In Alaska October 18 is a state holiday commemorating the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States. This year on Alaska Day in Fairbanks, a Greenlandic Inuit leader and author drew parallels between the purchase of Alaska and President Trump’s interest in buying Greenland.
Aqqaluk Lynge is former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and former member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
“I'm fully aware of Alaska's history becoming part of the US,” Lynge said early in his talk.
On Oct. 18, 1867, the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag raised in Sitka, in southeast Alaska, then the capital of Russian America. Alaska Natives, who were banned from the flag raising, say the Russians had no right to sell what they didn’t own. For one thing, a mere 500 Russians lived in Alaska at the time of the transfer and few had ventured inland from the coast where they hunted fur seals. And, even though Alaska Natives were the true owners of the territory, they were not consulted in the transaction.
Unlike the purchase of Alaska, President Trump’s idea of buying Greenland is not being carried out but, “I think that the US attempt to buy a nation or to annex Greenland, no matter how absurd it is, has to be taken seriously,” said Lynge.
The apparent absurdity perhaps is due to the fact Greenland is 3,000 miles from the United States. It is also 80 percent covered by ice.
International law bans the annexation of sovereign nations (contrary to the recent examples of Russia taking over part of Ukraine, and Turkey seizing control of land in Syria). And Greenland is part of the Danish kingdom, albeit as an autonomous territory.
Moreover, for decades Greenlanders have been working to achieve greater autonomy from Denmark so would be loathe to give up their independence to a new colonizer.
“As the mighty nations like China, Russia and most recently the US interest in the Arctic grows,” said Lynge, “Greenland's right to self determination is at stake.”
Still, there are reasons to covet Greenland. It’s situated in a geopolitically and militarily strategic location between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. As the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free for longer periods each year, shipping routes from Europe to Asia will become increasingly popular. The so-called Northwest Passage cuts distances by half, a huge savings in time and fuel. China has shown interest in investing in runways in Greenland to improve trade with Europe.
Greenland is also rich with reserves of oil, gas, and rare minerals. As the ice sheets that cover the island nation melt, those mineral reserves are becoming more developable.
The purchase of Greenland by the United States has come up before, under the Truman Administration in 1946, as the threat of Russian military might grew.
Now, the United States has a military base in Greenland that hosts a ballistic missile early warning system. Greenland provides land for the US Thule air force base, for no charge, said Lynge.
Lynge criticized the “America First” policy, which he said has put some Greenlandic contractors out of work. He also took the United States to task for withdrawing from Arctic Council cooperation on climate change, and abandoning United Nations work on human rights. “The United States is no longer what it once was,” said Lynge.
“In spite of all this,” Lynge said, “Greenland has done its part in the NATO alliance and Greenlanders have actually participated in Danish missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere alongside American troops and veterans from here [the United States].”
“That’s why we expect a close ally to thank them for their sacrifice,” said Lynge. “We also expect that we be respected as an ally and as a friendly nation.”
Despite whatever distrust or coolness has developed between the two nations, Lynne said, “I assure you, in spite of all, the friendship and cooperation among Inuit and all the Indigenous Arctic peoples will continue. It has to continue. It will never stop.”
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a long-time journalist in Alaska