I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
An experiment in social engineering played havoc with the lives of a group of Inuit (formerly known as Eskimos) children from Greenland.
The New Greenlanders
In 1951, bureaucrats in Denmark conjured up a way to modernize Greenland, in a plan proposed by the charity Save the Children Denmark.
As the BBC reports “Denmark had resolved to improve living conditions in its Arctic colony. Many people still made a living by hunting seal, only a small percentage spoke Danish, and tuberculosis was widespread.” There was also the territorial imperative of securing the strategic frontline in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
The plan, although founded on good intentions, was horribly misguided.
Priests and teachers working with Inuit families were asked to pick out intelligent children between the ages of six and 10. These kids were to be part of an experiment in social engineering.
The children were supposed to be orphans but there was a noticeable shortage of kids without families so those with parents were recruited. Parents were told their special children were to be taken to Denmark where they would receive a top quality education.
Einar Lund Jensen, with the National Museum of Denmark, wrote a report on the project. The goal was to give us your children for a while and we will return them as newly minted “Little Danes;” a cohort of leaders ready to steer Greenland into the modern era.
Parents were reluctant to give up their children (Oh, what a surprise), but the prospects for a happy and fulfilling life in Greenland didn't look good, so 21 families bought into the promise of a brighter future for their offspring. Researchers say it's likely some parents never understood what they were agreeing to.
Inuit in Foster Homes
The children were placed in foster homes in Denmark but most seemed to have been unhappy; they were disoriented, homesick, and didn't understand why they had been separated from their families.
Helene Thiesen recalled for the BBC about her placement: “I didn't feel welcome in that family. I just felt like a stranger. The mother had mental health problems and lay in bed all the time.” Fortunately, she was moved to a more suitable foster family.
The lives of the Inuit children were recorded in a weekly news magazine. In one report, it noted in the paternalistic tone common to the era, “The way of life here in Denmark is so different from what these children of nature are accustomed to but their ability to adapt is remarkable. Disagreements—caused by their reaction to civilisation—happen very rarely.”
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The youngsters spent the first four months in Denmark at a holiday camp. They were not allowed to speak their native languages—only Danish—in a process of cultural eradication.
After a year, most of the children were sent back to Greenland. Ms. Thiesen remembers hugging her mother and babbling about her experiences and then realizing her mother understood nothing of what she was telling her; she had lost her Greenlandic dialect and her mother did not speak Danish.
Return to Greenland
Ms. Thiesen's sad reunion with her mother underscores the downside of this program. It created a group of people that struggled to find out where it belonged; its members were neither Danes nor Greenlanders, and they were still just children. The authorities decided to place them in a Red Cross orphanage in Nuuk, Greenland's capital.
Tara John at CNN writes that “The orphanage was where 16 of the children lived. They were only allowed to speak Danish, were put in a Danish-speaking school, and contact with their families was limited or non-existent.”
It seems whoever was behind the program to create Greenland's leadership cadre lost interest in it. The children remained at the orphanage until they were old enough to head out into the world.
Most returned to Denmark and some struggled psychologically. According to a 2020 government report “half the children later experienced mental health problems or alcohol abuse. There were cases of homelessness and 'rootless lives.' Most died relatively early and one took their own life.”
There are now only half a dozen left and, in March 2022, they finally received news they would be compensated for what they went through. This is coupled with an official apology from Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
- Canada had a program that aimed, in the words of the country's first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, to “take the Indian out of the child.” For 140 years, children were forcibly removed from their Aboriginal parents and placed in residential schools that were operated by religious orders. The children were subjected to widespread emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and suffered very high mortality rates made worse by suicides. You can read more about this here.
- The “Sixties Scoop” is the name given to the period in the 1960s when many First Nations children were removed from their families and adopted “into predominantly non-Indigenous, middle-class families across the United States and Canada. This experience left many adoptees with a lost sense of cultural identity. The physical and emotional separation from their birth families continues to affect adult adoptees and Indigenous communities to this day” (Canadian Encyclopedia).
- “The Children Taken from Home for a Social Experiment.” Ellen Otzen, BBC World Service, June 10, 2015.
- “How a Failed Social Experiment in Denmark Separated Inuit Children from Their Families.” Tara John, CNN, January 14, 2022.
- “Lost Lives of Greenland's Inuit Children Uprooted by Denmark.” Adrienne Murray, BBC News, March 9, 2022.
- “Failed Danish Social Experiment Haunts Greenlandic Survivors Taken from Families 70 Years ago.” CBC Radio, February 15, 2022.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor