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Land and People of Greenland

Updated on April 4, 2014
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Greenland, an island northeast of Canada, is an integral part of the kingdom of Denmark, and the largest island in the world. Australia is larger, but it is classed as an "island continent."

Greenland, which is roughly wedge-shaped, has an area of about 840,000 square miles (2.2 million sq km). More than two-thirds of the island lies north of the Arctic Circle. Cape Morris Jesup, in the broad Peary Land region of northern Greenland, is about 440 miles (710 km) from the North Pole. Cape Farewell, at the southernmost point of the Greenland "wedge," is almost exactly on the 60th parallel of latitude, as are Oslo, Norway, and Stockholm, Sweden.

Four-fifths of Greenland is covered by an ice cap; taking into account the smaller glaciers, more than five-sixths of the land is buried beneath ice. The perimeter of the island consists mainly of ice-free mountains, through which glaciers flow in deep valleys to the sea. The only extensive ice-free land surfaces are in the southwest, the far north, and some localities in the northeast.

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For many years Greenland was a forgotten land; exploration by Europeans has been relatively recent. Although the island is a part of Denmark, scientific exploration has been conducted by many countries. Foreign-operated air bases are permitted. Greenland enjoys a measure of home rule, but its defenses and its foreign policy are administered by Denmark. Ambitious education, health, and welfare schemes have resulted in an increasing population, particularly in centers where there are schools and fishing stations. Godthaab (Nuuk), the island's administrative center, has a population of more than 13,286, and several towns have populations above 1,000. Four-fifths of the people now live in towns. Only in eastern Greenland can traditional Eskimo (Inuit) settlements be found.

The People

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Although both Eskimo and Europeans were living in Greenland by the 11th century, the two groups were culturally very different. There seems to have been little contact between them and little intermarriage. When Hans Egede established his mission (1721), he found about 7,000 Eskimo in settlements along the west coast, and intermarriage with Europeans was becoming common. Today, most inhabitants of the southern part of the country show physical traces of many different ethnic groups. Indeed, with their special ethnic background and Greenlandic language (which includes many Danish words), they call themselves Greenlanders rather than Eskimo.

From 1774, when the Danish government operated a trade monopoly, until 1951, Denmark tried to protect the Greenlanders and help them develop a strong native culture and economy. The population rose from 6,000 inhabitants in 1805—the first census taken in Greenland—to 33,000 in the early 1960s and an estimated 56,326 in 2008. Of these all but 4,000 live in west and southwest Greenland.

In areas dependent on hunting the population is scattered in small settlements over long stretches of coast. Elsewhere the population has concentrated in the largest settlements. The native population speaks Greenlandic, but Danish is taught in all schools. The first missionary work in Greenland was undertaken by the Moravians. Since 1900 the Lutheran Church of Denmark, supported by a state grant, has been the established religion. For ecclesiastical purposes Greenland is under the bishop of Copenhagen.

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