Great Greenland — The Skin Game

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Dateline: QAQORTOQ, GREENLAND

  1. Isolated: adjective
    1. Separated from other persons or things; alone; solitary.

It’s about as far away from anywhere else as I would care to live.  I’m reminded of the old punch line ” You can’t get to there from here…”  Maybe it just seems farther away because of the utter lack of any sign of habitation for hours.  The area around Qaqortoq has, in fact, been inhabited continuously since prehistoric times. Given the harshness of the environment, that surprises me. With a stable population of around 3200 people, it is the 4th largest population center in Greenland. There are no roads connecting it to other population centers, but it is served by a heliport year-round.

Greenland has two official languages– Danish and Inuit. About 50% of the population is Inuit, followed in number by Danes, then a smattering of other nationalities.  I would like to give you a bit of help with the pronunciation of Qaqortoq, but you will mostly have to be on your own. It’s a bugger of a name, and I’m not Welsh, nor do I speak any of the other languages that are likewise unpronounceable, so I can only point you in the right direction: Try coughing and sneezing simultaneously, and if that isn’t repeatable, or it sets you off on a coughing fit, then have a quick look at one of the various YouTube clips that introduce this remote village at the very bottom of Greenland. I’m not going to pile up a bunch of links here, because in my experience no one ever clicks on them. If you are interested to learn more it is easy enough to google Qaqortoq (yes, that’s the correct spelling).

One of the first the first things I noticed as we sailed into its little harbor were the colors.  As if to deny the last word to the colourless environment, the houses were painted in cheery, primary colours. The effect was charming.

What wasn’t so charming was the up-hill-down-dale landscape.  This was not going to be a walking town for some of us.  That sort of left us to find an excursion to do.  There weren’t many to choose from– Qaqortoq not yet a tourist Mecca.  I confess, I didn’t read the details of the excursions, and I’m guessing a few other folks didn’t either. There were three choices of tours:

1. Great Greenland,
2. Private Home Visit, and
3. Walking Tour of Qaqortoq.

For me there was only one option, really. I find the notion of a “private home visit” offensive–patronising. This is not a tour of a grande olde southern mansion in Savannah; this is a private home in a very small, isolated community (3,000 pop’n) in the back of beyond. I don’t like it. I don’t feel comfortable about it. And a walking tour of a village perched on the edge of … well, a mountain goat track… didn’t work for me either.
So I (and plenty of others) chose Great Greenland. Naturally.

It turns out that Great Greenland is the name of a factory. A factory that processes seal skins (as well as skins from a few other Arctic animals). I now know a whole lot about how animal skins become purses, coats, gloves, hats, rugs, and many other things. Bleh, I hear you say. Well, me too. Except it was the key to learning about these charming and rugged people.

I’m not going to tell you about the factory–at least not about the processes involved in turning animal skins into handbags. I prefer to tell you a tiny bit about the people of Qaqortoq. You will appreciate, I hope, that I only got a few snippets during the factory tour, but there were insights, nonetheless.

We were escorted to the factory by a young man who was keen to show us a large rack of wooden kayaks. Someone asked what kind of wood was used (Good question–there certainly was no sign of a tree of any kind for miles in all directions.). “Driftwood,” he answered. Indeed. Then he was quick to point out the half-made kayak in the upper left corner of the rack. “That one is mine,” he said with a mix of pride and sheepishness. “The guy that was helping me build it moved to Nuuk, and now I don’t know how to finish it.”

As I see it, it’s all about hunting. Hunting is how you feed your family. Given that there is not a tree, bush, or blade of grass to be seen anywhere, it’s a fair guess that fruits and veggies are at a premium. Their diet is mainly what they catch, or shoot. It was ever thus. A young boy’s first kill is cause for a family celebration and feast — a Rite of Passage.

The women join in the hunting. It is critical to the family’s well-being that there is a freezer full of meat for the winter. Our guide told us how his (tiny) wife helps him carry a large kill down from the mountains — she carries the butt and hind legs as he carries the head and front half. She was a diminutive Inuit lady, –with a strong back, one supposes– and a smile that lights up the room. She, too, works at the factory.

I can’t quote figures here (mainly because I don’t remember them), but I was reasonably persuaded by the numbers our guide quoted that the hunting was not causing a drop in population numbers of various species. Indeed, some species are protected more than others in terms of the number of animals that can be taken. Licenses are required; it isn’t a free-for-all approach.

While the driving force for much of the hunting is food for the table, there is, of course, a sideline in skins to augment the income of workers. So strong is the cultural imperative for hunting that if a worker fails to show up for work because he went hunting, there are no repercussions. It’s normal–everybody has to hunt, and sometimes it’s during working hours.

The government of Greenland helps out by ensuring the factory, which employs 60 people, does not go down the gurgler. And it guarantees to buy every skin, whatever the quality or condition. The processed skins, as well as the garments and other items that are made there at the factory, are sold throughout Russia, China, Europe — pretty much everywhere but the USA, Canada, and Australia.  It caused a few of us some mental indigestion when we viewed the beautiful garments and such, knowing we couldn’t take any home.  On the other hand, I support the government ban on animal skins.  Or at least I thought I did.  What didn’t cause me any angst, however, was the fact that the hunting–and the sale of skins–keeps this community afloat.  And now I’m trying to work out how their hunting differs from eating beef and wearing leather…              MM

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