Greenland’s capital, the seaside harbour city of Nuuk, is an interesting mixture of old and new. Walking around the city centre, you quickly pass everything from the national museum, housed in a series of colourful historic houses on the Colonial Harbour, to severe ‘80s apartment blocks, quaint, tiny embassies with flags flying, grey governmental buildings, an attractive culture hall, and little wooden houses sat alongside the kind of modern amenities you’d expect in any nation’s capital.
Joins between the old and new are one of the defining characteristics of Nuuk, but also of Greenlandic culture more generally. One example of this is the Arctic Winter Games, an international event that brings together young sportspeople from across the wider Arctic region to compete in a variety of games—from modern sports like basketball, skiing and table tennis, to traditional Arctic sports.
Lighting a flame
The head of the games, hosted in Nuuk for the 2016 edition, is Maliina Abelson, who has worked with indigenous peoples’ rights for much of her adult life, whether as part of Indigenous People’s Council at the UN, or closer to home, as Greenlandic Finance Minister. Today, she spends her days as a project manager preparing Nuuk to host the games—but her connection to the event goes back to her youth.
“I participated in the Arctic WInter Games twice when I was younger,” smiles Maliina. “It was the first time I realised there were Inuits living in Canada. They live in the same climate as us, they have a similar language, and they even look like us. That lit a flame in me—this cross-cultural project looking towards the Arctic, rather than Scandinavia and Europe, where young people can build links, and see just how much they have in common.”
Participants will come to compete from Canada, Russia, Northern Scandianavia, and Alaska, who hosted the games in 2015. “The Arctic Winter Games aren’t only for indigenous people,” says Maliina, “but it’s the youth of the Arctic region that really makes it interesting. The Sami people from Norway and Sweden participate, and so do young people from Yamal in Russia, and indigenous people from Canada and Alaska. The atmosphere you get from lots of Inuits meeting, and competing, for the first time is really cool.”
One of the athletes competing from Greenland is Tonny Fisker, a 27 year old six-time competitor in the games, and an enthusiastic proponent of the Arctic sports element.
“In the Arctic Winter Games, many of the sports are for the younger people,” he explains, “but the Arctic Sports and the Dene Games have senior categories, too. These sports are a big part of the Arctic culture, and we don’t really have anywhere else to compete in them. We say the Arctic sports are the heart of the Winter Games—they’re really connected to the Arctic culture.”
Many of the sports themselves have roots in surviving in Arctic conditions. “Almost all of the games have a story behind them,” says Tonny. “They were developed to train together for surviving in the harsh environment; to practise skills, and stay fit.”
One example of the historical roots is the triple jump. “If you were walking on sea ice, and it started to break up beneath your feet, you would have to jump between the pieces to escape,” Tonny explains. “We did that when I was younger. We would sneak away and go to the sea, and try jumping between pieces. Then the Kneel Jump event came from ice-fishing—if you were kneeling by an ice-hole, and the ice gave way, you would have to jump up from your knees very quickly. There’s also a story that this one was used to get a reindeer onto your back while you were hunting. We don’t have books about the origins of the sports, so it’s really just understood through verbal history.”
“Over time, they developed into competitive sports,” he finishes, “even though they weren’t made that way at first. That’s a spirit we try to carry into the games—that you’re competing mostly with yourself. It’s about doing your best, and helping others to improve.”
The Arctic population
Maliina also sees Greenland’s hosting of the games as a chance to show Greenland off a modern nation. “When people talk about the Arctic, they often talk about climate change and resources, but rarely the people who live there,” she says. “And, there is a population. This is a way of showing a different angle—showing there’s a young generation growing up in the Arctic who are full of energy and ready to take leadership. People generalise a lot about the problems of Inuit and Arctic societies, but there’s more to these societies than just that.”
“So it’s an opportunity to show who we are,” she continues. “And, it’s a also nation building exercise for us here in Greenland. It brings together people from around the coast, from the North to the South, and shows we are one people—living in a country who can host big projects. For example, if we had some mineral projects in the future, it’s the same task—having a lot of people coming in and living here, feeding them, transporting them, and making sure they’re safe.”
The event will draw an international audience to Greenland—indeed, Lonely Planet has flagged it as one of the best trips to take, worldwide, this March. Maliina hopes it will help show off Greenland as a modern nation.
“As well as all the fantastic things we’re famous for like the nature and dog-sledding,” she says, “we also have an urban culture to show here in Nuuk. The town has changed a lot since I grew up, but I like what it was, and I like what it has become. There are subcultures and people from around the world. We still have the Greenlandic traditions, but the young people are making their own culture—something from abroad, and new influences, mixed with traditional culture. That’s what it’s all about. Greenlandic culture and Arctic culture, like culture everywhere, is living and changing all the time.”