As we prepare to observe Indigenous Peoples Day, spare a thought for our Indigenous near-neighbor, Greenland.

A Native Inuit man attends ceremonies in Nuuk, Greenland, on June 21, 2009, to celebrate their national day and to mark gaining greater powers of self-rule from Denmark. Under a 2009 accord, the people of the world’s largest island, entirely Inuit, “conducted a ‘preparatory constitutional process’ culminating in a draft constitution recently submitted to Greenland’s national parliament,” Charles Norchi writes.  Jorgen Chemnitz, Polfoto/Associated Press, File

The world’s largest island, entirely Inuit, is preparing for independence. Under a 2009 accord with their Danish overlords, the people conducted a “preparatory constitutional process”  culminating in a draft constitution recently submitted to Greenland’s national parliament. The Indigenous character of the document is striking. It is grounded in Inuit customary notions of collective rights, unity with nature, respect for the ecosystem and common ownership of land, sea and resources with no provision for a king. Hence, separation from the Danish Royal House.  

There are multiple roots in this drive to self-determination, but one is connected to both U.S. foreign policy and Danish colonial policy. During the Second World War, Denmark was controlled by Nazi Germany. In the Roosevelt White House there was alarm that Germany, via Denmark, could control Greenland and threaten the American East Coast.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Danish envoy Henrik Kauffmann concluded a security agreement by which the United States would “have the right to construct, maintain and operate such landing fields and sea plane facilities and radio and meteorological facilities as may be necessary.” The agreement also provided that “the United States (would) respect all legitimate interests in Greenland … pertaining to the native population.”

In 1953, the Danish colonial administration forcibly relocated the Indigenous Thule population to make room for the expansion of an American base on the northwest coast, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

In subsequent years, the United States and Denmark concluded international agreements pertaining to the construction, maintenance and operation by the U.S. of military facilities in Greenland. The arrangements served U.S. and Allied security interests well through World War II, the Cold War and into the current geopolitical era.


In 2023, the war in Ukraine, Russia’s Arctic presence, China’s quest for high north resources and climate change have further enhanced the strategic value of Greenland to the United States. A trilateral U.S.-Denmark-Greenland Joint Committee was formed in 2004, with the government of Greenland becoming an equal partner in the cooperation and the Thule Air Base uppermost on the agenda. 

Last April, Thule reverted to its former Indigenous Inuit name, Pituffik, and became home to a new U.S. space base, Pituffik Space Base, with the mission of force projection, space superiority and Arctic scientific research. Pituffik is now America’s northernmost military installation, including a deepwater port and a 10,000-foot runway.

At the renaming ceremony, Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force Gen. Chance Saltzman remarked: “This renaming represents our wish to celebrate and acknowledge the rich cultural heritage of Greenland and its people.” U.S. Ambassador Alan Leventhal continued: “We recognize the important role this installation has played in ensuring our countries and all of North America have remained safe and secure.”

The ambassador also acknowledged that “the creation of this base caused the movement in the 1950s of the community who called this place home, resulting in hardship and pain for those people and their descendants.”  

Those descendants, the people of Pituffik, will be among the many considering the draft constitution in preparation for the day when Greenland secedes from Denmark.

On this road to self-determination, through our institutes of higher education, Maine has joined the journey. Annual field courses, research and student exchanges of the University of Maine, the Climate Change Institute, the Law School and the University of Southern Maine have built sustained relationships. Greenland is not for sale and will become a fully Indigenous nation-state member of the United Nations. In that, Maine is poised to be a constructive partner.   

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