Aboriginal tribes of Greenland - Wild Voyager Blog
Aboriginal tribes of Greenland

Aboriginal tribes of Greenland

The aboriginal or indigenous people of Greenland identify themselves as Greenlandic Inuit. Out of 56,000 Greenlandic population, about 50,000 are Inuit. They make up for 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 the harsh and extreme living conditions. The country’s culture, tradition, and means of living have been shaped by them. 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 

The 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 colonized by the Paleo-Inuit while the South belonged to the Saqqaq culture.  

It was then followed by the Dorset culture around 700 BCE who replaced these early Greenlanders. The Thule culture which are the ancestors of 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 into 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, walrus as well as gathered local plant material. According to archaeologists, 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. In1979, Greenlanders voted to become an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. 

The Greenlandic language 

Greenlandic or Kalaallisut is the official language of Greenland while Danish is spoken as the 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 the West Greenlandic dialect. In the tourism industry, many Greenlandic people speak Danish and English.  

Inuit diet 

Throughout the centuries, Inuit people have traditionally been hunters and fishers. 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 for years.  

An Inuit man looks for seals in llulissat, Greenland
An Inuit man looks for seals in Ilulissat, Greenland

The typical Inuit diet is high in protein and fat, considering meat and fish are daily consumed. While plants are rarely included, Inuit have gathered those that are naturally available. According to the season and period, they collect and preserve grass, berries, seaweed, roots plant stems, and much more  

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

Inuit art and clothing 

 Art plays a vital role In the Inuit society to depict its culture. Small sculptures of animals and humans were carved using animal bone and ivory which displays the everyday activities of the Inuit. Walrus ivory was popularly used to make knives and other tools were made out of work stones. 

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

An Inuit artifact
An Inuit artifact

Animal hides and skins are used to make traditional Inuit clothing which is sewed together by needles made from animal bones. The anorak or parka is usually worn by Arctic people including Inuit.  

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 would rise above freezing, they would shift into tents known as tupiq. This tent was primarily made of animal skin and supported by wood or frames of bones. 

Transport and navigation 

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

Inuit people using kayaks to hunt fishes
Inuit people using kayaks to hunt fishes

To navigate sea and land, Inuit used stars and landmarks. Greenland Inuit created Ammassalik wooden maps, which were palpable devices meant to represent the coastlines.  

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

Dog sledding in Greenland
Dog sledding in Greenland

Traditional Inuit beliefs 

Similar to the cultures found worldwide, Inuit had their own sets of beliefs and folklore. The people of Inuit were surrounded by mythology and tales inspired by the environments they lived in.  

One of the most popular and fascinating folklore involved the northern lights or Aurora Borealis. Some Inuit observed the lights and believed they could see the images of their friends and family dancing in their next life. However, others warned that the beautiful lights were sinister than they appeared and if a person whistled at them, their head can cut off.  

An Inuit sculpture portrays a person's head getting cut off due to the Aurora
An Inuit sculpture portrays a person’s head getting cut off due to the Aurora

A form of shamanism based on animist principles was practiced by the Inuit. They regarded that every little thing around them had a form of spirit or soul. Each community had an angakkuq or a shaman who acted as a healer and invoked spirits to help the lives of people. Shamans weren’t trained but were considered 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. Inuit understood that they have to work together with the 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 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 alive in small towns and settlements. In modern society, they continue to value their heritage and pay respect to nature and their ancestors. 

Greenland can be best explored by visiting small settlements and 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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Wild Voyager Team

The blogging team at Wild Voyager. We are explorers at heart and we love to share our travel stories and destination knowledge with you, which often serve as an inspiration for the life changing journeys we curate. When you decide to embark on one such life changing journey, our travel experience designers at letstalk@wildvoyager.com will be happy to get you started.

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