Yesterday was a rather special day. We had the opportunity to see a part of Greenland that not many visitors have been to yet. Sarfannguit is a town accessible only by boat ride through a choppy fjord cutting inland from Sisimiut. As a part of Greenland Science Week, we joined a small group of other professionals to share projects about Greenlandic heritage with the citizens of Sarfannguit.
Sitting about 35 km from the city of Sisimiut, the settlement of Sarfannguit is located inside the new UNESCO World Heritage area. Back in summer of 2018, UNESCO inscribed the Aasivissuit-Nipisat cultural landscape. This Inuit hunting ground has been shaped by human activity for over 4,200 years. From the ice cap to the sea, the landscape is the newest of three UNESCO sites in Greenland. It is only in beginning stages of being ready for visitors. Being a living community inside the site gives inhabitants of Sarfannguit a unique position. It also means they should be involved in the development of cultural heritage associated with their home. Currently, work to develop sustainable and responsible tourism is underway. One plan is to reroute the Arctic Circle Trail, a legendary 160km (~100 miles) backcountry trail that the adventurous sort love to hike. Slight changes in the trail will bring visitors into the UNESCO World Heritage area and to Sarfannguit. It also may allow travel by all-terrain vehicles. In a few years, this small community without a single place to spend the night may look much different.
The day was perfect for water travel. The sun was shining and the wind was calm. We boarded a small boat and powered through the fjord. Its not a ride for those easily sea-sick, but it also wasn’t particularly horrible. The only uncomfortable moment came when the boat started beeping angrily….and then stopped. Those driving it huddled around the control panel, scratching their heads. My stomach sank, as I look around and saw nothing but icy waves and desolate mountains. I didn’t have the chance for full panic to set in, as it took only a couple of minutes to start the boat back up. But it did make me very aware of how much bigger of a concern something like boat engine trouble can be here. I can’t even imagine what its like if you’re out when an unexpected storm rolls in. You are more at the mercy of nature here in Greenland.
As the boat pulled up to Sarfannguit, we were greeted with an incredible site. A gathering of colorful houses belonging to roughly 90 inhabitants were perched on rock formations. There is not a spot in town lacking the breathtaking view. Flocks of seagulls sunned themselves on the rock outcrops and little fishing boats bobbed up and down in the calm waves. We carefully unloaded onto the icy dock and were thankful to see someone had come down to the shore with an ATV to ferry up equipment. From the boat launch, it was a steep climb up to the main part of town, but each step brought a new aspect of the unforgettable views into focus.
We set up the 3D workshop in the town's schoolhouse but only had a few visitors. We rather expected this, since we were there during the day on Friday. I did have the opportunity the get a quick interview with three different people I'm looking forward to sharing in a “Meeting the People of Greenland” post coming up.
After our workshop, we headed over to another community room where other researchers we traveled with were sharing their work with a small group from the community over coffee and sweets. Before we were due to board the boat back to Sisimiut, Alice and I took a walk to the top of the settlement. Up there we found the community burial ground, a helicopter pad, and a stunning art installation. The Qaammat Pavilion was constructed by Arcitect Konstantin Ikonomidis in 2019 to be part of the UNESCO landscape. The glass structure is made up of 5 tons of glass bricks and is placed in a spot that welcomes visitors arriving from that side of the fjord.
As the sun went down, we had to board the boat back to Sisimiut around 5:30. By then, night had fallen and we made our way down to the dock in darkness. As the boat pulled away, the settlement was barely visible, receding into its mountainous backdrop. We flew through the fjord back to Sisimiut. Halfway through the trip, we were rewarded with something Alice and I have been hoping for: an appearance of the northern lights. The sunny, clear day had procured perfect conditions for sighting the legendary phenomenon that lights up the northern world in winter months. As we journeyed through the fjord, green coils of lights moved through the sky. The boat captain graciously stopped when they were at their brightest, encouraging us to venture out of the warm cabin onto the back deck. The legend here in Greenland is that the dancing Northern Lights are football [soccer] players using severed human heads to play their game. You are warned never to whistle when the lights are out, least you invite the spirits down to collect your head. Needless to say, as we sat in wonder at the Aurora Borealis (and fiddled with our phones to see if capturing them was actually feasible), we were silent. No whistling to tempt fate that night.
This visit to Sarfannguit and my first experience with the new UNESCO World Heritage site left me with so many thoughts and so many questions. What is it like to grow up in such a small settlement, so physically distant from other communities? What will Sarfannguit be like in a few years, as the UNESCO site becomes more developed? How many tourists will come? Can Greenland protect this place and still share it with the world? How might the quickly changing climate affect the Inuit hunting ground? How might it impact the citizens of Sarfannguit? What challenges do all UNESCO World Heritage sites face, in their work to preserve human and natural history? Which of those challenges will be most pronounced for Greenlanders? Everything we talked about in my Applying Anthropology class about cultural heritage and public archaeology came rushing back. But teaching it as an abstract concept versus standing in it are two different experiences. Suddenly, the questions I always ask my students about protecting these unparalleled places of human and natural history felt so much more complex. And I don't have any answers.
I am an anthropology professor, writer, researcher and global traveler. This fall, I will be recording a research trip to Greenland as a virtual field trip for my students (and anyone else interested). Join us as we travel to the Arctic and learn about life in the far north.