Culture

The Culture of East Greenland

Strong cultural roots

During a period of only 110 years the East Greenlandic Inuit have faced many changes, going from a life in total isolation to being a part of the rest of the world. Satellite TV, Internet, fast food and fashion trends are having a visible influence on life here – like anywhere else. Isn’t this going to destroy the East Greenlandic Inuit culture? We think not. The cultural roots are deep and strong. In few places, if any, has mankind endured more hardship, a more hostile environment and a fiercer competition from nature simply to survive. The nature of East Greenland has created one of the most specialised hunting cultures in the world, the Ammassalik culture, which in many ways differs from the rest of Greenland. Much has changed, and a lot of modern amenities have become part of the daily life in Ammassalik. However, in many ways nature still determines living conditions. The knowledge and the proper use of old hunting methods are still the foundation for the survival of many families. A hunter can have all the modern equipment at his disposal, but if he doesn’t understand the nature he’ll come home empty handed at the end of the day all the same.

Language

The East Greenlanders’ uniqueness from the rest of the country is clearly reflected in the language and culture of the region. The language of East Greenland is substantially different from that of West Greenland both in its pronunciation and its vocabulary.

Fishing and Hunting

The main occupations in the outlying settlements - are seal hunting and fishing. The kind of industrial fisheries familiar on the west coast have not yet been established here. Old traditions associated with the division of the catch are still observed in East Greenland. For example, the skin of the polar bear is given to the person who first sighted the animal rather than the hunter who actually killed it, who will get the scull, some ribs and one of the hind legs. The game in Ammassalik is mainly seals, minke whale, narwhal and polar bear. Once a year, in springtime, huge amounts of capelin, a salmon-type fish, called AMMASSAT in Greenlandic, come close to the coast to spawn and are easily caught. The district owes its name to the Ammassat.

Sailing and Camping

Not everybody is a full time hunter. Actually, quite far from it, especially in the town of Tasiilaq. However, hunting and fishing is a lifestyle around here, and almost every household has a boat. In the summertime the weekends and holidays are spent at the good fishing and hunting areas in the fjords of Ammassalik district. These weekend and summer camps are the true strongholds of the Inuit culture, as they represent the traditional way of life. It’s very important to have a good catch, but equal to this is the importance of being together with friends and family in the nature.

A culture built on isolation, endurance and survival skills

Two thousand years ago Inuit (“Sarqaq” and later “Dorset people”) managed to reach the area – presumably from the North – by rowing along the shore in boats made from skin. During periods of unfavourable climatic conditions the isolated communities died out and the area would be deserted until the next immigration. Middle Ages. It appears that the district was uninhabited during most of the Middle Ages, and that the most recent arrivals of Inuit (this time from the tribe of the “Thule people”) happened during the 14th or 15th century.

During the 18th century there were Inuit settlements along the whole coast of East Greenland, including the fjords around Ammassalik Island. However, during the 19th century the population fell drastically. First to die out were the inhabitants of the long stretch of coast from the northernmost point of East Greenland to just north of Ammassalik. Subsequently the settlements of the southern part of the east coast became deserted because of death and emigration to the west coast of Greenland.  Thus, the district of Ammassalik became the only inhabited place on the entire east coast.

"A hundred thousand years ago men started walking out of East Africa and slowly, slowly, they worked their way up and across the world, on and on into every dank, sodden jungle, every scalding desert — until, finally, at long last, they got here. This is where the long march of men stopped. This is the finishing line. The end of the road."
From the article "The Big Nowhere" in Sunday Times by AA Gill

Practically unknown 

During the 18th century several Danish trading stations (colonies) were established on the west coast of Greenland and the inhabitants gradually became Christian. Due to the isolation caused by the Great-Ice, no such colonisation of East Greenland took place, and the area remained practically unknown to anyone outside the local population.

Trading and Mission Station of Ammassalik

In 1892 a new Danish expedition to the area noted that the population had fallen to 294. It was envisaged that the tribe would soon perish and in spite of the very real navigational problems, the government decided to establish an East Greenland “colony”. The “Trading and Mission Station of Ammassalik” was founded in 1894 in the bay named King Oscar’s Harbour/ Tasiilaq. The health and general nutrition of the population improved. The mortality rate fell, and the population started to increase. In 1914 it reached 599 – and today there are nearly 3000 people in the municipality of Ammassalik.

“The Women’s Boat Expedition”

In 1829/30 a Danish expedition led by W.A. Graah travelled along the coast from Cape Farewell, the southernmost point of Greenland, to the southwestern part of Ammassalik district. In 1884 the Greenland explorer Gustav Holm succeeded in getting from the Cape Farewell area right up to Ammassalik Fjord with a small expedition by sailing close to the coast. “The Women’s Boat Expedition” as it subsequently was called, wintered on the east side of Ammassalik Island. Gustav Holm listed a total population of 413 in the small settlements of the district.

Ittoqqortoormiit

The population of Tasiilaq reached such a high level during the 1920s that there was not enough employment for everybody. In other words, there were too many people and too few seals. It was therefore decided to build a new town at the mouth of the world's largest fjord 900 kilometres further north. It was originally named Scoresbysund and is now called Ittoqqortoormiit. The town has only around 550 inhabitants, and can only be reached by helicopter from the small airfield at Nerlerit Inaat/Konstabel Pynt.

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