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Travel

Sittin' On Top Of The World!

My grandmother Arnaluak was born in Greenland in 1933. She grew up in a small arctic Eskimo society with her mom, stepdad, and three older brothers.
August 2, 2007, 12:00am

PHOTOS AND TEXT BY CAMILLA STEPHAN

y grandmother Arnaluak was born in Greenland in 1933. She grew up in a small arctic Eskimo society with her mom, stepdad, and three older brothers. They lived in houses made of stones and soil, and hunted seals and polar bears for food and clothing. There was no such thing as running water or electricity.

As a young girl she met a Danish man who was employed at the international weather station near her village. Despite his employer’s laws against mingling with the locals and their vastly different cultural backgrounds, the two of them fell in love. At just 16 years of age, she boarded a small vessel heading for Denmark with him. About 50 rough days at sea later they arrived ashore to discover she was pregnant.

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Despite my gran not being able to speak Danish, the two of them decided to settle there, get married, and raise my mother. A couple of decades later came a little bundle of joy known as “me.” While I grew up in Denmark, my grandmother’s three brothers stayed in Greenland and established their own families there.

At the end of last year I went back to Qaanaaq, Greenland, to visit them all and find out a bit more about my roots. I discovered a few important things during the trip, but chief among them was that a) it’s fucking freezing in Greenland, b) they eat some gross stuff, and c) I love my family.

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This guy looks like he’s working at a meat-processing factory but he actually just got married and this is his wedding feast. This is pretty much one of the main reasons for my trip. His name is Ole Peter Nielsen and he’s wearing the traditional Greenlandic wedding outfit, complete with white anorak, pants made of polar bear fur, and sealskin boots. Pants like this are hard to come by. Polar bears are extremely dangerous and if you meet one you have to shoot it before it kills you. Here, Ole is eating raw reindeer flavored with Knorr seasoning. The day after this photo was taken, his wife’s grandfather, my uncle Jakob, died.

Before we left Jakob’s wife, Miviskuk, alone with her dead husband, she asked me to take a photo of them together.

My uncle was taken to the hospital because he had problems breathing. He was my grandmother’s older brother. I got to the hospital a short time after he died, and found him lying in a small room, still wearing his sealskin boots. He was surrounded by his whole family and everybody was crying a lot. As soon as I entered the room I started to cry as well. Even though I didn’t know him well it was still really sad.

A few days later they held the funeral. The churchyard was situated a little bit away from the village and we traveled there on foot behind the coffin. The dead man’s grandson carried the cross and placed it on the grave.

Due to the frozen soil, the grave could only be dug by a jackhammer. Four men covered the coffin with soil and a small bunch of colorful plastic flowers was placed on top. Real flowers would die almost instantly in the intense cold of the Greenlandic air.