13 minute read


Importance of Kinship

Kalaallit Nunaat, the Greenlanders' Land, is separated from the eastern Canadian Arctic on the west by Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, and Nares Strait, and from Iceland, on the east, by Denmark Strait. Through the ages, peoples from the northern parts of North America, Scandinavia, and Europe have migrated to Greenland, while others, most notably Scottish, English, and Dutch whalers, have frequented the country in times past.

The ancestors of the present-day Inuit, Greenland's indigenous people, first arrived in the country from the Canadian Arctic around 4,500 years ago, hunting land mammals such as musk ox. Successive groups of Inuit migrants continued to harvest the living resources of both land and sea, including caribou, seals, whales, and walrus. Norse farming settlements flourished in south and southwest Greenland, from approximately 985 for almost 500 years. Early English explorers, such as Martin Frobisher and John Davis in the sixteenth century, met with groups of Inuit along the west coast. Pursuing the Greenland right whale, European whalers became regular visitors to the coasts of Greenland starting in the seventeenth century. Greenland was a Danish colony between 1721 and 1953, and an integral part of the Danish Kingdom from 1953 to 1979. During these periods significant numbers of Danes lived and made there homes there, as some 7,000 continue to do today.

As a result of the interactions, intermarriages, and fleeting liaisons between these Inuit, Nordic, and other European migrants and sojourners, a society with a rich cultural heritage has evolved. Greenland is thus situated between the new and old worlds in both a geographical and cultural sense. Today, around 83 percent of Greenland's 58,000 residents are Inuit, a people who share a common language and culture with the Inuit in Canada, Alaska, and the Russian Far East; the remainder are primarily Danes. In 1979, the people of Greenland achieved Home Rule from Denmark. Presiding over an autonomous territory within the Danish Kingdom, the Greenland Home Rule Government has complete legislative power over Greenland's internal affairs.

Anthropologists have generally agreed that kinship is the very foundation of Inuit social organization. In Greenland, kinship is both the basis for social relatedness and social organization, and the key organizing principle for hunting and fishing, which continue to be major activities for many people. However, in Greenland kinship is not simply biologically prescribed. This is immediately apparent to anyone who tries to collect genealogies, work out an individual's kin reckoning and family relationships, or simply listen to the way people use kinship terms in situations of both reference and address. The boundaries of kindred and descent-based groups, as Greenlanders define them, are shifting constantly, as are the interpersonal relationships that are defined in terms of kinship. Kinship and family relationships may appear to have distinct biological roots, but in practice they are flexible and integrate nonbiological social relationships that are considered as real as any biological relationship.

Kinship and family relationships are not always permanent states, and although it may be possible to talk of a kinship system in Greenland, it is a system that is inherently flexible and that allows extensive improvisation in that people can choose their kin. Throughout Greenland, social relationships tend to be defined in terms of being either kin or not kin. Kinship is multifaceted, embracing genealogy, consanguinity, affinity, friendship, name-sharing, birthday partners, age-sets, the living, and the dead. Kinship is bilateral, and the term for personal kindred or close extended family is ilaqutariit. The root of this word, ila-, means a part, or a companion, and a member of the ilaqutariit is called an ilaqutaq, someone who belongs. Individual households are suffixed with -kkut (e.g. Josepikkut—Josepi's household) and there are usually several -kkut in an ilaqutariit. People often distinguish between an ilaqutaq and an eqqarleq, someone who is a genealogical or affinal relative belonging to another ilaqutariit. Eqqarleq derives from eqqaq, meaning the immediate vicinity/area, or close to. As a form of address and reference eqqarleq is not necessarily always applied to distant kin, but its use depends on how a person defines his or her relationship with another person. One vitally important feature of kinship in Greenland is that kin and family relationships can be created if individuals choose to regard a nonkin relationship as something similar to a genealogical or affinal link. Just as people work out and define social relationships in terms of being based on kin or not, they can also decide how closely related they feel to someone. Although it may be rare to hear that somebody regards a sibling as an eqqarleq, an eqqarleq such as a second cousin's spouse may be regarded as a sibling by somebody and referred to as an ilaqutaq, even if those people have no consanguineal or affinal relationship.

Like many other Inuit communities, Greenlanders generally use kin terms in preference to personal names to refer to and address people regardless of any genealogical or affinal connection. To establish and continue a kinship relationship is easy enough—kin terms are simply used for both reference and address, and personal names are avoided in most situations of daily interaction. As forms of address, kin terms are used usually in the possessive: for example, ataataga (my father), paniga (my daughter). A man or a woman who regards his or her second cousin's (illuusaq) wife as a sister will use the appropriate kinship term (a man will call the woman either aleqa for older sister, or najak for younger sister; a woman will call her angaju for older sister, or nukaq for younger sister). The woman who is now regarded as a sister will reciprocate by using the appropriate kinship term for brother or sister (ani for older brother, or aqqaluk for younger brother; angaju or nukaq for older or younger sister). Such use of kin terms illustrates David Schneider's (1968) argument that the recording and listing of kinship terms does not mean that their designation will follow accordingly. Kin terms are symbols that allow for the imputation of idiosyncratic meaning and form part of a much larger set of symbols and implicit meanings that people use actively and consciously to construct the idea of community (Nuttall 1992).

Kinship and family relationships in Greenland are more accurately described as a complex network and intricate pattern of relationships that includes both the living and the dead (Nuttall 1994). When people die, their names (in Greenlandic atiit; singular ateq), their kinship relations, and their family relationships carry on in newborn children, so that people retain their social presence despite their physical absence. A person who is named after a dead person is called an atsiaq (plural atsiat), but the first same-sex child to be born after the death of another person is called that person's ateqqaataa. The dead person, who can have more than one atsiaq, is known as the atsiaq's aqqa. Aqqa is another word for name. In many Inuit societies in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, the name is not tied to either gender, and a child can receive the name of a deceased male or female. But in Greenland all personal names are gender-specific (because they are Danish names), and generally a child can only be named after a person of the same sex. This can cause problems if, say, a man whose name is Jens has died, and three girls are then born. Are people to wait until a baby boy is born? There will be concern that Jens's name will be cold, lonely, and homeless for too long. People can get around this potentially disturbing situation by calling one of the girls Jensine (usually the first to be born, if she has not yet received a name). However, a similar improvisation of naming does not occur if a woman dies, and a baby boy is born shortly after.

People continually define and bring into existence real relationships that are not based on biology (Nuttall 1992). Kinship is a cultural reservoir from which individuals draw items they can use to define and construct everyday social interaction. To understand kinship and family relationships in Greenland, it is important to focus on the meanings that individuals attribute to kinship terms and kinship terminologies, rather than accepting at face value that terminologies refer to strict genealogical relationships. Yet, although kinship is flexible, it is not formless. Nor are particular roles without obligation. Kinship in everyday Greenlandic life is all-pervasive: because kinship ties are reaffirmed or created through the naming of children after the deceased, or simply by applying a kin term to someone who may not be a biological relative, almost everyone can trace or establish some kind of kinship relationship with everyone else in their local communities, and often within a wider region. If a relationship does not exist, then one can be created. At the same time, people can deactivate kinship relationships if they regard them as unsatisfactory. Relationships can be created if people regard others as particular categories of kin, and at the same time, genealogical relationships can also be forgotten about if a person regards that relationship as unsatisfactory, uncomfortable, or strained (Guemple 1979; Nuttall 1992). Lee Guemple (1972a) has argued that this is made possible because of the negotiated nature of the Inuit kinship system. In this way genealogical relationships can be rendered obsolete or subordinated to other social relationships. In Greenland it is common to hear people talking about a member of their ilaqutariit as if they were actually an eqqarleq and vice versa. Other people may deny any kin connection whatsoever. In some cases, this may be because two members of an ilaqutariit may have fallen out.

This flexible nature of kinship in Greenland allows individuals the opportunity to move around a complex network of relationships, to reposition themselves and others how they see fit simply by regarding social relationships in term of kinship or nonkinship. The reasons for doing so are various, complex, often intensely personal, and sometimes pragmatic. There may be sexual reasons, or two people who have an especially strong friendship may commemorate it by turning it into a kinship relationship. More practical reasons for choosing one's kin may relate to subsistence activities, where a man may have no brothers but may need to depend on close male kin for participating in hunting and fishing activities. In this way, friends who help out may be regarded as kin and the relationship established with a kinship term. While the flexibility of the kinship system allows individuals to choose whom they want as their relative (or whom they do not want as a relative), it does not give them license to decide how they should behave with that person. An exception would be if two women who are cousins decide to discontinue that kinship connection by dropping the kin term, forgetting about the biological relationship, and using one another's personal name as a form of address; then the obligation to behave in a prescribed way will cease. If two unrelated persons wish to regard themselves as being like cousins, then they can establish that relationship by addressing one another with the kin term for cousin (illoq). But by doing so they must recognize that they are expected to behave as if they were cousins and must treat one another with respect and as equals, regardless of any age difference. If the two are men and are both hunters, then there may be certain obligations to share hunting equipment or to give catch-shares from large sea mammals, such as walrus or bearded seals, to each other's households.

To deny a kinship connection is a way for people to disown one another. A. C. Heinrich (1963) distinguished between optative and nonoptative categories of kinship. Optative kin can include anyone whom an individual wants to consider kin—opting for kinship—while nonoptative kin includes grandparents, parents, and siblings. People can fall in and out of the former category, but it is not really acceptable to deny the existence of one's parents, siblings, grandparents, and possibly aunts and uncles. Optative kinship networks are flexible to the point where incompatible relations between individuals can be remedied by substituting them for more effective and meaningful ones (Guemple 1979). In this way, unlike the situation described by Ernest Burch (1975) in northwest Alaska, biology does not structure kinship relationships and determine how people who are biologically related should behave towards one another. In Greenland, in contrast, kinship is not ascribed but a matter of choice. Unlike Guemple's observation that, for a group of Canadian Inuit, people become relatives if they reside in the same locality, maintain regular contact, and share game according to well-defined rules, Greenlanders do not forget kin if someone moves away from a village or does not share seal meat. Unless an individual decides otherwise, people remain kin despite physical absence and also if they choose not to share meat or fish. (However, although people are not obligated to maintain the same kinship relations if they do not wish, they do have an obligation to share.) People are therefore not constrained by a rigid consanguineal kinship system, but can choose much of their universe of kin. Thus, daily life in Greenland is inextricably bound up with kinship, and people carry out and talk about most social and economic activities—for example, hunting, fishing, other kinds of work, visiting, and gossiping—with reference to kin relationships. But however they construct their own relationships, they are bound to behave in prescribed ways. Kin categories vary in meaning, and their significance lies in the way they give individuals the freedom to employ them in any way they choose. It is in this sense that kinship is symbolic, and it is through kinship that people find expression in their social worlds (Nuttall 1992).

Whatever the particularities of kinship in different parts of Greenland, it nonetheless shapes, informs, influences, and determines how people relate to one another, and is central to the way people conceptualize and define their social worlds (Nuttall 2000). In Greenland social relatedness does not always begin in the local group—for example, children are often named after deceased people who lived in different villages. Once named, they become the kin of the surviving relatives of the deceased.

It is easy to see how an individual's universe of kin can expand to include anyone they wish to consider a relative. These people are not fictive kin; they are real in the same sense as biological kin. Ultimately, people can, if they so wish, distinguish between biological or fictive kinship. The use of the suffix -piaq, meaning one's own, personal, real can be used to distinguish biological kin from fictive kin, who can be identified by the suffix -siaq, meaning borrowed, bought, or found. The use of a kin term is not usually suffixed as a means of discriminating between categories of biological or fictive kin. Fictive kin are considered to be as real as biological kin and the use of -piaq or -siaq would be making a distinction between categories of kin that people do not necessarily worry about. An adopted son, for example, will be addressed as erneq, rather than ernersiaq. The use of such terminology suggests that the relationship between parents and son is regarded as real as if the child were the parents' biological offspring. Kinship is a rhetoric of social relatedness, as Guemple argues (1972b), but whether based on biology or affinity, it is real as long as people see it as such.

See also: KINSHIP


Burch, E. S. Jr. (1975). Eskimo Kinsmen: Changing Family Relationships in Northwest Alaska. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

Damas, D. (1963). Iglulingmiut Kinship and Local Groupings: A Structural Approach. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.

Damas, D. (1964). "The Patterning of the Iglulingmiut Kinship System." Ethnology 3:377–88. Damas, D. (1968). "Iglulingmiut Kinship Terminology and Behaviour, Consanguines." In Eskimo of the Canadian Arctic, ed. V. F. Valentine and F. G. Vallee. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Guemple, L. (1972a). "Kinship and Alliance in Belcher Island Eskimo Society." In Alliance in Eskimo Society, ed. L. Guemple. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Guemple, L. (1972b). "Eskimo Band Organization and the 'D. P. Camp' Hypothesis." Arctic Anthropology 9:80–112.

Guemple, L. (1979) Inuit Adoption. Ottawa: National Museum of Man.

Heinrich, A. (1963). "Personal Names, Social Structure and Functional integration" Anthropology and Sociology Papers, no. 27. Montana State University: Department of Sociology and Welfare.

Nuttall, M. (1992). Arctic Homeland: Kinship, Community, and Development in Northwest Greenland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Nuttall, M. (1994). "The Name Never Dies: Greenland Inuit Ideas of the Person." In Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief among North American Indians and Inuit, ed. A. Mills and R. Slobodin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Nuttall, M. (2000). "Choosing Kin: Sharing and Subsistence in a Greenlandic Hunting Community." In Dividends of Kinship: Meanings and Uses of Social Relatedness, ed. P. Schweitzer. London: Routledge.

Schneider, D. (1968). American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects