Danish-influenced architecture dominates the village of Aasiaat in northern Greenland.
Sorry, President Trump. Greenland’s not for sale.
The country’s government made that clear in a tweet Friday, following reports that Trump had looked into the possibility of purchasing the massive island nation from Denmark.
The resistance came as no surprise to photographer Kiliii Yüyan, who has documented Greenland’s development in recent years.
“They have a good relationship with Denmark. It’s very difficult for them to imagine wanting to have a relationship with another colonial power of any kind,” he said Friday. “And right now they’re pushing hard for independence from Denmark.”
Greenland was granted home rule by the Danes in 1979, and its autonomy grew even larger after a referendum in 2008.
Nearly 90% of its population is of Inuit origin, and Yüyan says the country has embraced those roots, shaping policies from an indigenous perspective. For example, there’s no private property ownership in Greenland. You can’t just come in and buy land. And most of its major industries are state-owned.
“There is a really strong sense that the country and its culture likes to make its decisions as a whole rather than letting individuals make decisions for everybody else. And that’s really powerful,” Yüyan said. “It kept out a lot of interests that probably wouldn’t have been good for Greenland in the long run.”
Greenland is the world’s largest island, an enormous country above Canada that reaches into the Arctic. Much of it is covered by ice.
Only 20% of the country’s 836,300 square miles is inhabited by humans. The population is small, too, hovering just above 50,000.
But still, there’s a really high standard of living, Yüyan says: “It’s a better standard of living than a lot of what we call developed nations. And part of that is due to the fact that their colonizers are the Danish.”
The Danish influence can be seen in Greenland’s architecture and its economy, which is largely fishing-based. Yüyan says most Greenlanders speak both Danish and the country’s official language, Greenlandic.
“There is a really powerful national identity,” he said. “Regardless of how much Danish blood you have or how much Greenlandic Inuit blood you have, everyone is a Greenlander. They think of themselves first and foremost as Greenlanders.”
And many Danes, he said, view Greenland as part of their national identity and choose to vacation there.
Trump would not be the first American to want to buy Greenland. Though President Harry Truman dodged questions about his pursuit of control in the region, the United States allegedly tried to buy Greenland in 1946. In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward showed interest in purchasing the island.
Greenland is home to Thule Air Base, the US military’s northernmost base. It’s about 750 miles above the Arctic Circle, and it features a system that can warn of incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Yüyan is both Chinese-American and Nanai, an indigenous group in Russia’s Far East. He lived part of his childhood in Siberia, close to China, and he has spent much of his career chronicling other indigenous communities across the world.
Two years ago, he went to Greenland to photograph the country’s national kayaking championships.
“Greenland has long been a place that I’ve really admired, and partly it’s due to the fact that I’m also a traditional kayak builder,” he said. “I build traditional boats. My culture is the southernmost to build kayaks, and Greenland of course is famous for its kayaks.”
Over time, colonization can strip indigenous communities of their traditions, but Greenland — and other northern groups — have been able to hold on to many of theirs, Yüyan said.
“The north, in a lot of ways, is lucky because of its remoteness. There is quite a lot of culture and quite a lot of tradition that that is retained.
“But also I think that in the north, in general, we’ve had a real resurgence in people and cultures taking back their indigenous heritage. And that’s particularly true here in Greenland.”
Kiliii Yüyan is a Nanai and Chinese-American photographer based in Seattle. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Photo editor: Brett Roegiers