Aboriginal tribes of Greenland

Aboriginal tribes of Greenland

The aboriginal or indigenous people of Greenland identify themselves as Greenlandic Inuit. Out of the 56,000 Greenlandic population, about 50,000 are Inuit. They make up the most populous ethnic group in the country.  

An Inuit family

An Inuit family

The indigenous people of Greenland consist of three major groups: 

  1. Kalaallit of West Greenland, who speaks Kalaallisut 
  2. Tunumiit of East Greenland or Tunu who speak Tunumitt oraasiat or East Greenlandic 
  3. Inughuit of North Greenland who speaks Inuktun or Polar Inuit 


For a long time, Greenlandic Inuit have survived harsh and extreme living conditions. They have shaped the country’s culture, traditions, and means of living. Today, most Greenlanders are bilingual speakers of Danish and Kalaallisut and generally trace their lineage to the first Inuit who came to Greenland. 

Aside from residing in Greenland, ethnic Greenlanders also live in Denmark, North America, and other Nordic countries.  

The term Eskimo was used to describe indigenous Inuit. However, Canadian and English-speaking Greenlandic Inuit regard this term as derogatory and offensive. Thus, it is replaced by the term Inuit or words specific to a particular group or community.  


History of Inuit – Immigration to Greenland 

Immigration into Greenland has occurred in roughly four waves. Around 2500 to 2000 BCE, the first group of Inuit arrived in Greenland from the Canadian island of Ellesmere. Northern Greenland was colonised by the Paleo-Inuit, while the South belonged to the Saqqaq culture.  

The Dorset culture around 700 BCE then followed, replacing these early Greenlanders. The Thule culture, which is the ancestry of the Inuit and the descendants of the present Greenlandic population, came to the country approximately 1000 to 1100 years ago. They replaced the Dorset and moved to Greenland from the North.  

An illustration depicting early Inuit settlements

An illustration depicting early Inuit settlements

The paleo-Inuit people primarily lived on the tundra in search of musk, reindeer, and more. The people of the Thule culture based their lives on the capture of marine animals. They hunted seals and walrus, as well as gathered local plant material. Archaeologists state that Thule was well-adjusted to Greenland.  

Just as the Thule arrived, The Norse from Iceland settled in abundant South Greenland. They built farms from the Southern tip of Greenland up to the Nuuk Fjord until they disappeared in the 15th century. 

In the year 1721, pastor Hans Egede visited Greenland and transformed the country into a Danish Colony. At the same time, he Christianised the whole Greenlandic population. In 1979, Greenlanders voted to become an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark.


The Greenlandic language 

The official language of Greenland is Greenlandic or Kalaallisut, and people speak Danish as their second language. Kalaallisut is closely related to the language spoken by Inuit in Canada, particularly within the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan family of Alaska. 

Three main dialects exist in Greenland: the North, East, and West Greenlandic dialects. In the tourism industry, many Greenlandic people speak Danish and English.  


Inuit diet 

Throughout the centuries, Inuit people have traditionally been hunters and fishermen. They still hunt seals, polar bears, whales, birds, fish, muskox, and more. As it is difficult to access vegetables and fruits in the remoteness of Greenland, the Inuit diet has mostly remained consistent throughout the years.  

An Inuit man looks for seals in llulissat, Greenland

An Inuit man looks for seals in Ilulissat, Greenland

The Inuit typically consume a diet that is high in protein and fat, as they eat meat and fish on a daily basis. Although they rarely incorporate plants, they do gather those that are naturally accessible. According to the season and period, they collect and preserve grass, berries, seaweed, roots plant stems, and much more  

To gather food, Inuit people use a variety of hunting methods. 


Inuit art and clothing 

Art plays a vital role In the Inuit society to depict its culture. The Inuit carved small sculptures of animals and humans using animal bones and ivory. These sculptures depicted their everyday activities. They commonly utilised walrus ivory to craft knives, while they fashioned other tools from work stones.

During modern times, figurative works and prints unique to the Inuit are etched in soft stone, such as serpentinite, soapstone, or argillite. 

An Inuit artifact

An Inuit artifact

People in the Arctic, including the Inuit, use animal hides and skins to create traditional Inuit clothing. They sew these garments together using needles crafted from animal bones, and the anorak or parka is a common attire among them.

The traditional clothing of Inuit

The traditional clothing of Inuit

For housing, certain Inuit people lived in an igloo, a temporary shelter made out of snow. When the temperatures rose above freezing, they would shift into tents known as topics. The people primarily made this tent out of animal skin and supported it with wood or frames made of bones.


Transport and navigation 

As Inuit people had to hunt sea animals, they designed a single passenger boat covered in sealskin that remained buoyant no matter the harshness of the water. Many Europeans and Americans copied the design, which is popularly known as the Kayak today. 

Inuit people using kayaks to hunt fishes

Inuit people using kayaks to hunt fishes

To navigate by sea and land, the Inuit used stars and landmarks. The Inuit of Greenland crafted Ammassalik wooden maps as tangible devices intended to depict the coastlines.  

During the winters, the Inuit used dog sleds for transportation on land as well as on sea ice. The Siberian husky, which originated from wolves, is the breed of dog utilised for sledding. Dogs became an integral part of the Inuit’s annual routine. Not only do these animals help with the transportation of baggage and pulling sleds, but a pack of dogs fiercely protects the Inuit villages. 

Dog sledding in Greenland

Dog sledding in Greenland

Traditional Inuit beliefs 

Similar to the cultures found worldwide, the Inuit had their own set of beliefs and folklore. Mythology and tales inspired by the environments they lived in surrounded the Inuit.  

One of the most popular and fascinating folklore stories involves the northern lights of the Aurora Borealis. Some Inuit observed the lights and believed they could see the images of their friends and family dancing in their next lives. However, some warned that the beautiful lights were more sinister than they appeared. They cautioned that if a person whistled at the lights, the lights could cut off their head.


The Inuit practised a form of shamanism based on animist principles. They believed that everything around them had a form of spirit or soul. Each community had an angakkuq, or shaman, who acted as a healer and invoked spirits to help people’s lives. People didn’t train shamans; instead, they considered them to be born with this ability.

An Inuit mask depicts the spirit of a bear

An Inuit mask depicts the spirit of a bear

The Inuit religion was simply tied to a system of rituals that were necessary to be held. They understood that they had to work together with supernatural power to survive in everyday life. 


The Inuit in the modern world 

As remote and cold as the country of Greenland sounds, the Inuit are equally warm and welcoming. Today, although the conditions in Greenland are not as harsh as they were years ago, the Inuit culture, history, community, language, and heritage are still reflected in the country. 

The present-day Inuit people

The present-day Inuit people

The Inuit do not live inside igloos or follow any other ancient rituals, but you can still find traditions such as hunting and fishing culture in small towns and settlements. In modern society, they continue to value their heritage and pay respect to nature and their ancestors. 


To best explore Greenland, you can visit small settlements and engage in dog sledding with local Inuit. No matter where you are in Greenland, you can grasp a better sense of Inuit culture, where traditionality and modernity exist side by side. 


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