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Lost lives of Greenland's Inuit children uprooted by Denmark

Six people who were part of a failed 1950s social experiment have won compensation from Denmark’s government and are expected to receive a face-to-face apology from the prime minister.

They were among 22 Inuit children sent to Denmark from Greenland in 1951 to learn Danish. It was part of a scheme to raise “model” Greenlanders to help bridge Danish and indigenous cultures.

However, the children remained separated from their families, lost their mother tongue and struggled with identity issues.

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After they began legal action, the Danish government settled and agreed to pay damages of 250,000 Danish kroner ($38,000; £28,000) to each of the six. The other 16 people involved have since passed away.

‘Further and further away’

Kristine Heinesen, 76, remembers vividly the day she was taken from her family, aged five.

“My brother rowed me out to the ship,” she recalls as she thumbs through a collection of old black-and-white photographs. “The MS Disko.”

At first she was excited, she says, as she thought she was going on a sailing trip. “But we went further and further away, and it became clear that I was not coming back.”

Kristine Heinesen, 76, who was taken from her family in Greenland as a child aged five

BBC

I missed my family, the language, the culture.

Kristine Heinesen
Taken from her family in Greenland aged five

The children, all aged four to nine, were first placed in a care home and then lived with Danish foster parents.

The project was prestigious. It featured in magazine spreads, and the children were even visited by the Queen of Denmark.

A year and a half later, 16 of them returned to Greenland, while six were adopted.

But back in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, the children were not reunited with their families.

Instead they were placed in an orphanage and attended a Danish-language school.

“We were not allowed to play with Greenlandic children and we were not allowed to speak Greenlandic,” Ms Heinesen says. “We were supposed to be the elite.”

But, unable to speak the local language, they were marginalised in their homeland.

“I missed my family, the language, the culture. All this, I haven’t had during my childhood,” she tells the BBC.

Lost identities

Gabriel Schmidt, now 77, went to Denmark when he was six. He was a teenager when he met his father again.

“I remember when the [orphanage] headmistress told me: ‘Today we are going to see your father.’ I asked: ‘Do I have a father?'”

His father was crying when they met, he recalls. They walked together along a harbour, but couldn’t communicate.

“He spoke in Greenlandic. I didn’t understand anything and replied to him in Danish,” says Mr Schmidt. “It was very sad.”

Gabriel Schmidt was taken from his father aged six, and did not see him again until he was a teenager

BBC

I didn’t understand anything… I asked: ‘Do I have a father?’

Gabriel Schmidt
Taken to Denmark from Greenland as a child

Though the experiment took place decades ago, the consequences have been far-reaching.

A 2020 report, commissioned by the previous government, found that half the children later experienced mental health problems or alcohol abuse. There were cases of homelessness and “rootless lives”. Most died relatively early and one took their own life.

“They sort of lost their identity,” says Einar Lund Jensen, one of the co-authors of the report.

The thinking behind the experiment

Today, Greenland is a self-governing territory within the kingdom of Denmark, but earlier it was a colony.

After World War Two, European colonialism began to unravel, but Greenland remained in Danish hands, and during the 1950s plans were rolled out to speed up its development.

“The policies changed towards modernisation and westernisation,” says Ebbe Volquardsen, Associate Professor of Cultural History at the University of Greenland in Nuuk.

“The aim was to assimilate Greenlanders’ lifestyles into the Danish model,” he says, but local traditions and culture were not treated respectfully.

Denmark was under pressure from the UN, the Danish public and Greenlandic politicians to improve living conditions there, says Mr Jensen. “Danish language and knowledge of Danish European culture were seen as a means to get equality.”

It’s against this backdrop that the 1951 project was drawn up.

From the beginning it was called “the experiment” and the children were referred to as “vanguards”, says Mr Jensen. “These are words that we found in the documents of that time.”

The children were supposed to be orphaned, but for most that wasn’t the case. In fact there were doubts whether all parents understood the implications.

Later the programme was seemingly forgotten or ignored.

“We can’t really find the answer.” Mr Jensen tells the BBC. “We have no documentation.”

The experiment was largely unknown until the 1998 publication of a book – I den Bedste Mening (In the Best Meaning) – by Danish broadcaster and social worker Tine Bryld.

For some of the children, this was the first time they learned why this had happened to them.

‘Dark chapter’ for Denmark

The experiment remains an important issue in Greenland today.

“It still evokes grief and trauma,” Mr Jensen says. “Not least because many Greenlanders have had similar experiences of displacement”.

He points to adoptions between the 1950s and 1970s, when thousands of Greenlandic children were sent to Danish boarding schools.

Until recently, Danish policies from that era were seen as “generally benevolent”, says Mr Volquardsen. “This perception is beginning to change, because there have been many more measures that fall into the same context as the experiment does.”

“It still has an effect on the relationship between Greenland and Denmark today,” says Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, an MP from the Inuit Ataqatigiit party, one of several Greenlandic politicians who campaigned for an apology.

“A lot of people feel like they’re less of a person if they are too Greenlandic,” she explains. “That’s why it’s important for us to keep our identity, language and culture.”

Successive Danish governments have argued that what happened belonged to the past. Calls for an apology were turned down several times.

Historic photos of Kristine Heinesen

In 2020, however, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sent written apologies to the six people involved.

She told parliament: “We cannot change what has happened, but we can take responsibility and apologise to those we should have taken care of, but failed to.”

Last November, a request for compensation was rejected. Then, shortly after Christmas, legal action was launched.

Lawyer Mads Pramming argued that the experiment had violated his clients’ human rights.

“They ended up being not from Greenland, not from Denmark- they sort of didn’t belong anywhere. And so it has had a huge impact on their lives,” he told the BBC earlier.

Then, last week, the government agreed to the pay-out.

In a statement, Astrid Krag, Denmark’s Minister for Social Affairs and the Elderly, said: “The move of the children to Denmark is a dark chapter in the common history of Greenland and Denmark – and it’s a chapter that we should not turn a blind eye to.”

Meeting the prime minister

For Kristina and Gabriel, it’s a huge relief that they won’t have to face a court battle, but they both feel the lawsuit had to be taken seriously.

Mr Schmidt thinks the prime minister’s written apology did not go far enough, and says a face-to-face apology is important.

They have both been invited to the prime minister’s office on Wednesday.

Next week, Ms Frederiksen will travel to Greenland, and is expected to apologise there too.

“The only thing I hope, is that I can help all those who have passed away,” says Gabriel. “I will think about them that day.”

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