But this morning, on the first day of summer 2009, the mood in Nuuk is jubilant: Greenland is celebrating the start of a new era. In November 2008 its citizens voted overwhelmingly for increased independence from Denmark, which has ruled Greenland in some form since 1721. The change is to become official this morning in a ceremony at Nuuk's harbor, the heart of the old colonial town. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark will formally acknowledge the new relationship between her country and Kalaallit Nunaat, as the locals call their homeland.
Per Rosing, a slender 58-year-old Inuit man with a gentle manner and a graying black ponytail, conducts the Greenland National Choir. "I'm just happy, totally happy," he says, putting a hand over his heart as we walk with a large crowd toward the harbor, down streets still wet from last night's freezing rain and snow. People are streaming out of Block P, Nuuk's biggest apartment building, which alone houses about one percent of Greenland's population. Its windowless, concrete end has become a frame for a defiantly optimistic work of art: a four-story-tall, white-and-red Greenlandic flag. A local artist sewed the flag with the help of schoolchildren from hundreds of articles of clothing.
By 7:30 people are packed shoulder to shoulder on the dock. Others perch on the roofs of old wooden homes around the harbor; a few watch from kayaks, paddling just enough to stay put in calm, metallic-looking water. The ceremony begins with the choir singing Greenland's national anthem, "Nunarput Utoqqarsuanngoravit—You, Our Ancient Land." Rosing turns to the crowd and gestures for everyone to join in. As of today, Kalaallisut, an Inuit dialect, is the official Greenlandic language, supplanting Danish.
Then, shortly after eight o'clock, the Danish queen, wearing the traditional Inuit garb of a married woman—red, thigh-high, sealskin boots, or kamiks, a beaded shawl, and seal-fur shorts—presents the new self-government charter to Josef Tuusi Motzfeldt, the speaker of Greenland's Parliament. The crowd cheers, and a cannon fires on a hill above the harbor, sending a pressure wave through us like a shared infusion of adrenaline.
Under the new charter, Denmark still manages Greenland's foreign policy; the annual subsidy continues as well. But Greenland now exerts greater control over its own domestic affairs—and in particular, over its vast mineral resources. Without them, there's no chance that Greenland could ever become economically independent. Right now fishing accounts for more than 80 percent of Greenland's export income; shrimp and halibut are the mainstays. While halibut stocks are holding steady, shrimp populations have dropped. Royal Greenland, the state-owned fishing company, is bleeding money.