Aqqaluk Lynge, 69, has seen and done a lot in his time. He's a poet as well as a politician and human rights advocate who founded a political party representing the Inuit people.
Back in the late 1960s, he was doing what most students his age were doing: demonstrating for social change.
“There was upheaval across the whole world,” he recalls.
“Greenlandic students in Copenhagen were starting to organize – that's how my political awareness got started.”
At the time, Aqqaluk and his fellow students were concerned about education; specifically the right of students from Greenland to be able to attend schools close to home rather than 4,000 kilometres away.
“It was part of the youth revolution taking place in Greenland at the time. We wanted to run our own country,” he explains.
While Greenland is part of the Danish Kingdom, along with the Faroe Islands, the island has largely governed itself for centuries. There was a time in history when Denmark tried to assimilate the Inuit people, but it didn't last.
“Denmark and Greenland succeeded in a peaceful transition of power to indigenous people that is unique in the world,” he claims, referencing the landmark 1979 decision that officially granted Greenland self-government, followed by full self-rule in 2009.
A literary legacy
Aqqaluk, a Kalaallit Inuit, played an instrumental role in the transition as a vocal advocate for indigenous people's rights – both in Greenland and globally.
He helped found the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) – serving on its executive council for 34 years and twice as the body's international president from 1997-2002 and 2010-2014. He also founded the Inuit Ataqatigiit political party in 1976.
“My grandfather was one of the two first Greenlandic members of the Danish parliament, and my father was a politician too – so I guess it's in the family blood,” he muses.
The only thing that ran deeper in his veins was perhaps his sense of Inuit identity.
“It was always there. It was obvious that we have our special identity,” he states.
“We've been able to reclaim our culture. Our language is strong. And although we're just 56,000 people, our literature is alive and thriving.”
Aqqaluk himself is an important contributor to Greenland's literature legacy, inspired even as a youth to write scores of poems about identity, culture, and language. He has written in Greenlandic, English, Danish, as well as other Nordic languages, reflecting on what it means to be an Inuit and the political situation surrounding his identity.
Much like the lives of his people, Aqqaluk's prose is free-flowing and natural, not burdened by rigid metric structure.
“My poems were based on my identity as an Inuit,” he says. “I was fighting injustice and asking for respect for the basic human rights of all indigenous peoples."
A Nordic roadmap
So throughout his life, Aqqaluk has dedicated a lot of energy toward uniting the people of Greenland, as well as indigenous peoples across the world.
And the Nordic nations, he says, gave him a pretty good roadmap.
“The Nordic culture of cooperation and respect is something I have always looked to for guidance,” Aqqaluk explains. “What we were trying to form when we established the ICC was something modelled after the Nordic Council of Ministers.”
The Nordics, he says, place huge importance on cultures – not just their own, but also their relative respect for indigenous cultures as well.
“The Nordic Language Convention, for example, is very important for us in Greenland, and supports all the small languages of the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland as well as the Sami language in Scandinavia,” Aqqaluk explains.
“If you look at Canada or Alaska you see that the Inuit languages are disappearing due to the dominance of English. The North American approach to indigenous peoples is very different from the Nordic countries.”
Aqqaluk says numerous Nordic forums for smaller voices to be heard has been a key to the success of the arrangement.
“The political culture here respects the diversity within our own kingdoms. Small nations, and particularly indigenous peoples, need a special forum to be heard – and thanks largely to the Nordic countries, we have that in the form of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.”
The spirit of Nordic leadership and cooperation was also present in 1977 when Inuit leaders from across the Arctic region met for the first time as the Inuit Circumpolar Council; an occasion Aqqaluk credits with helping raise awareness about the importance of climate change.
“Even before we knew anything about climate change, the Inuit hunters were talking about it,” he says of the meeting which made clear that environmental protection would be a central focus of the council.
“We learned a lot from the traditional indigenous knowledge on the climate system.”
And the networks formed in the 1970s between the indigenous peoples from across the Nordic and Arctic region helped encourage governments to cooperate and put climate change on the political agenda, Aqqaluk explains, ultimately leading to the formation of the Arctic Council in 1996.
“That is how the Arctic Council was born, out of ideas of the indigenous Arctic cooperation,” he explains. “I think the Arctic people's cooperation helped inspire governments to organize themselves.”
Environmental cooperation also amplified indigenous people's political influence, says Aqqaluk.
“The scientific cooperation helped indigenous peoples to gain ground in politics as well, and by helping to discuss questions about how to adapt to climate change,” he adds.
While Greenland now manages its own domestic affairs, international affairs are still handled by Denmark – which is fine with Aqqaluk; the two share many values and prioritize many of the same issues.
“The importance of the Nordic countries' input on the whole world, especially when discussing the environment and climate, is very important,” he says. “We Inuit live in Arctic nations, and the Nordic countries are Arctic nations as well. So we are the ones being hit by the consequences of climate change very rapidly.”
It is only natural, he adds, that the Nordic nations have strong environmental policies and a strong union on how to address the climate challenge. And on the issue of human rights and indigenous rights, too, they play a key role.
“When crises arise with human rights issues, or with indigenous people, the Nordic countries are always up front,” he says. “They have always been there to stand by us. I never forget that.”