Puju: a language warrior

Jason George & Christopher Booker, for the Pulitzer Center

SISIMIUT, Greenland — Growing up here in the 1940s, Carl Christian Olsen came of age as the Greenlandic language and culture were in crisis. After nearly two hundred years of colonial control, Denmark made sure that schools here taught Danish first. The nomadic way of Inuit living had been long lost, replaced with a hybrid hunting-modern existence. (In the 1800s Denmark shipped Greenlanders to Copenhagen to learn how to build wooden houses since no one in Greenland had any idea how to construct the foreign abodes.) The Americans too had arrived in force, manning several large air bases during the World War II era. The Americans had even built facilities in the county's remote north, where Inuit had lived largely undisturbed for thousands of years. Facing his own future, Olsen worried about Greenland's prospects.

And so as he went to college in Denmark—Greenland then had no university—he chose linguistics, believing Greenland's own language was worth saving. "The only thing they couldn't kill was the language and we are proud of that symbol as part of our identity. It's part of our historical documentation." Still, his decision left many friends scratching their heads. "Why not choose a more productive study like historian or doctor?" he remembers them asking. The answer could be found in his upbringing in this west coast fishing village.

"My grandmother and then my mother and most of my family here they would only speak Greenlandic, and they are very enlightened people in the Greenlandic sense, knowing a lot of historic Greenland, the way of living as Inuit," he said in English. "They are proud of it. They are not really disturbed by the type of propaganda Denmark was doing to [claim that] Danish is kind of a better language for Greenlanders. We didn't really believe that in my family."

After school in Denmark, Olsen continued his linguistic graduate studies in Alaska, Illinois and Ohio. This being the 1960s, Olsen was doing a lot more than just studying syntax. "I was watching the civil rights movement in the United States."

Olsen brought that activism back to Greenland and began to fight for his country and its language. He marched in Copenhagen. He advocated for Home Rule, Denmark's 1979 decision to let Greenland manage some of its own affairs.

"Greenlandic identity is not intolerance but affirming the Greenlandic Inuit background added with the Danish and English cultural background," Olsen said.

Working as a teacher, Olsen taught Inuit poetry and created a class called "Arctic History before 1492," which he shared not only to indigenous teenagers in Greenland, but in Alaska as well. Such work across the arctic formed the basis for the cooperation now seen among the region's peoples. Olsen was instrumental in creating ICC, which unites and lobbies for Inuit people's rights in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia. "It's your history. It's your identity," he said.

Today Olsen is the director of the Oqaasileriffik or Language Secretariat, a quasi-governmental organization tasked with protecting and promoting Greenlandic within the country. His office sits within the University of Greenland, which he also helped found. In addition to language policy the Secretariat oversees the naming of places within the country and even new baby names. (Greenlanders frown on naming babies after living persons except members the Danish royal family. The practice stems from an Inuit belief that those babies would drain the life force of the person they're named after.)

Since Greenlandic became the country's lone official language earlier this year you might suspect Olsen finally felt the fight was over, although he hasn't let up. "I'm happy we've been reaching so much even though we are just 50,000 people," he said. But "what we are waiting for is the political backing and then the implementation."

"If you look around at the towns in Greenland you'll see that Danish is still very obvious." Indeed, strolls through Sisimiut with Olsen and University of Chicago Professor Lenore Grenoble reveals that much signage remains in Danish. As Olsen points these occurrences out he's often interrupted by shouts of "Puju!" from passersby. (Greenlanders love nicknames and Olsen acquired his, which means "smoke," during a cigarette-smoking phase in high school.) On these walks, Olsen's face hangs in a permanent pout, although when he interacts with old friends, in Greenlandic, a smile quickly appears on his face. He loves the language and doesn't see its promotion hindering Greenland's integration into the modern world.

"We are still in this tradition where you don't really use Greenlandic at the university level but it's coming. It's on the way," he said. "The ideal would be that you'd be able to use it in all the main areas."

And then? "You would be able to land on the moon speaking Greenlandic."

See the video Greenlandic & Climate Change from Christopher Booker & Jason George on Vimeo.