Nunatsiaq Online
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic August 22, 2014 - 12:48 pm

Taissumani, Aug. 22

Inughuit Hunters and the Thule Act

KENN HARPER

The Thule Act was a unique piece of legislation passed by a group of Inughuit hunters in the Thule District of northern Greenland, without recourse to, or permission from, any national government.

Knud Rasmussen had established his Thule Station, a trading post, in the district in 1909. The Danish government, which controlled west Greenland north only as far as Melville Bay, had no presence in the district, and could exert no authority over the people there. Rasmussen, in fact, was a benevolent law unto himself.

He ran his trading post, really an excuse to be in the district and conduct scientific and ethnographic research, as unobtrusively as possible. He provided the Inuit with the trade goods that they had become accustomed to through years of sporadic trading with whalers and members of the Peary expeditions. And he respected the Inuit ways.

Rasmussen could foresee that change would eventually come to the district. He wanted to safeguard the native population from disruption as much as possible. In 1925 the Danish parliament asked Rasmussen to cede the Cape York District to Danish colonial authority. But Rasmussen refused.

Instead he assisted the Inughuit leaders in establishing a Hunter’s Council in the district, a means of settling disputes and establishing authority in this no-man’s land.

On June 7, 1929, the Hunters’ Council adopted the “Thule Act” — the “Laws of the Cape York Station Thule.” This Act laid out rules of conduct according to customary Inughuit practice. Rights of movement, hunting and living in the entire district were codified in the Act.

Article 5 ensured that Inughuit hunters participated in all decision-making about their territory. The Hunters’ Council was the only body with the legal authority to make laws and propose initiatives which would impact on the local way of life. In its preamble, the act declared that “all members of the Tribe constitute the society, and the society speaks through the Hunters’ Council.”

Unlike what passes for consensus in today’s bureaucracy-bedeviled northern governments, this was a true consensus government in which decisions were reached through lengthy discussion and eventual agreement.

What is more amazing is that the Thule Act was ratified by the Danish parliament two years later. This meant, in fact, that the Danish parliament accepted the legitimacy of the Hunters’ Council and its right to pass legislation relevant to the Thule District. 

Even in 1937, when an agreement was reached transferring the Thule Station to the Danish authorities, it was acknowledged that all that was being transferred was the trading station.

In fact, the Danish Prime Minister went so far as to write a note to the chairman of the Hunters’ Council saying that “the takeover by the State of the trading station at Thule… does not affect the present legal position of the district.” This left all rights laid down in the Thule Act still under the jurisdiction of the Inughuit.

In 1953, when the Danish government unilaterally relocated 116 Inughuit from Uummannaq to Qaanaaq at the behest of the United States, it was in contravention of the Thule Act, which remained in force until 1964.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Email this story to a friend... Print this page... Bookmark and Share

 THIS WEEK’S ADS

 ADVERTISING


        


Custom Search