Drum dancing and Inuit tattoos are also the new Greenland

Exploring legends, myths, and rituals tell us about Greenland both now and then, but it could also help to define the future.


By Josephine Schnohr 


Drum dancing, kaffemik, myths, amulets, Inuit tattoos, kayak championships, and mask dancing are cultural heritage – that is, part of the culture that we have inherited from previous generations. Although it is a form of heritage that cannot be measured or weighed, it is important if we want to understand who the Greenlandic people were, are, and will be in the future.


Therefore, Greenland National Museum and Archive is working resolutely to register and describe precisely this part of their cultural heritage. The Danish-Greenlandic archaeologist Kirstine Eiby Møller explains:


“As an archaeologist, you spend a lot of time studying objects and relics from earlier times. But people are more than just their houses, tools, and tombs. In recent years, we at the museum have focused on the intangible cultural heritage and the traditions and cultural features that continue to play a role in Greenlandic society today.”


Because even if you cannot really exhibit a kaffemik in a museum, it still has a justification on an equal footing with physical objects.

“A thing like kaffemik is defining for the Greenlanders and their way of being together. It’s a very special form of social interaction that all tourists and visiting researchers become acquainted with,” Kirstine Eiby Møller explains. “At the same time, it’s also something that most newcomers quickly embrace in order to become part of Greenlandic society. So, kaffemik becomes a way of integrating, and maybe this intangible cultural heritage can function as a kind of integration, a way to get to know people and each other’s culture.”


Revived tattoos

The intangible cultural heritage is by no means forgotten, and many original traditions emerge more and more clearly across Greenlandic society today. A striking example is the many tattoos with original patterns seen on the faces and hands of the younger generation, especially in the larger cities like Nuuk and Sisimiut.


The custom of tattoos has always been prevalent among the Inuit. The traditional Inuit tattooing technique deposits its black color from a soot-colored thread by skin stitching and hand poking. It was primarily women who were tattooed as part of the transition ritual from girl to woman, and it was placed in the face, on the legs, arms, and chest.


“You see more and more Inuit tattoos on the streets today. I also have tattoos on my forearms and wrists inspired by sewing patterns from objects in the Greenland National Museum’s exhibitions. There’s also focus on other parts of the intangible cultural heritage. Active drum dancers across the Arctic, for example, have banded together to learn from each other and keep this special tradition alive with festivals and the like. The same with the kayak championships and competitions in dog sledding, which must also ensure the preservation of this important, Greenlandic cultural heritage. So, this relates to and involves both museum people, active practitioners, and the general population of Greenland. Most recently, we saw drum dancing at the inauguration of the new Naalakkersuisut with Múte B. Egede leading, and I was actually a little moved, even if our cultural heritage was used for political gains in this situation,” says Kirstine Eiby Møller.


Contact: Kirstine Eiby Møller: Kirstine Eiby Møller og Asta Mønsted 

Top photo Although the tattoos are very visible, the reasons for getting them are often personal and, thus, private (photo: Kirstine Eiby Møller)
Photo 1 Kaffemik is a ’Danishification’ of the word ’kaffillerneq’. It is a celebration of e.g., birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and the like where coffee and cake are served – it has also become more common to serve both cold and hot dishes (photo: Kristine Eiby Møller)