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Greenlandic hunter on the frozen sea

Sled dog team in the Qaanaaq region

The Inughuit (other spellings: Innughuit, Innugguit) are the smallest group of indigenous Greenland Inuit, numbering around 800 people. They live in northwestern Greenland in the Thule region between 76° and 79° north latitude, more than 1,000 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and about 1,300 kilometres from the North Pole. This makes them by far the most northerly living local community in the world. The homeland of the Inughuit is called “Avanersuaq” in the Greenlandic language (German “Land in the far north”), therefore they are also called Avanersuarmiut by the West Greenlanders. A common name for the Inughuit in German is “Polar-Eskimo” or “Polar-Inuit”.[1]

The vast majority of Polar Inuit reside in Qaanaaq, the largest town in North Greenland. The remainder is divided mainly between the permanent settlements of Savissivik, Siorapaluk and Qeqertat, as well as Qeqertarsuaq, Moriusaq, Etah and Neqi, which are no longer inhabited year-round.[2]

Most people work in the local fish factory or in public administration. Nevertheless, there is hardly a place in Greenland where the traditional hunt for seals, narwhals, walruses and polar bears is still so important.[3]

The Inughuit are often referred to as “Inuit” in a pejorative sense by the West Greenlandic majority population (Kalallit). They are considered by them to be “those who live furthest north”.[4] Conversely, some North Greenlanders also do not refer to themselves as Kalallit in order to emphasize their own ethnicity.[5]

Origin and history

The activities of polar explorer Knud Rasmussen (left) initiated a cultural change among the Polar Inuit at the beginning of the 20th century. Rasmussen took great care to preserve the traditional way of life.

Inughuit Women, Cape York (ca. 1910)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Thule region was uninhabited. Around 1700, a group of Copper Inuit (Kitlinermiut) migrated from Canada, whose direct descendants are the Inughuit.[6] For over 150 years thereafter, the North Greenlanders were isolated from all other human populations. During this time, the bow and arrow and kayak building fell into disuse. In the 1860s, a group of Canadian Inuit led by Qillarsuaq immigrated again from Ellesmere Island to North Greenland. They brought with them new myths and rites and reactivated the lost technological knowledge.[4]

British polar explorer John Ross was the first European to make contact with the Inughuit in 1816. However, they first became known through the US polar explorer Robert Peary, who started his expeditions to the North Polar region from North Greenland between 1891 and 1909.[2] Until then, they were virtually unaffected by West Greenland and the modern world. This changed only after the first visit of the Greenlandic-Danish polar ethnologist Knud Rasmussen in 1904. Rasmussen subsequently visited North Greenland several times and had a significant influence on the recent development of the population. The beginning of his activities was the establishment of the Thule post and trading station in the spirit of expanding the Danish colonial territory. It provided a market for the natives and was intended, as it were, to prevent them from being cheated by passing whalers.[7] From here, the first modern goods – but also new diseases – reached the Polar Inuit. From 1909 to 1934, Christianization was carried out by Danish missionaries who wanted to eradicate all animistic beliefs and rituals. Rasmussen, however, was interested in keeping the cultural change outside of religion as slow as possible. Among other things, he installed a “hunting council” consisting of three natives and three leading colonists. In this way he introduced the hierarchical structures of the Europeans; but oriented to the central interests of the Inuit. Between 1920 and 1930, the community experienced a noticeable growth in population and economy, evident in the construction of a church, a school, and a hospital, among other things.[8]

Inughuit from 1968, the year of the bomber crash

After World War II, the US Thule Air Base was established in the Inughuit area. For this, many of the locals were forcibly relocated to Qaanaaq. Today they still demand the right to return to their homeland.[9]

To protect the indigenous culture, foreigners living in Thule were forbidden to have contact with the locals.[4] The air base hit the headlines in 1968 when a B52 long-range bomber stationed there crashed with four hydrogen bombs eleven kilometers north of the base. Three of the bombs were recovered in the ice, and a fourth containing several kilograms of plutonium is said to still be somewhere in the ice. Many of the Inughuit involved in the recovery fell ill and died of cancer as a result of the radiation.[3]

Population development

Before 1880, the number of Polar Inuit was estimated at 100 to 200, around 1900 at about 250. In 1980, the Inughuit ethnic group numbered about 700 people, in 2010 it was just under 800.


The language of North Greenlanders is the idiom Inuktun or Avenarsuarmiutut, which is most closely related to Canadian Inuktitut. However, due to the school system and the media, West Greenlandic is becoming increasingly important,[4] so much so that the northern dialect has been classified as “critically endangered” by UNESCO.[10] In school, the young Inughuit mostly learn Danish as a foreign language.

Economy, culture and religion

Demonstration of traditional kayaking techniques for hunting narwhals.

Originally, all Greenland Inuit – who are counted as part of the North American “Arctic” cultural area – were hunters, fishermen and gatherers. Even today, this subsistence hunting on the northwest coast, along with administrative occupations and the fishing industry, represents an essential part of the sustenance of most families.[11]

A sustained “Westernization” occurred since the 1950s due to the influence of the Danes.[4] Nevertheless, many traditional cultural elements still exist in northern Greenland today:[12] Many Inughuit wear homemade fur clothing in the wilderness and use kayaks as well as traditional hunting instruments such as harpoons. In addition, there are rifles and other modern equipment. In Qaanaaq, televisions and computers have largely replaced the traditional leisure activities (singing, playing games, competing for strength). This is not true of the traditional diet, which is still largely based on the meat and fat of marine mammals – especially seals – but also polar bears and seasonal fish, birds’ eggs, crab dives and berries. The use of snowmobiles and motorboats for hunting has been banned by the “Hunting Council” in order to protect wildlife populations and preserve the hunting culture.[3] The greatest threat to the human habitat today comes from global warming, the effects of which are already very noticeable in these high latitudes.[2]

The vast majority of the Inughiut today are Protestant. Of the traditional animistic religion (all-being) various ideas are still alive;[2] however, there is no question of a syncretistic mixed religion. There are also no more shamans in North Greenland.

“Life-affirming society”

In his work Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, social psychologist Erich Fromm used ethnographic records to analyze 30 pre-state peoples for their propensity to violence, including the Polar Eskimos. He concluded by classifying them as “life-affirming societies,” whose cultures are characterized by a strong sense of community with great social equality, a friendly upbringing of children, tolerant sexual morals, and a low propensity for aggression.[13] (see also: “War and Peace” in pre-state societies, as well as classification of the East Greenlanders)

See also

  • Jette Bang



  • Stephen Leonard, 25 November 2011: Living with the Inugguit. In:, (5 January 2012)


  • Polar skimos: The hunters of Thule. Geo 2/1978, page 30-50 Verlag Gruner + Jahr, Hamburg, report and pictures by Ivars Silis. “With dog sleds they go out to “make meat”: seals, walruses, narwhals. The noblest prey for the polar skimos, however, is the polar bear.”
  • North America Native Museum: Inuit – Life at the Edge of the World. Inuit – Life at the Edge of the World. Kontrast Verlag, Zurich 2007. 141 photographs and 7 panorama pictures by Markus Bühler-Rasom. Incl. booklet “Travel Diary”. ISBN 978-3-906729-55-8 (German text), ISBN 978-3-906729-59-6 (English text).

Individual references

  1. Jan Lublinski Dead polar bears, melting ice, DLF – Forschung Aktuell, December 21, 2011 (January 5, 2012)
  2. a b c d Bryan u. Cherry Alexander: Eskimo – Hunters of the far north. (Translated from English by Susanne Stephan) Belser, Stuttgart, Zurich 1993, ISBN 3-7630-2210-4. pp. 6-8, 10-11.
  3. a b c Michael Martin: North Greenland in winter: Waiting for the first sunlight. Report in from 29 February 2012.
  4. a b c d e Hein van der Voort: History of Eskimo interethnic contact and its linguistic consequences, in: Stephen A. Wurm, Peter Mühlhäusler u. Darrell T. Tryon (eds.): Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia and the Americas. Volume 2, International Council of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies (UNESCO), Moutoun de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-013417-9. Berlin, New York 1996. pp. 1053-1055.
  5. Mark Nuttall (ed.): Encyclopedia of the Arctic. Vol. 1, Routledge, New York and London 2003, ISBN 1-57958-436-5, p. 780.
  6. New People – The Thule Culture on the website of the Greenland National Museum, retrieved 30 July 2014 (English)
  7. Knud Rasmussen(Memento of September 18, 2015 in the Internet Archive) in National Geographic magazine online, retrieved July 27, 2015.
  8. Rolf Gilberg: Polar Eskimo, in William C. Sturtevant (ed.): Handbook of North American Indians: Arctic pp. 590, 597.
  9. Resolution to the Danish Government, 2003
  10. North Greenlandic language on UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger English, retrieved 26 July 2015.
  11. Frank Sejersen: Greenland, published in: Cæcilie Mikkelsen (ed.): The Indigenous World – 2014. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Copenhagen 2014, ISBN 978-87-92786-41-8. pp. 20-25.
  12. Frank Sowa: Indigenous Peoples in World Society. The cultural identity of the Greenlandic Inuit in the field of tension between nature and culture. Bielefeld: transcript, 2014, ISBN 978-3-8376-2678-0. pp. 221-227.
  13. Erich Fromm: Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Translated from the American by Liselotte and Ernst Mickel, 86th – 100th edition, Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1977, ISBN 3-499-17052-3, pp. 191-192.