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Greenland: the unexpected Netflix-star

The Inuits of Greenland and the Sami of Finland, Norway and Sweden are the Indigenous people of the Nordic Countries. On the occasion of the International Day of the World´s Indigenous People, on 9 August, the UNRIC website chose two indigenous individuals who have attracted attention recently for different reasons. 

Read also: She writes with her heart in Sápmi

A senior official turned actor

Svend Hardenberg, a 53-year-old Greenlander, has had a successful career as a politician, senior government official and businessman. However, it came as a surprise when he was selected to play one of the leading roles in a successful TV series, a Danish/Netflix co-production.

At the negotiating table in Borgen. Photo credit © DR
At the negotiating table in Borgen. Photo credit © DR.

When the producers of Borgen, one of the most popular Danish TV series in history, were preparing the 4th season, which focuses on Greenland, they were put in touch with Mr. Hardenberg. His role was to introduce them to the country, culture and local political situation, as well as locations. However, acting was not on the agenda.

“I was very surprised when they suggested that I apply for a role – I have never acted before,” Mr. Hardenberg told the UNRIC website. In Borgen Hardenberg plays the role of Hans Eliassen, the Greenlandic minister of Foreign Affairs and natural resources. 

Overcoming clichés

Hardenberg has first-hand experience of Greenlandic politics since he has served as the politically appointed chief of staff of Prime Minister Ms. Alicia Hammond, in addition to his career in business and administration.

Eventually, he and his artist-wife Julie Hardenberg, helped the writers of Borgen with the political context and overcoming clichés about Greenlanders.

“They had written quite a lot but from Denmark. We introduced them to the real issues between Greenland and Denmark. And because of that, they rewrote several of the characters.”

Novelist Niviaq Korneliussen also contributed to translating dialogues into Greenlandic.

Hardenberg says he is happy with the outcome and convinced that the time the authors spent in Greenland helped them to “really understands the systems, the structure of the issues. Research just based on what kind of articles that are in the press. We wanted to introduce them to the real Greenland“. 

Greatest political drama

International Day of the Worlds´s indigenous People
Birgitte Nyborg, the main character of Borgen – busy as usual. Photo: DR.

In the programme the main character Birgitte Nyborg, now Foreign Minister of Denmark, has to deal simultaneously with geopolitical and domestic political crises, which touch upon USA-Chinese-Russian relations, the climate crisis, the environment, energy and indigenous peoples issues, to name a few.

To many people’s surprise, Borgen became a smash hit when it premiered on DR, Danish Public Television in 2010. The title, Borgen, refers to (Christians)borg, the seat of the Danish parliament, known for such civilised and peaceful consensus politics that the opposition usually votes for the government´s budget proposal. 

BBC has called Borgen “the greatest political drama ever,” but over 4 seasons the stories and the characters have developed. The New York Times said that the new season of Borgen is darker than previous seasons less “West Wing” and more “House of Cards.”

Oil and Climate

The plot in the 4th season revolves around the theme of drilling for oil in Greenlandic waters.

Hardenberg considers the plot realistic. Photo credit © DR. In 2009, Greenland officially became a self-governing territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. Greenlanders were recognized as a distinct people according to international law, giving them the additional right of secession from Denmark if a majority of the people so decides.

For the time being Greenland relies on financial contributions from Denmark, which amounts to $600 million annually, the equivalent of about 20 per cent of Greenlandic gross domestic product. While the Greenlandic government’s full control over the country’s natural resources was recognized in 2009, a roadmap was also established on the modalities of possible independence – once Greenland would be able to stand on its own feet without financial handouts from Copenhagen. 

Mr. Hardenberg does not hide his pro-independence politics. “Denmark has no interest in developing Greenland because that moves it closer to independence.”

In Borgen, the fact that the discovery of oil could finance Greenlandic independence and benefit Denmark is weighed against the implications for the climate crisis.

Realistic

Sven Hardenberg´s role is Hans Eliassen, the minister of raw material and energy in the Greenlandic self-government says the storyline is quite accurate. “It is very realistic. These are the issues that we have and the power struggles between Greenland and Denmark, that Borgen portrays, are there. It happens every day, although it is dramatized.”

Indigenous People
Borgen has been popular since it premiered on DR, (the Danish National Broadcasting) in 2010. Photo: DR.

One of the Greenlandic characters in Borgen says that it is not reasonable that Greenland should be held accountable for 200 centuries of CO2 emissions by industrialised countries. 

“Many of us agree. It is not reasonable to put a break on our development because the development of other countries has damaged the environment and the climate. This opinion is well represented in Borgen,” says Svend Hardenberg.

Come-back of ancient customs

The current Inuit population of Greenland migrated to the island from Canada around AD 1200. They shared the island with Nordic settlers, mostly from Iceland and Norway for centuries. However, the Europeans disappeared mysteriously around 1450 but in 1721 the United Kingdom of Denmark and Norway reclaimed Greenland. 

Christian missionaries fought Inuit customs, traditions and beliefs fiercely. In recent years there has been a considerable revival of ancient customs- for instance, the face tattoos shown in Borgen.

Since the nationalist movement in Greenland rose to prominence in the sixties and seventies, relations have been established with other Inuits in Canada, the USA, and Russia. Greenlanders are also active members of the UN Permanent Forum for the World´s Indigenous People. 

Nevertheless, the recent revelation of the death and burials of indigenous children in Canada, has not gained much attention in Greenland. Hardenberg says it is surprising, but one explanation might be that similar local stories have dominated the media. 

As recently as March this year, Denmark had to pay compensation and apologize to Greenlandic Inuits who were taken from their families in the fifties. It was part of an experiment to build a Danish-speaking elite in the fifties. Today, most Greenlanders speak a Western-Greenlandic dialect, as well as Danish. 

Forced contraception

At the same time, dozens of women have come forward and told the story of forced contraception in the fifties, sixties and early seventies. Thousands of young girls were forced to have a coil, or intrauterine device (IUD) implanted, without their or their parent’s knowledge. Some of the women only found out much later when they were examined by gynaecologists. 

The number of women is debated, but Danish state TV has reported that 4,500 were subjected to the procedure. 

Danish authorities aimed to tackle the number of children born out of wedlock in Greenland since they were considered a burden on taxpayers. Hardenberg and many Greenlanders see it as a deliberate attack to keep the number of Greenlanders down and ensure Danish dominance of Greenland. The current population of Greenland is roughly 57,000. However, it was only 32,000 in 1960 and has since grown by over 70%.

“Living conditions were improving and the population was growing,” says Hardenberg. “But they decided on their own that it had to be managed because they didn’t want more cost of running Greenland, even though we were a natural part of Denmark. This is very racist and very controlling. This topic surfaced only recently because many of the girls were ashamed, and didn´t speak up until now. It appears that 46 % of all women in the childbearing population have experienced this. It’s a major, major issue.”

 

The International Day of the Worlds´Indigenous People is celebrated annually on 9 August. This year the focus is on the role of indigenous women in the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge. 

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