Inside Greenland, the world’s largest island

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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.”

An iceberg floats by the Sermitsiaq mountain. Drifting glacial ice is a principal feature of the seas off Greenland.

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.”

Fisherman Adam Hansen gaffs an Atlantic wolf fish. These predatory bottomfish are common, large and prized by Greenlanders.

A seal heart and meat is for sale at the local market in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. In Greenlandic custom, all of an animal’s parts are used for food.

The fishing industry makes up much of Greenland’s economy.

An appetizer called beluga mattak. Mattak, aka muktuk, is a meal of frozen whale skin and blubber. Nuuk has been experiencing a recent culinary movement led by Inunnguaq Hegelund, who was named “Greenland’s Jamie Oliver” by Suluk Magazine. Hegelund has been popularizing the idea of elevating traditional Greenlandic ingredients in international cuisine.

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.”

A fishing vessel is moored outside of the small settlement of Qasigiannguit.

Crosses and summer wildflowers fill a cemetery in Nuuk. Danish colonization brought Christianity, which many Greenlanders have adopted.

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.

Greenland’s ice sheet is the second biggest in the world, and many scientists consider it ground zero of the Earth’s climate change.

Some icebergs in Greenland have become tourist attractions.

An iceberg drifts away from the Greenland Ice Sheet, near the village of Ilulissat.

An iceberg floats through the famous Ilulissat ice fjord. This glacial bay is a UNESCO world heritage site.

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.

Two kayaks and an unfinished frame rest outside of Aasiaat’s paddling club.

Sinnii Tobiassen completes a difficult feat in an event known as Allunaariaqattararneq. These rope gymnastics were the traditional way that kayakers trained.

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.”

A husky lounges in front of two qamutit, or dogsleds.

Rhodiola, also known as Arctic ginseng in Greenland, is an herb that grows among the fjords. Today it has achieved worldwide notoriety as a medicinal plant.

Emaanooraq Nathansen cinches the oily sleeves on his sealskin tuiliq, or waterproof kayak parka. The traditional tuiliq is required for Greenland’s national kayaking championships.

The tradition of ivory carving is strong in Greenland. This polar bear head is used as a deck line toggle to hold paddles and harpoons on a kayak’s deck.

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.”

Kayak racers pull away just moments after the start of a race. In the background are buildings in Nuuk.

Kiliii Yüyan is a Nanai and Chinese-American photographer based in Seattle. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Photo editor: Brett Roegiers





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