10,000-Year-Old Customs and Dances Alive and Well in Greenland

Paula Froelich
·Editor at Large

One of the most important things in a culture is its folklore — tales that have been passed down over the centuries from family to family that shape the morals and fabric of a society. In Western society, these folktales have been watered down via Disney or the Internet, but in a secluded country like Greenland, which was isolated for so long from traditionally modern society, the tales are not only still told verbally, but also performed.

The story telling isn’t just about the dance. (Photo: A Broad Abroad)

At the National Theatre of Greenland, I met the principal, Makka Kleist, and her dance student Kimmernaq Kjeldsen.

“This is a very old culture,” Makka told me.

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It’s believed that the ancient Inuit people migrated from Canada to Greenland more than 10,000 years ago. Because individual communities — mostly ranging in size from a few families to 100 people — were so isolated and because of the frequent occurrence of natural phenomena like the northern lights, many people believed spirits lived among them. The animism of the Inuit takes many forms — in song, storytelling, and dance, particularly in the Uaarnernaq, or the Mask Dance, the oldest expression of storytelling in the country.

To prepare for this dance, the dancers will paint their faces red, white, and black before deforming their shape by sticking animal bones in their mouths. The effect is creepy, odd, and surreal, as if the normal woman sitting next to you an hour before is now part animal, part Bedlam inmate.

And then the dance begins and the effect is … chilling.

“The most important part of the dance is to teach children about fear,” Makka said. “So children will learn how to deal with fear — and if they learn how to do that, they will become strong human beings.”

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The dances and customs aren’t just relegated to the National Theatre.

Mikael Sorensen, a Danish chef and brewmaster at Daddy’s, a local bar in Nuuk, is married to an Inuit and said, “People do this dance a lot during family vacations, Christmas, holidays, or anniversaries. One member of the family will disappear, come back in the mask outfit and face, and scare the s— out of everyone — before throwing money around and playing with the kids. At my wedding the dancers showed up. I had no idea what was going on — I was like, ‘What the heck?’ and was about to throw them out and my wife was like, ‘No! No — it’s good!’”

But the storytelling doesn’t end with the dance. It also involves local people.

Traditionally, a long time ago, before modern conveniences, when an Inuit became elderly and was of no use or a burden on the community, he or she would take the Long Walk — simply walk out into the glacial wilderness and disappear. While most are presumed dead, Makka added, “Sometimes they survive, and we believe the ones that do gain supernatural powers, but most die within half a year. You cannot survive out there on your own.”

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These days, the Long Walk is rarely done and is reserved for people who have done something abhorrent and shamed their family.

Mikael added, “Yes, I have heard of two people who did [the Long Walk] in the last year. I knew one of them personally. He had a daughter with his girlfriend and then had sex with the daughter so he was shunned and he left on the Long Walk. No one has heard from him since.”

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