OQAATSUT is a small village in the West Greenland. It is located on a peninsula looking towards the Disko Bay. To the nearest city there are 14 kilometers to travel mainly by the sea but on the winter people often use the dog sledges
The village is one of the five settlements which still are left in Illulissat district. Fifteen earlier settlements are abandoned for different reasons.
When I visited Oqaatsut the second time in 1995 it still had 63 inhabitants. The amount people living in Oqaatsut is declining. The population counted only 29 in the year 2020.
Oqaatsut, Greenland – a colonial relict of Denmark.
Where do we live on Earth? Everywhere we can. People do settle where ever it’s possible to feed one self and get a shelter. In Greenland it begun in waves.
Oqaatsut is a small village of barely fifty inhabitants. Its entire telephone directory fits on one page of my notebook. It was built on a narrow headland enclosing a bay suitable as a harbor. Early Dutch whalers also called it Rodebay, the blood-red bay.
The journey by sea to the southern town of Ilulissat is fourteen kilometers. Visible beyond the distant western horizon are the white peaks of Disko Island. On broad Disko Bay before it, icebergs, driven to and fro by wind and currents, slowly crowd out to sea.
The village and its surroundings stand on bedrock scoured by perpetual ice. Snow, which can easily illuminate the landscape even in the dark, is slow in coming. The rock is hard and dark, the ice covering it dark and slick. Movement becomes difficult in such slipperiness. I fell right at my front door while seeing to it that cod drying on a line were not hung so low that the dogs could eat them.
Stria in the hills stop water, which freezes. The bedrock has features resembling internal organs – kidneys, livers, the site of a frozen pond like a half-emptied bladder. Arches and concaves, the slowly evolving softness of hard rock.
The fur covering of the bedrock is sparse, sere grasses and the vanished blossoms of summer. On every side the rock shows wounds and contusions, reminders of the long past. Greenland is an ice-bellied beast whose swimming is impeded by a band of ice-bound mountains.
In twenty years the population of Oqaatsut has declined by more than half. In this century sixteen of the twenty villages in the Ilulissat or Jakobshavn region have vanished. An attempt was made to turn the Inuit into Danes. The towns fill and the villages continue to empty. The young go to school, and reside, in Ilulissat; only the fundamentals are taught in the village.
As is the way with contemporary cultures, even that of Greenland is gradually slipping toward the global economy. That which was once one’s own and inevitable is now manufactured for tourists longing for the exotic. The mythical distance to Eskimo cultures is even greater than the geographical one.
Tupilaks have disappeared, the church fears Satanists, but no one realizes that the Devil doesn’t enter through the front door. In living rooms an altar has already been set up, one that opens eyes to a new world that is not local in any other sense but that it is everywhere, and everywhere the same: the alien eye staring in the corner, the far-off gaze, the television set.
The stranger is permanently established on the island. The indigenous may never have existed. Humanity is a mover in many senses. From somewhere far off the Inuit, or The People, came here and stayed. The journey continues, with the people themselves no longer moving.
Of all those living in the village I live closest to the dead right beside the graveyard. There is a hole ready for Grandmother Rosbach. Gravestones wait on the upper slope. We have been transporting the corpse from Ilulissat for three days, but the storm doesn’t appear to want to let up. We don’t dare bring it for fear of drowning.
On December 10 Kirstine Olrik Rosback is buried. ‘In. 8 dec 1908 toq 5 dec 1995 naalagaq paarsisigaara simiittaraangama.’ Her life in brief, written on a grave marker. Five days earlier she was dead. If the three-day wait due to the stormy weather is counted, the burial took place quickly.
Mathias conducted the funeral. Merchant and clergyman. He already has considerable experience; a three-week training in the catechism in Sisimiut in the year 1978.
Often only initials are inscribed on the burial crosses: RO, AO, KO, and farther off a smaller grave, PO. Najakkuluk said that the names are not always written out in full because, in any case, everyone knows who lies where. I heard from Gerthilt who the paired letters belong to: Regine Olrik, Albert Olrik, Kathrine Olrik and (Niels-) Peter Olrik.
Everyone says there is dried cod in the KNI store, but the shopkeeper claims there isn’t. Maybe Mathias doesn’t care to sell any to me. Cod would taste better now than the roasted almonds I buy. The majority of goods arrive by regular supply ship. Life in Greenland is not self-sufficient.
The independence of a nation determines the nationality of the candy on sale. In Greenland it is Danish. Twenty years ago departure from Copenhagen took place through the domestic terminal. Now this country, though it belongs to Denmark, is a foreign land to it. The onward flight to Ilulissat was by helicopter then, the municipal airport wasn’t completed until later that same year.
The aurora borealis shows largely in the south, not in the north, where I looked for it. The landscapes and quarters of the compass differ from those back home. The world teaches us until we´re blind, because we have to get by somewhere, not everywhere.
Before the moon rises, it is dark. The village streetlamps have not functioned for several days. Maasi says there’s a line down.
Maasi has an electric guitar with no strings. He could get some from town. Tage has learned to play his organ by ear. The ear copies what it hears around it – Christmas music for Danish tastes.
What happiness four hours of daylight can bring. And what sadness its absence. All around there is only synthetic light in the otherwise total darkness. Light becomes ever clumsier in human hands. A light bulb is, though, a scale model of the sun, the fluorescent light a human invention; a fader of life.
I know what the season of darkness is like. It is a long night divided by a few hours of daily twilight. Soon I will have been here a month, though only half that has passed. Am I in Greenland too briefly to know what Greenland is? A month is a short time; what about a winter, or four? Or fifty-four human years?
Time in its lengthening means nothing. Sometimes even one night is as long as a thousand books. The moment does not, and cannot, end, but night brings an end to day, and finishes it off. Day ends in night, though nightlessness is the night of dreams. Should I be pondering time when such lovely snow is falling? Angora snow.
The emptying of the outhouse failed. I figured the incoming and outgoing tides wrong. The dogs attacked the leavings. I had to chase them off. Knud Rasmussen’s friend Peter Freuchen even wrote about the canine craving for shit.
I tried to save a garbage bag, though I’d already bought new ones. It remained undamaged and I tried to put it back in the container. I soiled my gloves; it made me angry. I had to toss the bag into the incinerator, with a chunk of ice on top so the wind wouldn’t carry it off to the village.
Handwork and the wages associated with it are calculated in the village hall. The building is a modest wind shelter clearly made years ago from a dwelling. The office space is filled with people and its air with the smoke of strong tobacco.
There is something sad about placing a cash value on one’s own work. A sealskin hat finds its way to a strayed tourist, who pays a small sum for it. This is called international relations.
No one understands the beauty of the women’s mittens made by Berth. They don’t understand the wisdom of Najakkuluk’s thinking. Or the versatility of Malene’s gifts. They know nothing of Martine. Each party in industrial tourism remains unknown to the other, an encounter that never takes place.
It may be fortunate that they never meet personally. Personality is gone from the world, the seeing of another; the folk being has market value, when the object is merely profit, everyone loses.
Today I’m on a fast from work. I’ve taken one picture, only because visibility is long-distance. There’s no real traffic or industry here to restrict the landscape.
There are always doorless moments from which there is no exit. Jaaku awaits information on a job in the new oil fields. He can’t understand those who stay in the village. The village is dead, he says. Jaaku has worked elsewhere, in Denmark and on the American military base.
‘Vi drømmer,’ Jaaku answers when I ask what they do. He was going off to booze with his buddies, and I didn’t feel like crashing the party. Not used to such things, Jaaku fell asleep half-way through the evening. The others woke him only after all the beer, wine and vodka had been drunk.
Jaaku can’t stand the fact that Juaat and Niisi have been drinking over the last few days. It bothers him even more that it’s happening just before Christmas. He wants them to seek help, but there’s no forcing them.
On my first visit to Greenland, in 1984, I felt myself to be Greenland’s biggest alcohol problem. My Swedish companion Timo and I drank as if we had no bodies from the throat down. One infernal evening we were so tanked up to our earlobes that we had to order more boozing funds all the way from Helsinki.
A storm rose in a few minutes without warning. Unless the complete quiet before the storm may be considered warning. That morning huge snowflakes fell, increasing with the force of the wind to a dense air-borne porridge. The wind brought along chill needle snow from the sky.
The surface of the water broke up into a million dark mirrors whose gloominess the white crests of breaking waves merely heightened. A succession of high waves began to turn a floating iceberg toward shore. It continued its rolling motion with increasing force until I expected it to return to the same position where the waves had encountered it. It eventually turns over, and when an iceberg capsizes, it’s like the earth itself tipping over.