The Story of Kuupic Kleist

Greenland is the world's largest island. Its population of 57,600 makes it one of the least densely populated countries on earth. 88% of its people are Inuit or of mixed Inuit descent, i.e., the same "Eskimo" people as the Artie coasts of Canada and Alaska. However, it has been politically connected to Europe, specifically Denmark and Norway, for a thousand years. Today, 12% of its people are of Danish descent

Greenland became a Danish colony in 1814 and an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953. It acquired increasing degrees of autonomy and is working its way toward full independence. Unlike in many other stories of colonization, military power was not used by Danish settlers against indigenous Greenlanders. But issues of economic dependency, discrimination, social privileges, and racism have presented challenges through its history.

Nuuk Red houseNuuk Red house

The Little Sisters have lived in the capital city of Nuuk since 1980. They shared the following remarkable story of their current prime minister:


Kuupik Kleist, 51, was born in Qullissat, a small mining town, now abandoned, on the island of Disko. His father was a Dane, "the people who built the country while the Greenlanders looked on," as Kuupik put it himself. This Danish laborer had a relationship with a deaf-mute girl from Qullissat, and from them was born Jacob Edvard Kuupik Kleist.

As a little boy he was adopted by the chief telegraph operator, who married his mother's sister. Kuupik was raised with seven brothers and sisters. His mother wanted him to become a hunter and fisherman, so that he would not leave the town to go off to school like his brothers and sisters did. But at the Qullissat school they recognized his intellectual capacities, and the family had to accept seeing him set off to study in Sisimiut.

When his native town, with its 1200 inhabitants, was shut down and abandoned by order of the Danish government (according to their policy of re-locating residents of less-than-profitable villages to the cities), he said goodbye forever to life as a fisherman and hunter. He was fourteen years old. He later wrote:

Nuuk our buildingNuuk our building

"For me, the way my native town was shut down will always remain a monument to the brutal manner in which decisions about our country were made in Copenhagen. All of Greenland, every family, bears the consequences. Like mine, families were split apart. As a mining town, Qullissat was a multi-ethnic place: Danes, Swedes, Scotch, English. We were all strangers to each other, but still, we became friends. Moving to Sisimiut was a shock. In Qullissat we all greeted each other, but not in Sisimiut. When I arrived there as a young man, I kept looking around to find anyone to greet! We who came from other places were looked down on, we took other people's jobs away... I got my nose broken twice! But somehow we always managed..."

In 1975, aged 17-and with no knowledge of the Danish language, Kuupik was sent to Denmark to study. He took the shortest program at the university with the idea of returning as soon as possible. But once at the university his life began to fall apart, a result of the enormous loneliness he felt as a Greenlander in Denmark. He took to drugs and alcohol, quit school and returned to Greenland. However, thanks to his own inner strength and thehelp of his family, he went back 6 months later to finish his studies.

Nuuk fishing houseNuuk fishing house

Kuupik understands from his own experience what it means to transition from a hunting/fishing society to the modern age with its educational system, etc. This understanding marks his political program today. He himself returned with his diploma in 1983 and began looking for work, but found only closed doors. "You've been in Denmark too long," he was told, and he replied, "But that's what the politicians told us to do, go to Denmark and get an education." But at the time, hiring preference was given to Danes, who knew nothing of Greenlandic culture. With no roof over his head, Kuupik was taken in by his sister for a while. Finally, he found work in the lowest levels of government, and worked his way up to the office he occupies today.

Kuupik's plan is to focus less on political independence and more on domestic issues like alcoholism, domestic violence, and the high suicide rate. He says, "We have to become strong to become independent." When he reached the office of prime minister, he found the government coffers empty. So, the responsibility of implementing unpopular restrictive fiscal policies falls on him, though he has been a member of the opposition for the past 30 years. He must also make wise decisions with regard to exploitation of his country's mineral resources, balancing desires for economic growth with concern for the extremely fragile Artctic environment. He doesn't want to sell himself and his country into a new kind of ‘colonialism’. He has got his work cut out for him…