A Greenland Friendship



Colorful homes dot the coastline in Nuuk, Greenland, circa 2019. In the background is the majestic Sermitsiaq mountain.
Mathias Rhode / Alamy Stock Photo

I want to say “Dateline: Nuuk,” but that would be stretching the truth by about 35 years. “Covering” Greenland for the U.S. embassy in Copenhagen, I visited its capital, Nuuk, three times, twice in 1987 and once in 1988.

In the May 2021 FSJ, Nuuk Public Affairs Officer Eavan Cully artfully describes the wonder of this place and explains what the United States lost in pulling back direct diplomatic contact from 1953 to 2021. From my first visit, I considered Nuuk a dream post, never mind that such a post did not exist at the time.

As the most junior public diplomacy officer in Copenhagen, I was assigned the miscellaneous portfolio, which included covering Greenland. This was to involve sketching out public diplomacy activities in Nuuk that might strengthen our relations with a mainly unknown area about the size of Western Europe or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A boat rests in icy waters on a small fjord off Davis Strait, which connects the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
James DeHart / FSJ Archive

To this day, the Greenland-Denmark relationship evades definition: Is the former a “colony”? A “territory”? A “province”? A “country”? “Trusteeship”? Scandinavian conflict avoidance has bolstered the viability of all these terms through the decades, and Denmark has liberally subsidized nearly everything that happens on the island, granting Greenland representation in the Folketing and some measure of autonomy, while clinging to it sentimentally on claims of historical precedent. In 1989 Greenland celebrated 10 years of “home rule.”

The United States has had strategic and programmatic interest in this land mass, though, until recent years, it seldom went beyond the maintenance of the Thule Air Base. About 936 miles south of the base is Nuuk, back then a town of 5,000 or so souls huddled around a bay, surrounded by vast snowy plains. Even from New York or Washington, the way to reach it was to loop via an SAS commercial flight through Copenhagen, a detour of 5,048 miles but mercifully shorter in time and hassle than going up through various connections in Canada.

When I was in Nuuk, it had only one single institution of higher learning, the Ilinniarfissuaq, Greenlandic for “semina-rium.” It was a teachers college, what the French call an école normale. Its rector was Ingmar Egede (“EY-uh-the”), and really, my story is about him. A sharp skeptic of U.S. policy and world dominance, Ingmar showed me friendship was not immediate, but developed over three visits there and beyond, when he came to see me in Madrid, then later in Washington, D.C.

The seminarians had such names as Niels Nikolaj Nathanielsen and Karlina Kirsten Kathrine Kleist—cultural mixtures of Danish and Inuit background. Their DNA seemed to come equally from both parts of the world. Their first language was Greenlandic, one of the most grammatically complex languages known, and all spoke at least some Danish. Ingmar was nearly alone in having mastered English (a little key to the coming narrative).

A group of Greenlandic students, circa 1987.
Courtesy of Dan Whitman

A photo of Ingmar Egede, then rector of the Ilinniarfissuaq, the single institution of higher learning in Nuuk, Greenland.
Courtesy of Dan Whitman

As I got to know Ingmar on my first and second trips to Nuuk, I learned about his youth on the northern coast of one of the coldest places on earth, when he “communicated,” he said, with walruses and other sea mammals from his tiny motorboat as they followed him through the Arctic waters.

Ingmar also shared how his parents had sent him to Copenhagen for high school in the early 1940s. At the time, Greenlanders and Americans saw the possibility of German encroachment, even invasion, of Greenland, as naval rivalry in the North Atlantic turned into war. They believed that Nazi-occupied Denmark might be safer for him.

Thoroughly Inuit, he became acculturated to Danish ways of doing and seeing things, then had to relearn his native language when he returned to Greenland after the war. He never left his roots again. In fact, during the 1990s, he served as vice president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which includes all countries touching the Arctic, and traced Inuit oral tradition and storytelling to verify migration patterns from tens of thousands of years ago.

Late in 1987, on my second trip to Nuuk, Ingmar suggested we work together on a study tour to the United States for the entire graduating class. Each spring, he and the students visited a foreign country. For many, it was the first time they’d ever been outside Greenland. That year they had visited the Soviet Union. Previous trips had taken them to Japan and points east.

Thrilled, I built a case for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) backing in the form of “picking up” the group once they arrived in New York, and organizing contacts and events in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

Even lacking diplomatic presence in Greenland, ECA made a wonderful leap of faith and energetically took up the task. As far as anyone could remember, this would be the first Greenlandic delegation visit ever officially sponsored by the U.S. government.

I reminded ECA that Greenlanders really do not speak English and would need a Danish interpreter to make the visit worthwhile. “No problem,” they said. “We can surely find one.”

I called every month or so to see if they had come up with an interpreter. “Nothing yet,” they said, “but you’ll see. We’ll get one.”

Three weeks before the trip, the happiest news came: ECA had given up trying to locate a Danish-English interpreter and asked if I would fill in. I quickly made plans and traveled from Copenhagen to New York to meet the group.

The way to get to Nuuk in 1987 was on U.S. military-reserved seats on SAS commercial flights. The impossibly cheerful Scandinavian security instructions in the seat back pocket said in pictograms: “Flight went down north of the Arctic Circle? Very sorry for any possible inconvenience. Put on your jammies, pull out the failsafe radio transmitter, and wait for imminent rescue. Enjoy the aurora borealis.”
Courtesy of Dan Whitman

Imagine the culture shock of students who’d never been away from home, and suddenly had to negotiate the New York subway.

We also scoured the city on a chartered bus, the driver a thoroughgoing New Yorker proud to explain his town to newcomers. We drove past Yankee Stadium, which he pointed out with pride to the 30 students plus Ingmar. “Any questions?”

One student asked how many people could fit in Yankee Stadium.

“Oh, probably 70,000,” said the driver boastfully.

A long silence came over the group.

“Anything wrong?” said the driver as the three dozen youngsters stared, bewildered, out the bus window.

“70,000?” said one. “That’s more than the population of our country.”

Ingmar loved that trip, which included Ellis Island, Chinatown, and the Battery. One evening, he and I ventured through Greenwich Village. He described in detail his encounters with sea mammals from his tiny motorboat off the north coast of Greenland, from recent times and years before. He told me how these creatures had language, and sought to understand his, or appeared to. Though immense and easily able to capsize his tiny boat, instead they befriended him and seemed to share fragments of knowledge and wisdom with him.

We rounded the corner at West Seventh Street and came upon a street musician playing a divine interpretation of J.S. Bach. The performance was mesmerizing. I remember a stretch limousine stopping so the passenger could listen for a while. I asked the musician for his name, and I remember it to this day: James Grasseck. Grasseck appeared in The New Yorker some years later, after renting Carnegie Hall with his own funds for a public performance.

A string player at times, I was excited to hear this playing. I said to Ingmar, “It’s Bach—you know, the German composer.”

“I know,” he said. “The Chaconne in D minor. I played it in high school.”

So, it was everywhere.

Months later, he said, “Next time you come to Nuuk, bring your viola. We can do some chamber music.”

I did, and we did.

Cultural heroes are ones who toggle easily between multiple cultures and possess the vocabulary to explain and interpret the one to the other. They are villagers and anthropologists, both. You may meet a few, not many. Maybe Trevor Noah is one such.

These abilities came out gradually as Ingmar and I stayed in touch over the years, and on three continents.

Before his death in 2002, in one of his last letters to me, he wrote: “My boat has been taken up to be overhauled under the water line. I have replaced a number of ice protection plates, have had the propeller and rudder shafts checked, and now I am in the process of caulking the grooves above the deck.”

And after I mentioned I’d found a better bow for my viola, he wrote: “To get a good bow is nearly to have a good lover, you find new dimensions in your performance. Congratulations.”

Ingmar, it seems to me, was a true cultural hero.

Dan Whitman, a retired FSO, teaches at George Washington University. He served in public diplomacy posts in Copenhagen, Madrid, Pretoria, Port-au-Prince, and Yaoundé.


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