U.S. Offering Greenlanders a Deal They May Find Hard to Refuse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an icebound land with just one person for every 15 square miles and no industry ever to have blighted the backdrop of majestic icebergs and emerald glaciers, one would hardly expect to stumble upon this ghost town.

Here, on a mossy saddle of rock overlooking a frozen bay of breathtaking beauty, stand two dozen sturdy wooden houses, a handful of sod hovels and a graveyard, all silent testimony to a cultural trespass half a century ago.

This was the northernmost hunting village of Greenland's indigenous people until Denmark consigned it to U.S. authorities for the Thule Air Base in 1951, when this vast Arctic island was subject to Danish colonial rule and the Inuits were regarded as a backward society blocking the way of Western progress.

Pituffik is still empty today, save the smashed bottles and rubbish left over the years by partying vandals from the nearby air base. Its last Inuit inhabitants were expelled in 1953 to a purpose-built town 80 miles north at Qaanaaq, and the Danish government recently paid the survivors a symbolic sum of $70,000 total in compensation for their displacement.

'Star Wars' Figures In

But in a world buffeted by shifting security challenges and sensitivities about historical justice, new life may once again stir this abandoned hamlet as U.S. politicians seeking a shield against nuclear attacks by "rogue" nations ponder ways of easing Inuit opposition to any role in the revived "Star Wars" project.

U.S. plans for a national missile defense, or NMD, would require a major technological upgrade of Thule's existing radars, and Greenland's Inuits fear that front-line involvement in the project so adamantly opposed by Russia would transform their peaceful territory into ground zero.

Both Greenland's home-rule government and officials in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, which retains control over security and foreign affairs, insist that any NMD role for Thule must be agreeable to Russia. And although they are unlikely to be bargained out of that position, they are heartened by Washington's newfound willingness to talk about return of this land.

Inuits still make up nearly 90% of Greenland's 56,000 population, and despite the near extinction of the traditional hunting lifestyle elsewhere on the huge island, they want Pituffik back so that they can resume trapping and fishing on its bountiful shores.

"In the last few years, the Inuits have been asking for the peninsula back, and we are amenable to doing that," confirms Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Vic Warzinski. "The peninsula is not part of the Thule base proper. There are some concerns about security, but we think they are workable."

Negotiations between Greenland and U.S. State Department officials began in April, continued in June and resume in September. And although the talks have no deadline for agreement, Warzinski indicates that some transfer seems likely in the not-too-distant future.

The U.S. change of heart has nothing to do with plans to build NMD, the Pentagon spokesman insists. But the Greenlanders assume that Washington's sudden willingness to resolve a 47-year-old point of contention is inspired by the controversial project, and they are happy to indulge the U.S. posture that Pituffik may be returned without strings attached.

"This is a chance to get our old hunting and burial grounds back," says Qaanaaq Mayor Lars Feremiassen, acknowledging that ordinary Greenlanders pay little heed to the push and pull of global politics but hold dear any stretch of land where their forefathers roamed. "This is an important area for both fox and walrus, and its loss has been a blow to our traditions and our economy."

Pituffik and Dundas, an adjacent settlement named after a promontory rising above the ice blanket, were emptied of their last 150 inhabitants at a time when fears of the Soviet Union compelled the United States to expand Thule and post a wary watch from what airmen here still call "the top of the world."

The Inuits were expelled to provide a security zone around the base, which, in the depths of the Cold War, was bristling with radar and missiles and the nervous bustle of 10,000 troops.

But as weaponry advanced and physical proximity began playing less of a role in the placement of security forces by the late 1960s, the missiles were decommissioned and the base scaled back as an early-warning outpost.

Today, Thule is home to 600 people, many of them civilians from Denmark or Greenland whose jobs involve the military and commercial air traffic at the base, which is the only airport in the far north.

"I don't see any reason why this can't be given back to Greenland. It's no good to anyone like this," says Jan Thrysoe, a Dane who works for Greenland's home-rule government as a liaison with Thule, gesturing to the empty houses with sagging roofs and broken windows. "There's no real security issue anymore, and I don't think the Greenlanders will actually want to move back here. They just want to be able to follow their prey."

Few Live Life of Yore

Qaanaaq has survived its 47-year exile to become the Greenlanders' last bastion for traditional hunting and fishing, be that amid the incursions of Western consumerism.

The few houses still habitable in Pituffik could never accommodate a mass return of the community, now numbering 650, but most of Qaanaaq's Inuits have adapted to a lifestyle more akin to their Scandinavian rulers and have no intention of resuming the lifestyle of yore.

"We are becoming more Danish with each passing year," says Hans Jensen, an Inuit who, with his wife and daughters, runs Qaanaaq's five-room hotel, the only place that can feed or accommodate outsiders. While he offers whale and seal meat as exotic entrees for foreign visitors, the usual nightly fare for the Jensen family is roast pork with potatoes.

Frank Angmalortok, a 35-year-old hunter and dog-sled driver, lives poised between ancient tradition and modern comfort. Though decked in polar-bear breeches and sealskin boots as he urges his huskies over the frozen seas surrounding Qaanaaq, bows to modernity can be seen in his reflector sunglasses and the can of Coca-Cola he pulls from his pocket during a respite.

"People want the hunting grounds back, but it would be hard to live there," says the bachelor, who lives with his parents in a prefabricated wooden house. "There are too few of us now who live only from hunting, and even we are dependent on the Danish government for much of what we have."

Greenland's economy is based almost exclusively on exports of seafood and modest trade in indigenous handicrafts such as jewelry and hunting implements fashioned from walrus tusk. Those livelihoods provide partial sustenance and income, but the cost of maintaining Western services such as education and transportation means that the world's biggest island depends on $350 million in annual subsidies from the Danish mainland.

Those in Qaanaaq and remote encampments too small to qualify for village status and for the public services that come with it are additionally dependent on the largess of Thule authorities to travel any farther south than they can go by foot or dog sled.

Planes and helicopters from state-owned Greenlandair are the only means of getting around the island. Cars and trucks are available to those wealthy enough to have them shipped in, but they are of limited use in what is essentially a frozen archipelago. Greenland's longest road runs only four miles through Nuuk, the capital, and year-round snow and ice prevent construction of land routes among the protectorate's 21 towns and settlements.

The lack of infrastructure in the far-flung "islands" also has hindered the development of tourism in Greenland, which the government hopes to tap gradually as it inches toward eventual separation from Denmark.

"Someday, after a very long time, we may be independent," says Einar Lemche, a home-rule representative in Copenhagen. "For the time being, the pressure is more for handling our own matters."

Foremost among the concerns Greenlanders have about their limited sovereignty are the unresolved issues connected to Thule, Lemche says. Greenland has had autonomy in all spheres except foreign and military policy since 1979, but home-rule Prime Minister Jonathan Motzfeldt in Nuuk has insisted that his government deal directly with U.S. authorities over the fate of Pituffik.

Like many Greenlanders, Lemche points to a 1968 incident, in which a B-52 aircraft with four hydrogen bombs on board crashed six miles from the end of Thule's runway into the sea, as reason to be wary of what amounts to foreign occupation. Two of the weapons were recovered by U.S. divers, he says, but the people of Greenland have never been informed of what dangers lurk just off this disputed shore.

Greenlanders have joined other Inuits of the Arctic Council--an eight-nation collective seeking to secure the rights and traditions of the north's indigenous peoples--in warning that their fears of NMD should be heeded.

"We insist that any agreement to establish such a shield should involve direct talks with us, and we have strong political pressures to exert, even if not legal options," says the council's executive secretary and Greenland delegate, Tove Soevndahl Petersen. "Greenlanders would be worried if they knew they were targets for attack."

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