive if they are provided with more amenities and better living conditions and means provided for them to sell their fish, meat and skins. He is very concerned to ensure that Greenland makes proper and judicial use of its natural resources and doesn’t squander them for quick, tangible returns in the form of imported consumer goods.
Seal hunting, which provided a livelihood for around 10,000 people (1/4 of the Inuit population) has been hard hit by a succession of harsh winters and the Greenpeace baby seal campaign with, although not directed at Greenland – where they don’t kill baby seals at all – has seriously affected seal-skin sales. Seal hunting is essential for the Greenlanders not only commercially but for their own very existence, as they live almost exclusively from seal products. The present government is actively campaigning to set the record straight and to explain the difference between clubbing baby seals and the humane shooting of seals by Inuit hunters as a means of livelihood.
Despite the young government’s lack of experience in international politics I was surprised by its clarity of purpose and determination to develop genuine Home Rule.
Home Rule was won primarily as a result of campaigning activities of a few, nationally conscious Greenlanders and this consciousness is manifested each year at the Aasivik – the traditional summer gathering of the Inuit people, where disputes and differences are settled, an exchange of news takes place and general celebration. This year over 700 came to the uninhabited peninsular of Nuuk, overlooking Disko Bay. Here, camped out amongst the heather and bare rock with only arctic foxes and ptarmigan as neighbours, surround by clear blue waters and the monumental icebergs, the new generation of Inuit people came together to discuss their future, their experience and their hopes. With the aromas of cooking whale meat and guillemot breasts sizzling over heather fires, the question of preserving Inuit values, of combatting the impact of Western culture on young people, discussions about the type of housing best suited to people’s needs and the amenities that ere required, were priorities of debate. Areal sense of taking the future into their own hands was tangible.
One of the features at the Aasivik was an information stand of the newly founded peace movement – Sorsunnata (No to war). Although only formed in July this year, it is expanding rapidly and already has several groups in the larger communities. It is actively campaigning to make the whole arctic circle a nuclear-free-zone and is very concerned about the US bases on Greenland. These bases are a flagrant breach of Greenland’s sovereignty and the people themselves have never been asked whether they want them there. With the country’s very limited resources, there is no way the government can monitor or control US activities on the island. More and more Greenlanders and particularly those in the Inuit Ataqatigiit Party are aware that they can never be truly independent until those bases go. Whether this fragile society will be able tot withstand the power of the dollar and all its attendant corruption must remain to be seen but the Inuit have perhaps learned something from the fate of the North American indigenous peoples.
Notes from the Aasivik.
After a helicopter flight to Illulissat, we board a small passenger-cum-cargo ship taking us to Disko Bay, where we disembark and board a small dinghy taking us and our 12 heavy items of luggage (mainly camera equipment) to the rocky coast of the Nuuk peninsular where this year’s Aasivik is taking place.
We scrambled ashore and dumped our heavy cases on the rocky shore and went to look for a suitable camping site. All the best places nearest the landing place had already been taken and we didn’t fancy a climb up over the hills with all our luggage so we settled on a sloping and wet patch of ground that no one else fancied. Our tiny two-person tent was a bit cramped for me and Birgit, my colleague, but we surprisingly managed to sleep quite well, given the fact that the Inuit sleep during the day and then chat, dance, sing and party during the night! Not that there is a lot of difference in terms of light at this time of the year, as the nights are almost as bright as the days.
We spent three nights on the peninsular but at the end of the 4th day we were beginning to feel rather famished as everyone else had, perceptively, brought their own provisions, knowing that there were no shops here, or they hunted and fished, cooking their booty on small fires or primus stoves. We were obliged to survive on a ration of rye bread with tinned cod roe or spam and water for the whole time, apart from the odd scrap of food or cup of coffee we could cadge or were offered by our colleagues from Greenland TV. No one seemed to appreciate our dilemma otherwise they would have undoubtedly shared with us. We also had a language problem as few of the visitors spoke Danish and even fewer English.
On our second day, after waking up in the morning, and without having had a decent wash since our arrival, I decided to go for a bathe dans le nature. There were no toilets or other facilities available. So I trekked off into the wilderness, over the small hills to the other side of the peninsular, walking over soft beds of moss and lichen, through tufts of gleaming cotton grass and clambering over bare rocky outcrops. About a mile away, I came across a large pool where I stripped off and washed in the clear, icy water. Although I’d forgotten my towel I dried off quickly as the air here has little humidity. I brushed my teeth and combed my hair as best I could utilising my reflection in the clear water (it’s funny being completely without a mirror and not seeing yourself for day after day). Here there was absolute silence – the sort you never experience on mainland Europe where there is always some background noise of some sort even if only in the distance. I was made very much aware of how noise-laden our own world back home really is. Only the occasional whistle of a snow bunting, cries of gulls and the sound of the breeze rustling the vegetation. Occasionally the far-off roar of collapsing icebergs echoed across. Total solitude. I even began talking to the snow buntings just to hear the sound of a voice – my own. How unused we are to real silence.
On my way back I got lost – there are no landmarks and all the small, rocky outcrops look the same to the unschooled eye. All around me the moorland stretches over the lightly undulating hills to the horizon. There are no trees this far north, not even bushes. So I wandered around for a couple of hours just savouring the solitude. I knew I would eventually find my way back once I hit the coastline. On the horizon I could see only the snow-capped mountains of the interior, flocks of drifting, glinting-white icebergs, an expanse of blue sky above the amethyst sea and the bare, empty hills. The amazing thing here is the total loss of a sense of measurable distance, because the air is exceptionally dry there is practically no haze or blueness to provide perspective. You can see for 60 miles or so across the sea and islands which appear to be only a few meters away but are in fact several miles away. It is a shock when you see a small boat or human being but only as tiny specks in places you felt could only be a stone’s throw away.
I wandered with no sense of fear or worry over the hills listening to the only real sound – that of my boots crunching on the dry lichen and my bag rubbing against me, sounds almost inaudible in our urban world.
Aassivik in the evenings is an idyll: small tents huddled around the shore-line with smoke drifting up from the heather fires, the lapping of water around the moored boats, the distant screams of arctic terns being robbed of their eggs for someone’s supper, laughter, the shouts of small children and playing families. One couple even chose the opportunity to get married and a young poet conducted the open-air wedding ceremony with guests sitting around, cross-legged as in a camp of indigenous North Americans.
We were totally unprepared for the situation we found ourselves in. We had been told there would be food and facilities available. I suppose we expected a sort of well-equipped southern European campsite! Birgit had only brought along our small two-person tent for emergencies. We had two small plastic plates, tow cups and a set of knives and forks we had filched from the last hotel we stayed in. That was all we had. But despite the lack of a sufficient and varied diet or drinks, we thoroughly enjoyed our time here. We didn’t get a lot of sleep with the nightly revelling and the bright midnight sun but didn’t feel any the worse for it.
Our flight by helicopter to Uummannaq was breath-taking, flying low over snow-covered hills and massive glaciers pushing their large bodies of ice through the mountain valleys to the open sea. We then descended alarmingly close to the sheer cliff face of the mountain dominating Uummannaq’s small harbour, then circled over the limpid sea, packed solid with gigantic icebergs, their submerged underbellies a swimming-pool blue and their tops sparkling in the harsh sunlight.
Uummannaq is a very small town crushed into the hollow between the mountains and dominated by a towering, inverted heart-shaped pinnacle that gives the town its name. Summer has only just arrived here after 7 months of being totally cut off by ice which reduced stocks of provisions to dangerously low levels. Here, as in most places, alcoholism is a serious problem with both young and old. Beer consumption is enormous and has become worse since the relaxation on sales restrictions and rationing. As is well known the Inuit people and indigenous North Americans cannot tolerate alcohol in any quantity – a genetically-determined vulnerability.
Our journey to the miniscule village of Iqlorsuit, about 80km distant from Uummannaq was an exciting undertaking. It is the most northerly of the settlements belonging to the Uummannaq district. It is a tiny hamlet of 150 people (30 odd houses) nestling vulnerably at the foot of inhospitable mountains on the ‘Unknown Island’. The last British person they had seen was a Scots geologist who visited here in 1938 and the inhabitants still spoke of him as one of the ‘Toolook’ people (where the term came from, we didn’t find out, maybe from the English ‘to look’?). In the village we were lucky to come across a young teachers who was on holiday and was prepared to show us the village and introduce us to its people. We loaded up his tine fibreglass motor boat with our mountain of luggage, then after he’d managed o adjust the defective valve on his outboard motor, we set off out to sea, carefully manoeuvring around the convoys of iceberg and particularly the many small fragments of ice, floating often hardly visibly just beneath the surface of the water. Even small pieces of ice can easily punch holes in a fibreglass hull if you are travelling too fast and miss the tell-tale signs. Shortly after leaving n clear sunny weather a thick sea mist drifted down making it impossible to see the icebergs or anything else s we were forced to make a detour and stop off at another tiny village on the way and just wait for the mist to disperse. We waited around 4 hours until early evening. Luckily at this time of year with the midnight sun, we could continue our journey during the night. When we eventually arrived at the small quay there was quite a lot of excitement amongst those waiting to see the ‘Toolook’ people. In this tiny settlement the people live entirely from fishing and hunting. There is only one shop – the Royal Danish trading Company one – no manufacturing, restaurants or hotels. It was only in 1962 that the village had electricity, produced by an oil-driven generator. We stayed in one of the small houses normally used by government engineers when on duty here. Our only source of fresh water came from ice fragments chipped off the icebergs and brought back by boat to the settlement. The chips were placed in a water butt and they melted very slowly, releasing fresh water. As the ice was formed centuries ago, we were told we were probably drinking water that fell to earth about 2,000 years ago when Christ was born! Although the houses were modern and well-built, life here would not have changed much here over decades. Around 150 people made up the village, but there were over 500 dogs because every adult has their own dog team, essential in the long winters as a means of transport for the fish and seals they catch over the frozen sea. In summer the dogs, apart from the puppies, are chained up outside, and are fed on fish scraps only every three days so that they have no chance of putting on weight. They are virtually wild and can be quite aggressive, but being tethered keeps them apart from other teams or people. When the boats come in with the catch, the dogs set up an almighty crying and howling in the whole village. Every house has its own wooden drying rack outside for drying the cod, halibut and shark strips; the all-pervasive smell of semi-rancid fish hangs in the air permanently. Beneath the houses, underneath the kayaks, which are also used in winter to hunt from the ice edge, are stored the big wooden sledges that the dogs pull.
Every day, the men have to go out in their small, open boats to lay the fish lines and nets and to bring their catch home so that they and the dogs have enough food. The small family we filmed with – a couple and their two sons, had 50 dogs. It is forbidden to keep varieties of dogs other than true huskies to keep the bred pure. There are no cats either. The people’s attitude to their dogs is similar to the one we have to cattle: they are not pets or even guard dogs, but simply as essential working animals. When they grow too old to do the heavy sledge-pulling work they are killed and their hides used to make slippers or boots. People’s main income is from the prized halibut they catch in winter and spring, but they desperately need refrigerated storage facilities to preserve their catch and then sell it when the first ships can get through once the worst of the winter is over.
Our family took us seal hunting one day. The father was already annoyed because before we left his second son had not returned as arranged. He had taken the small open-topped dinghy out the day before to catch fish. The main family boat was a small fishing vessel with cabin and covered hold. We travelled at a slow chugging pace up the coast for several miles when he spotted his lost son. His boat was tied up under a cliff. He told us his engine had packed up and he’d been obliged to spend the night out on the water. But this sort of event is nothing new to them it seems. We continued up the fjord to the mouth and the ocean beyond which was packed with sea ice and the most magnificent icebergs which would undoubtedly through budding Henry Moores into raptures: they ranged from miniature to monumental, cathedrals with sharp spires or castles with crenelated battlements, 60 metres or so high, some had sheer cliff-faces, others flowed curvaceously like sand dunes. The wind, sun and rain sculpts and hollows them out, creating the most varied shapes, which are then re-sculpted by the sea, overturned by the own weight, broken up and transformed once again into new shapes and patterns, their delicate colours reflecting and refracting the sky and water. Some are translucent, deep blue or green, others are grey and dirty with sediment, others glisten and shine incandescent white in the midday sun, form deep blue shadows or reflect delicate shades of pink and orange as the light changes. Our small vessel chugs past silent and the forbidding mountains of the mainland with their strongly marked stratifications that jut sharply upwards to the horizon or have been split and shattered by the earth’s movement. It is as if we are present at the very moment after the earth’s creation, that moment of awful silence after the explosions, eruptions and upheavals have at last ceased.
The subtle variations of colours from bare greys and browns of the scoured rock, to the greens, ochres and umbers of the thin vegetation which looks like a rich Tweed in which the weave has gone awry. The very thin layer of vegetation clings desperately to the surface of the rock; on those few suitable surfaces where the ice melts the greens are darker and richer and these areas are often fringed by tiny, delicate alpine flowers. The colours of the inland pools and the sea varies according to how deep the water is at that particular place, from pale swimming-pool-blue through bottle greens and dark umbers, the surfaces glass-flat, reflecting the soft pastel sky or suddenly scalloped and textured by a fresh breeze.
We spend 12 hours seal hunting but only managed to bag one small one. He shot one more with his rifle but they sink very quickly if they are not picked up within a few seconds of being shot because at this time of the year they don’t have much blubber. The father stands in his small cabin, steering and keeping his eyes skinned for seals in the sea. He sees them well before we have picked them up. I am now feeling very tired and cold because the winds coming off the icebergs are now bone-chilling and the sun has no strength to warm us. I went below deck to find shelter and lay huddled and cramped there for some time – it was to small for me to stretch out.
Thomas, the son, had taken the dinghy and was hunting seals by himself. He had arranged to meet up with his father after a few hours near some big icebergs, but he was nowhere to be seen when we got there. The father shot into the air as a signal, but there was no reply, only the faint echo of his shot reverberating off the icebergs. We hung around for a while but then left for the small island where we would spend the night. We eventually arrive in the small hours of the night. It is 2 am but it so bright that it feels like 2.00 in the afternoon with the sun still shining brightly in the sky. Thomas, the son, is already there waiting for us. His boat had been leaking so he made his own way back. He’d managed to shoot two big seals and a couple of guillemots. Birgit and I climbed into our sleeping bags and bedded down on the floor of a small hut which had been built on the island for the fishermen who hunt and fish around here. Thomas and his father slept in the hold of the boat.
In the early morning we collected some terns eggs while Thomas and his father skinned the seals on the beach. I challenged Thomas that he couldn’t shoot a tern with his gun, not thinking that he would really try, but he did. The terns, though, are such agile flyers that he didn’t stand a chance.
The two men cut off some of the meat for our breakfast and boiled it in a pot of water on an open fire. It made a lovely rich soup and the meat was soft and tasty. The liver – a delicacy – was particularly tasty. They were amused but also approving when we joined them to eat, using our fingers and cutting off small strips of meat with a penknife straight into our mouths. While we were breakfasting another hunter turned up and had a fresh catch of fjord salmon, some of which he cooked and offered to share with us. He tipped the pot out onto the pebbly beach and we ate the succulent cutlets off the pebbles with our fingers. As it is so cold and the air very dry here, there is little putrefaction and everywhere is naturally hygienic. I over-stuffed myself and on the way back the sea was quite choppy and the boat bobbed on the water like a cork and I began to feel queasy. I was faced with the choice of sitting up on deck and freezing or seeking shelter below where the fishy smell made me feel more nauseous. In the end I chose to freeze.
I was keen to get a shot of the boat from behind as it chugged through the icebergs, so jumped into the small dinghy that was now being towed behind us. That in itself was quite a feat without falling into the water – if you did fall into these arctic waters you would survive a minute or two at most before you froze to death. The dinghy was swaying precipitously in the wake of the bigger boat and the floor was still very slippery with the blood from the dead seals. I could hardly keep my balance, let alone film at the same time. On seeing me slipping and sliding round, Thomas and his father started laughing – they thought it a great joke. For the next week my coat smelt so strongly of seal blood that every time I walked through the village the dogs would try and follow me, sniffing at my coat, and I couldn’t even bear being in my own room where the coat hung as it reeked so strongly.
In Iqlorsuit we made friends with a young Danish marine biologist who had been living up here for a year before returning to Denmark. But he loved it up here so much, he didn’t want to go back. He proved very helpful to us. I got the feeling he hadn’t done much research but had managed to learn the Inuit language and to fish and hunt; he even had his own dogs. He told us the people had been a marvellous pillar of support and had saved him time and again form starving and form his own dangerous stupidities, instructing him in the arts of fishing and hunting. He lived in a tiny wooden hut with no toilet or electricity and only a small primus stove to cook on. He said that in winter the floor temperature was about minus 30 inside the hut! It only had one tine room and reminded me of those old photos of miners’ shacks built during the California Gold Rush days.
From this outlying little village we headed back to ‘civilisation’ with a bump. Our next port of call was the huge lead and zinc mine of Marmorolik. We left Iqlorsuit in good conditions but as we neared the mouth of the fjord where the mine lay the sea became very choppy and the icy wind had driven the icebergs to form a seemingly impenetrable wall of packed ice. How would we ever get through I wondered. It was scary enough travelling in this small, outboard motor-driven open boat past enormous rocky cliffs and walls of ice. I felt like a small ant that could be crushed at any moment or submerged by a mini-tsunami if one of these huge icebergs chose to calve. Our tiny boat tossed around like a tiny seed-pod. It was only a small fibre-glass dinghy with enough room for our guide, Birgit and myself. I was shaking with the cold and then to cap it all, our boat’s engine packed up on us twice, leaving us drifting dangerously close to the huge icebergs –the valve needed readjusting each time. We were also on our last can of petrol, after already refuelling twice on the open water. We were totally reliant on our guide as we could recognise no landmarks or human habitation anywhere; is all we could see were icebergs, mountains and open sea and the landscape looked disturbingly uniform. There were no other boats to be seen, just empty vistas. The hills were powdered with a dusting of fresh snow that fell the previous night as we left the small settlement, which looked so cosy, nestling up to the huge backs of the mountains. As we neared Marmorolik fjord our guide had to slow down to walking pace in order to manoeuvre gingerly through the maze of ice blocks. Hit one too forcefully and the boat could be holed and that would be the end of us! The sheer mountains either side of the fjord with their jagged pinnacle tops were wreathed in drifting clouds unlike anything I’d encountered apart from illustration of the snow queen’s domain in fairy tale books. Only the silent, scything fulmars that accompanied us on our lonesome journey were evidence that there were other forms of life out there. Between the steep mountains the glaciers thrust their tons of compacted ice and banks of moraine into the blue depths of the sea.
Marmorolik suddenly appeared out of nowhere at the head of the fjord, like a secret submarine base in a science fiction story, hidden in a secluded arm. A few barracks and huge petrol tanks are perched precariously on the cliff face and what look like miniature cable cars swing over the water and up into the dark entrance holes blasted out of the rock of the mountain. This is Black Angel Mine, owned by a big Canadian corporation. The workers here earn around £2,000 a month and have food and board free. The food is good and even included caviar, but living here is like bing in a prison. The men – they are all men – work 10 hour shifts, 6 days a week. But they have nowhere to walk or anywhere to go. It’s just eat, work and sleep, but if you are lucky you can earn enough in a few years to buy a large boat or a home. The mine is inside the mountain and the entrance is high up on the cliff face. We travel there by cable car and enter a huge cavern bigger than a large cathedral, in which bulldozers and mechanical diggers are dwarfed. They tear at the rock, loosening the ore which is then taken out via cable car. How they managed to bring this heavy equipment up into the mountain is a puzzle.