In the town of Ittoqqortoormiit, East Greenland, sled dog tracks had patterned the asphalt before it had time to dry. It was a crisp September morning within the Arctic circle, and the mountains behind the town glowed in the autumn sunrise, the colorful houses beckoning from the coast.
After days of traveling through pristine, uninhabited wilderness on our voyage with polar travel experts Quark Expeditions, arriving in a community felt like a tremendous surprise. What’s more, the first Greenlander I met ashore was wearing a Quark Expeditions yellow parka.
Greenland: Culture and History
Many travelers to Greenland find themselves initially struck by its wildness: its vast and diverse terrain, its remoteness, and a cold, Arctic climate.
Indeed, it's the world's largest island and is a country dominated by ice, with 81% of its total area covered year-round by the Greenland Ice Sheet. Its ice-free coastline, however, has supported a human population for thousands of years.
The first people to settle in Northwest Greenland were the Dorset, Paleo-Eskimo nomadic hunters who migrated in waves from Asia, across North America, from as early as 5,000 years ago. As millennia passed, and the climate cooled and shifted, the people of Greenland evolved, moved, disappeared, or adapted.
Dorset culture was surpassed by the Thule people, the ancestors of modern-day Greenlanders, known as the Inuit people. First settling in Northern Greenland, the Thule people migrated along the west coast and into South Greenland.
Eventually, with superior technology such as dog sledding, kayaks, and the toggle-headed harpoon, the Thule were able to thrive along the majority of Greenland’s coastline. Their remarkable nomadic lifestyle revolves around hunting, fishing, and a rich oral tradition.
Present Day Greenlandic Culture
Today, Greenlandic communities present a fascinating blend of ancient Thule culture and Scandinavian influence, as Denmark began colonizing Greenland in the 1700s.
Although Greenland is moving towards increased autonomy (Greenland's government operates out of the capital city of Nuuk), the country is still dependent on Danish government support.
This often means higher education, better quality housing, and more opportunities for residents than some might expect in such a remote corner of the Arctic.
Danish influence has also resulted in vibrant cultural fusion, such as the intricate national costumes, the colorful kit houses imported from Denmark, and the tradition of “kaffemik” – when locals open the doors of their homes to casually visit over tea, coffee, and cake.
Throughout my career as a polar artist and photographer, I’ve been fortunate to spend two seasons living with the Inuit, cultivating a deep respect for the resourcefulness and resilience of their culture.
Therefore, in the eight seasons I’ve worked as a guide for Quark Expeditions, no aspect of my job gives me greater joy than helping foster authentic interactions with Arctic residents during our visits to small communities.
Whether playing soccer with locals in the tiny west Greenlandic village of Itilleq, learning about fishing culture in Ilimanaq, visiting families for kaffemik in Uumannaq, or sampling musk ox meat in Ittoqqortoormiit, I find these exchanges are some of the most cherished moments from any Arctic expedition.
“I think it’s the most impressive thing people experience,” said expedition guide Lauritz Schönfeld, who has a long history in Greenland. “You see the remoteness of the landscape, such a harsh environment… and then you arrive in a community, and it hits you. There are people waiting to meet you, waiting to share their culture with you, and you realize that people have lived here for thousands of years.”
Meeting the Inuit Community
Visiting Ittoqqortoormiit with Lauritz was an experience in itself. While we stepped onto the beach, shaking hands and making polite introductions, Lauritz was swarmed by old friends who warmly remembered him from the 4.5 months he spent teaching at the local school.
Everything came to life as he introduced us to locals, translated conversations, and led us to the elementary school – where schoolchildren were holding a craft sale, fundraising for a trip to Iceland for swim lessons.
Our fellow travelers buzzed with their highlights of the day: a long conversation with the schoolteacher; a chance to buy locally-made art; watching a hunter feed his sled dogs as puppies scampered underfoot.
For many, the most unforgettable moments were the simple, authentic meetings they had with the people they met.
Our Relationship with the Greenlandic People
Over the years, returning to many of these communities time and again, we always strive to make our visits two-sided, so that the community benefits from our visit as much as we do.
This ranges from hiring local guides and agents, to donating Quark Expeditions parkas, winter clothing, or fresh food to remote communities who have use for them.
Most of all, it’s about encouraging genuine, open-hearted interactions, and creating room for unscripted moments of cultural exchange.
The Importance of Cultural History
As we left Ittoqqortoormiit that September afternoon, I reflected on how a visit to any Greenlandic community deepens our perspectives of what we observe in the natural world.
The more we can learn about Inuit culture, the more we can understand that everything we see – every plant, every animal, every weather pattern – is connected to the people, and the remarkable ways that they have survived here for millennia.
In coming to understand what the land means to them, we can begin to decide for ourselves what the land means to us, transforming us into informed ambassadors for the Arctic, its environment, and its inhabitants.
Plan an expedition trip to Greenland and see for yourself the beautiful culture that has been shaped here after thousands of years living in the Arctic. Browse itineraries today.