<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> The Fight over the Last Place on Earth
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The Fight over the Last Place on Earth

Before the Korean war, the United States Air Force and the Danish government exiled a small band of Inuit hunters to the hinterland of Northern Greenland. Now, 50 years later, these native people are fighting for their land and find themselves at the heart of a struggle that includes star wars, the environment, and the future of their culture.

Article by Robert Biswas-Diener
Photographs by Andrew Stern


Author's note: "Thule" and "Dundas" are the same location, and the names are used interchangeably in this article.

Sunday mornings the sandy streets of Qaanaaq, Greenland are deserted. Enormous petrol tanks stand in the dim light, huskies lie curled next to brightly-colored houses, and department store-sized icebergs float silently out to sea. Qaanaaq, the second most northerly town in the world, is framed on one side by scree strewn mountains and on the other by an ominous and freezing sea. Unlikely as it sounds, a major land use struggle is being waged here over one of the least hospitable tracts of land on Earth.

Despite the harsh weather and frozen landscape, nearby Dundas Mountain has become a symbol for native land rights, environmental justice, and government accountability. Dundas itself -- a striking flat topped mountain -- and the surrounding hunting grounds are the traditional home to the Inughuit, as the local Inuit call themselves. This changed abruptly in 1953 when the United States government, in secret negotiations with Denmark (the political administrator of Greenland), began building an Air Force base on the land and evicted the native population, laughably citing "security concerns" as the basis for the forced moved. Nearly 50 years later the displaced Inughuit and their descendents have begun fighting to get their land back. By utilizing many of the hallmarks of democracy -- freedom of information, freedom of the press, and the right to sue the government -- the Inughuit land struggle is offering hope for indigenous groups worldwide.

"Greenland, the world's largest island, consists of 85 percent ice. Though the climate varies throughout it's coasts, Greenland residents live in a polar climate where the average temperature never reaches more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ask any one of Qaanaaq's 650 inhabitants about the Thule Air Force base and they are bound to have a story. For a few the base is a source of employment, they have sisters or cousins who have found work there. For many it is a nearby airport which -- until recently -- supported all commercial as well as military travel in the area. For other people, the base is a source of stories which are sad, marked with loss, and told in faraway voices.

In May of 1953, the 250 native inhabitants of Dundas were given four days eviction notice, forced to pack and move -- by dog sled -- to remote settlements 100 miles to the north. Navarana Sorensen, who was six at the time, recalls, "My father stopped the sled just before we could not see Dundas Mountain anymore and my parents were just looking back. I had never seen them with tears in their eyes before." As compensation for the move the Danish government promised new homes to the Dundas residents, despite the fact that the dwellings were 40 kilometers (24 miles) more distant to the walrus hunting grounds.

Sadly, when the hunters and their families arrived in Qaanaaq, Herbert Island, and other relocation settlements the new houses failed to materialize. Magssanguaq Jensen, who was 27 in 1953, was forced to sleep in a tent with his wife and child from May until September while his home was being constructed. When frost began to cover the tent they were "allowed" to move inside, even though the home was incomplete and unfurnished. That fall, a storm pitched Jensen's
house -- which was not attached to a foundation -- onto its roof, forcing Jensen and his family to move yet again, this time into a neighbor's already overcrowded home.

The loss of their home at Dundas means more to the Inughuit than a change of address and longer commute. As a society that has subsisted on hunting for thousands of years, giving up a rich hunting ground and traveling to less familiar territory was a risky move. By relocating the natives, the Danish government effectively repealed the Inughuit right to food, and sold it to the American military.

Navarana Sorensen explained to me how difficult the situation was: "In the spring we didn't have fresh meat for a long time because the ice was thin. We could not travel by dog sled and hunt, so our supplies were running very low. We had to ration everyday."

Only a child at the time of exile, Navarana Sorensen hopes to use the Danish and international justice systems to reclaim the land for her people.

The 1953 evacuation of Thule is an early example of a government trading the protection of its citizens for capital interests, a breakdown in democracy that today is occurring with alarming frequency. Not only was Dundas close to the walrus grounds but it was a place of geographical and historical significance as well. For centuries the local hunters had been attracted to Dundas because of its protected harbour and abundant land -- particularly important in Greenland, 85 percent of which is covered with ice. When European and American explorers began arriving in Greenland at the end of the 1800s the Thule area became the center of established trade between the cultures. As a permanent trading post developed the normally semi-nomadic Inughuit began a semi-permanent residency, including building a church and cemetery. In four days, all of this -- food, history, a cemetery, homes, the trading post, a house of worship, and the familiar ground -- was gone.

To make matters worse the Air Force base at Thule has had a dramatic, and negative, impact on the local environment: The waste from the base lies rotting and rusting in a dump, the noise has scared away the animals, and worst of all the United States Air Force lost an atomic bomb in the nearby sea. In blatant violation of their nuclear-free agreement with the Danish government the United States kept atomic weapons at their base at Thule. In January, 1968, an American plane crashed on the frozen sea near Thule with three plutonium bombs aboard. The force of the impact triggered an explosion which spread the plutonium across the ice and snow. With bad weather on the horizon the American military brazenly enlisted the aid of the Inughuit for the cleanup effort. It was thought that the native people were the best qualified because they knew the area well and could build adequate temporary shelters at the cleanup site. One young Inughuit man told me that his father helped on the cleanup effort, and later developed painful lesions on his thighs. Years later it is unclear whether or not these injuries are the result of radiation, but it is a distinct possibility. One of the bombs was never recovered and a study conducted by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) shows that as much as 800 thousand square feet of sea water in the Dundas area showed "above normal" levels of radioactive pollutants for a full two years following the accident.

Although stories of hardship following the eviction are not uncommon among the Inughuit, their response to the exile is. In 1996, Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq founded an organization to fight for the land. "We were treated in the worst way," Qujaukitsoq told me through a translator, "When we were moved in 1953 my parents were depressed. I did not understand it at the time, but when I grew up I understood. I promised my father before he died that I would do something about it." Whether the group's name, Hingitaq '53, is translated as "exiled," "abandoned," or "discarded," their purpose is clear: to use the Western legal system to regain their land from the Americans, hold the Danish government accountable for their actions, and fight to preserve the environmental health of their traditional lands.

Representing nearly 500 people in the Thule/Qaanaaq area Hingitaq '53 is an organization dedicated to using legal and democratic systems to affect change. Using documents obtained through the Danish equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, Hingitaq '53 filed a lawsuit on the behalf of dozens of exiled Inughuit against the government of Denmark, for brokering the 1953 eviction. On August 20, 1999 the Eastern Danish High Court handed down an encouraging decision, mostly favoring the Inughuit. The Court agreed that too little warning had been given and that the move was "illegal." The Court further ordered collective compensation of a half a million Danish Kroners (about $70,000 US) and individual compensation of 15,000 Kroners (about $2,000 US -- although actual compensation varied depending on age at time of eviction with children receiving less than adults). The residents of Qaanaaq, where prices are high and the average annual income hovers around $16,000, were not in a strong position to refuse the payment. Navarana Sorensen used the money to pay her electricity bill, telling me, "The money was in my hands for about ten minutes. I went from the bank straight to the power company and paid them. I thought the payment should have been bigger."

Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq founder Hingitaq '53 represents more than 500 people in the fight to reclaim native hunting grounds.

Although overall the court decision was highly favorable to the Inughuit some plaintiffs felt it did not go far enough. Conspicuously absent from the ruling was the right to return to the land, a point central to the Hingitaq '53 movement. Despite the fact the eviction had been found legally wanting, the court waved off the Inughuit claim to the land with a single sentence: "In other respects the plaintiff's claims are dismissed."

Not to be discouraged the members of Hingitaq '53 met with their lawyers and, less than a month after the High Court decision, launched an appeal to the Danish Supreme Court. Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, president of Hingitaq '53, insists, "We want the land back -- all of it. All the good hunting places are there. If we cannot hunt there [because of pollution] we want it cleaned up so that we can hunt again." A decision on the appeal, according to Hingitaq '53 attorney Christian Harlang, is expected sometime in 2003. Unwilling to be dependent on the court's timetable, the Inughuit -- showing both diplomacy and legal savvy --went to the United Nations Human Rights Commission to request that Denmark resolve all claims, and in an expedient manner.

By redressing historical grievances though diplomatic and democratic means the Inughuit have forced the international community to recognize the legitimacy of their claims. Further, in a world where indigenous groups often feel disenfranchised by government institutions the Inughuit victory in the Danish High Court offers hope that justice, rather than politics, can prevail in such cases.

The Inughuit challenge comes at a critical time, shortly after the United States announced its intention to upgrade the radar system at Thule to a "star wars" class system. The National Missile Defence (NMD), or so-called "star wars," program is aimed at creating a sophisticated radar system capable of tracking and targeting enemy missiles in-flight. The location of the base at Thule, close to China, Russia, and North Korea makes it an ideal place for over-the-pole combat scenarios.

Iko Opishima, a Japanese man married to an Inughuit woman talked with me about NMD on the beach outside his home, "I think [National Missile Defence] is so crazy, that maybe it will destroy the Earth." Unfortunately for the US government the international community largely echoes Opishima's concerns. Russian officials are edgy about the recent withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty -- a move that makes NMD possible -- and even European allies fear a new arms race. The Inughuit are understandably worried about Qaanaaq, their new home, and its proximity to the air base in the event of a nuclear attack.

"Will the Americans protect us if there is a war?" asks Magssanguaq Jensen. "No. The air base will be one of the first places to be struck if they have star wars." These are fears shared by members of Greenpeace. A recent Greenpeace disarmament campaign has focused international attention on the region, a move that could help Hingitaq '53 by giving the Inughuit another piece of ammunition for winning the sympathies of the international community. Coalition building of this type is one of the essentials of the democratic process, using information, communication, and mutual protest to enable disenfranchised groups to protect their rights.

Winning the right to return to their land would be an enormous victory for the Inughuit. Not only would it suggest the recognition of the legitimacy of their culture, but it would be a milestone for the Danish government, protecting historically overlooked citizens. It is unclear, however, what might become of Dundas in the event of an Inughuit win. The walrus are long gone and the pollution has diminished its value as a hunting ground. But, it is a mistake to think of the Inughuit only as traditional hunters. They are, in fact, modern. They drink coffee, surf the internet, take photos, play soccer, and go to the grocery store. But between playing bingo and broadcasting local radio, they hunt, fish, and carve ivory. They have retained their relationship with the land, the animals, and the weather that play such a defining role in the austere arctic environment. They are modern hunters, who have adapted their cultural history to contemporary realities. It is not uncommon, for example, to find Inughuit parents cutting up whale on the kitchen floor while the children watch the latest Hollywood release on DVD. For these people, regaining a picturesque mountain, a protected harbour, an ancient burial ground, and perhaps an abandoned military installation is full of commercial, environmental, educational, recreational, and cultural possibilities.

The Inughuit find themselves in the unique position of being able to challenge a superpower and subvert a new global arms race. By spreading information through print and radio journalism they have been able to increase public awareness of the negative impact of American military overseas -- both on indigenous culture and the environment. The Inughuit use of democratic rights in fighting for justice is at the heart of what democracy is all about. Their expert use of media and their recent legal successes provide hope and inspiration for other indigenous groups. The political activism of Hingitaq '53 is a call to arms, reminding all of us living in democratic societies that we have the tools, as well as the responsibility, to affect positive change.

As Navarana Sorensen told me one afternoon, "We were treated like we do not have rights, but we do have rights, so we can [use them] to prove that we have something important to say."

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