19. Nauja Bianco: Life ‘up north’- being a global Greenlander

Sue Stockdale talks to Nauja Bianco, a native Greenlander about what life is like ‘up north’ and why cultural identity is becoming more important for Greenlanders and those in the Nordic Countries.

Nauja Bianco is a native Greenlander, born and raised in the capital Nuuk in Greenland.  Early on, it was quite clear that the rest of the world and international relations sparked her interest. At the age of 17 she was an exchange student in the USA followed by travels to USA, Central and South America after graduating high school. She attended a trip to Antarctica as part of a larger group of young people celebrating UNESCO’s 50th anniversary and putting focus on environmental protection, climate change, international cooperation as well as conflict resolution and peace.   As a political science major, her career has been within government, diplomacy and international relations. She has worked for the Government of Greenland, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and the intergovernmental organization of the Nordic Council of Ministers – a cooperation between Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland along with Greenland, Faroe Islands and Åland Island.  Nauja is currently an independent consultant running Isuma Consulting. doing strategic advisory work within Arctic and Nordic affairs and is a freelance journalist and communications adviser.  In August 2020 she will take up a new position as Director of the Greenlandic House and Nordatlantic House in Odense, Denmark.

Contact Nauja on Facebook,  Twitter or LinkedIn.

Nauja Bianco transcription

Sue : Today I’m speaking to Nauja Bianco, who describes herself as a global Greenlander, and is an expert in the Arctic, North Atlantic, and the Nordic countries. I’m fascinated to learn from Nauja about her experience growing up in Greenland, what it’s like for those living and working there and how it’s changing. So welcome Nauja to the podcast.

Nauja : Thank you, Sue. It’s a pleasure to be on your podcast.

Sue : So tell us about what Greenland’s like because many of the people listening to this may have never been to the country and it be useful to get a sense of the size and scale.

Nauja : Definitely. And I think you’re right. A lot of people have not been to Greenland, and a lot of people probably don’t know really where it is. Greenland is the largest Island in the world. it’s situated up North. It’s the big white spot you can see on an Atlas, basically next to Canada. And it is, it’s an area of about 2 million square kilometers. And that number might be a bit a bit abstract. But when you put it into perspective, or let’s say that you take Greenland and you put it on another map, it’s actually the size of Western Europe. It goes from Denmark in the North to Sahara in the South, and it’s about one third of the size of the U S so it’s quite a large Island.

Sue :  It does sound like it, but it doesn’t have many people living on it. I understand.

Nauja : No, that’s true only about 57,000 people live in the entire Island. So already there you see that it’s indeed a land of contrast.

Sue : And I understand there that  you’re obviously then, finite species. If you’re one of such a small population in the world.

Nauja :  Yes, indeed. And again, there’s about 57,000 people living in Greenland but around 10,000 people of these are. People from Denmark, because as you might know, Sue, but not a lot of people know this, that Greenland is actually a part of the kingdom of Denmark. So there’s, there’s some mix of inhabitants as well. And I’m, for example, a product of that. I’m a product of a Danish mom who lived in Greenland for about 30 years, and a Greenlandic father.

Sue :  I see. So, it’s great to get a sense of the country. What was it like growing up there as a young person?

Nauja : well, growing up in Greenland, and for my part in, in the 80s, I think about my childhood and Greenland as being very safe. And I also think about it as inducing me with a whole lot of responsibility. That’s how I still view, being brought up in Greenland or in the Arctic, that you get a tremendous amount of responsibility given to you. So when I was a child, we would walk everywhere ourselves. We would walk to school, we would walk to sports, we would walk to friends and so forth. So, at an early age, we would learn to take responsibility for a lot of things ourselves. And obviously coming from a small town, and I’m from the capital of Nuuk, which is today an Arctic Metropol, but still small, when you compare it to other capitals.

So, coming from a small town, it was easier, but nonetheless, it gave you a whole lot as a child. and I find that we weren’t protected as much as I find kids are being now. And our parents weren’t what you would call helicopter parents. we would have to sort of go out there and experience and learn a lot of by ourselves.

And also another important part of growing up in Greenland and growing up in the Arctic is obviously the connection to nature and what nature teaches you, as a child. And that’s regardless of whether you had parents, who had a boat, where you would go out sailing every weekend or during the summer holidays, nature would always surround you and would teach you a lot. So I think that’s one of the, sort of the key aspects of, of growing up in the Arctic and in Greenland in the 80s, but also now.

Sue : And from growing up there,  Nauja, what were some of the significant things that helped you to have a broader perpsective and to have that global perspective as you talk about now?

Nauja : Oh, well, I think I was fortunate, first and foremost, that I grew up within a family. That even though they live their everyday life in Greenland and was orientated towards Denmark where my grandparents lived, they had sort of an international outlook. For example, my dad was a huge fan of JFK at the time, and I think he’s that generation that that was a huge fan of the development taking place in the US at that time. So I’ve always had that international outlook through my parents. And, obviously with the larger, globalization gradually taking place in the 80s, that helped me a lot too. So that gave me an opportunity to become an exchange student in the US I was a senior in high school for a year in a small town in Northern California. And that really widened my horizon and gave me learnings back then, but also learnings today that I find stem from, from that time.

Sue : What are some of the examples, I can imagine it’d be a bit of a culture shock to move to Northern California from Greenland as a, youngster?

Nauja : Yes. It was a culture shock on one hand. Definitely. on the other hand, obviously the US is so dominant within popular culture. So, I did, through TV and through music, I did have a certain feel of what it was and obviously when I was told that I was going to California, I immediately thought, I would go to Los Angeles or San Diego, some place by the beach where it was warm all the time. In that respect, I got disappointed. I came to a, small town in the forests of Northern California called Weaverville with only 4,000 inhabitants at the time. So, that was a learning in itself that just because you come to the US it’s not necessarily larger, or bigger and greater, obviously is, from the outset, but coming into a few communities and getting to know the different communities and people you find that you get the nuances of the differences between people, but also the similarity between people. and that was a, great learning for me.

Sue : I’m imagining we’ll come back to this later in our conversation, but it does seem like the idea of relationship and community is a significant factor that’s important to you today as well.

Nauja : Oh, it definitely is. And if I step to another, opportunity I had, while I was a teenager, after I had finished high school in Greenland, I also had the opportunity to join a youth expedition to the Antarctic called one step beyond. And that’s where I met you Sue and a lot of other great people, that I’m still in contact with today. The expedition was arranged by the British Polar Explorer, Robert Swan, and was done in connection with UNESCO’s 50th anniversary. And that was a huge experience for me. it was a get together a lot of people from conflicting countries. So, I remember, for example, an Israeli and Palestinian, a Muslim and a Christian from the former Yugoslavia and so forth. And there I was, coming from one of the most peaceful countries in the world. I didn’t have that. At that point, at least that the, the opposite of me joining, but it also taught me about my own heritage. So I come from a country, Greenland that’s been colonialized by Denmark. and, that point of time when I joined the one step beyond expedition, I wasn’t very aware of that. but that has come to me later. And I think partly due to this, expedition and this experience. What it also taught me was really that my sort of international or global horizon grew at this expedition and my awareness for the planet grew. And even though we at that time didn’t call it climate change, it was essentially what we were working with and preparing ourselves for. Together, with these crossing border approaches between us.

Sue : So it sounds like these activities really gave you a whole broader perspective, broader horizon, within which to contextualize your own experience. How did that shape your career then onwards, what did you go onto next?

Nauja : Well, I’m certain that it, it shaped my career. I don’t think I saw the connections at the time. I basically just tried to follow my interest, quite early. after having finished high school, I was certain that I wanted to become a journalist because communication and teaching, has always been a part of what I do and what I find interesting. So, I went to Denmark from Greenland, because we only have a small university in Greenland. We can’t attend all, educational levels in Greenland. So, I went to Denmark to study and thought I would become a journalist. I didn’t get accepted into journalism school, which was very competitive at the time. And there was only one journalism school. And instead I started to study political science and I thought I can do this for a year or so, and then I can go back to my dream of becoming a journalist. But then after a semester, so I found out that political science was pretty cool too. So I became a political scientist and. I’ve been working, with international relations and been in diplomacy for almost 15 years, after having been in, various sort of governmental administrations within the government of Greenland, the government of Denmark, and then also the Nordic Council of Ministers. I’ve become an independent consultant, but really the red thread in my work is international relations. It’s Greenland and it’s the Arctic.

Sue :  And it seems almost that if I’m reading it correctly, that an element of journalism and communications is about the ability to tell stories, and have effective relationships to be able to communicate messages, and although you didn’t get into the journalism school, you’ve come back to use those skills and enhanced them in what you’re doing now.

Nauja : Yes, exactly. And I think after becoming an independent consultant, that’s really what I do. I, I communicate and teach about Greenland and the Arctic and the Nordics. I try to maintain a diplomat, but also try to inform and communicate about all of the things that we don’t see in diplomacy. Because diplomacy is, if you will, the tip of the iceberg and underneath the water, there’s a lot of other information that needs to be facilitated. So I communicate and teach about Greenland, the Arctic and the Nordics. I really do try to connect dots and create network for people or institutions within the Arctic and within the Nordics, and sort of get people to work together on common goals. But I also find, a lot of pleasure in connecting people in institutions between the Arctic and the non-Arctic. And I do that by various tools within my consultancy approach. but really what I’ve experienced, throughout my childhood and my youth, and even today, that, obviously there’s a lot of ignorance around Greenland, and that’s even within the kingdom of Denmark. So, that’s one of the things that I, that I try to work with.

Sue :  Greenland as a country, it seems to me it’s changing. And that’s not necessarily because the Greenlanders are changing it, but because of the outside world that’s influencing it. What does it mean for those living in Greenland?

Nauja : Global attention has indeed been put, towards the Arctic, I would say the last decade or so. Or at least since we’ve started, addressing climate change and global warming, what we’ve done the past 10, 15 years. but Greenland was also really in the spotlight in August last year when president Donald Trump announced that he would want to buy Greenland, and sort of gave, the picture that he viewed it as a simple real estate deal. What he didn’t know was that Greenland is one of the few countries in the world where you can’t own private property. But that’s, that’s another question. the world’s eyes are definitely on Greenland, and I think there’s an immense amount of opportunities in that, and that can potentially mean a shift from being, in this case, fully dependent on Denmark to being more dependent on somebody else. I think there are some, some good opportunities in that in terms of developing the Greenlandic economy, potentially moving towards independence. But I also think there are some threats or some risks, if you will. So being dependent on somebody always comes with a price and we’ve learned from colonialization that it came with a price so Greenland at that time, basically to a certain extent, lost its identity. to a certain extent, we lost the language which we have regained, and it’s thriving now. but we lost different types of arts and cultures and customs.

So I think one of the important things we need to think about with this sort of renewed interest for it, for the arctic and Greenland is that we need to learn from the past. We need to learn from history, and in this case, the history of colonialization, what it did for us and what type of influence we could expect.

Sue : it often strikes me that when one has taking things for granted in one’s own country or even one’s own life, and then all of a sudden other people from the outside start to pay an interest or attention to something, we then value it in a different way. And I’m wondering what are the things that Greenlanders perhaps therefore need to protect, you’ve mentioned the culture, the language, perhaps embrace and also just become aware of?

Nauja : I think you’re, you’re right indeed. That whenever somebody else casts a light on us, we tend to view us in different ways. And that’s quite healthy if you ask me. Yeah. I think that Greenlanders and Inuit in general, which Greenlanders are a part of need to protect our identity. So the Inuit identity, which I said Greenlanders, belong to, is an indigenous identity and indigenous identities has in the past and historically, been threatened and challenged, first of all by colonialization. but after that, also by modernization and maybe also thirdly by globalization. So, as I mentioned before, it’s got a lot to do with, with threatening the identity, the language, the customs, the culture, and so forth. However, these days I, I sense and see a resurgence of Inuit identity in various forms. And that’s, cause I view sort of the, the circumpolar Inuit movements and not only in Greenland, but Inuit and Greenlanders these days really want to sort of reclaim their identity. They want to reclaim what was lost, or even some say what was stolen from them in, and with colonialization, and I mentioned it, this includes language, but also customs. A good example of this, is the rise and revival of Inuit markings.

Inuit markings are basically tattoos that are hand poked or should have sued with Sino into your skin on visible spots on your body, such as the face or the hands and the fingers. and these markings tell about Inuit mythology and how we created the world. And that we live of nature. And they tell the story with symbols. But they also tell another story, and that’s a story to the rest of the world of the Inuit heritage and our pride in our heritage and that we’re here to take it back and sort of become whole again. So that’s a really interesting movement that I see throughout the whole Arctic these days.

Sue :  And how much are the young people that are in Greenland interested in protecting that identity and telling that story to the wider world, or is is the older generation?

Nauja : this is, very much the younger generation, that’s interested in telling the story and sort of reclaiming this identity. I think if you will, the older generation got more assimilated into what was expected by colonialization and modernization. Whereas the younger generation sort of reacts to that. So, there’s a great response to finding your own feet in a modern Greenland. And that was just portrayed actually in a really interesting, a documentary that just that was just released about two weeks ago called, the fight for Greenland. Which exactly investigates this notion of reclaiming your identity, finding sort of the current Greenlandic identity in a globalized world.

Sue : Now, one of the things you mentioned there Nauja was about your focus and awareness of the broader Inuit interest in the circumpolar region, I’ve read that the Nordic region aims to work together to become the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030 I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about that and why there is that desire to be integrated in that region of the world?

Nauja : Yes. as I mentioned to you, I’ve been working for, an intergovernmental organization that’s called the Nordic Council of Ministers, which is an organisation established by the five Nordic States and three of the autonomous countries of the Nordic states which include Greenland, Faroe Islands and the Olean Islands. This organization was actually established, to begin with as the Nordic Council right after world war II. So already at that time, the Nordics knew that they had to develop their societies in, in greater cooperation with each other.  One of the unique things within the Nordic council of ministers is sort of the dedicated work with the sustainable development goal. So obviously since , it’s a UN, initiative, with the sustainable development goals. You could say the whole world is working with the sustainable development goals. But I think that the Nordic countries have an advantage in working and progressing with these due to their already established cooperation. One of the things that makes it, quite ambitious and, but also, realistically enough to reach, is partly the integrated already existing co-operation but also the focus, in these countries on many of the goals, and let’s just say gender equality, I wouldn’t necessarily claim that we’re fully there yet in the Nordic countries but because it’s been on the political agenda, and even in the Nordic Council of ministers, there’s a minister council only working with gender equality. We have an advantage and, and for me at least, I think that’s one of the drivers in achieving, this, sustainable world, if you will, by 2030.

Sue : So in terms of people working together, at a country level, you’ve got the Nordic council of ministers, as you described there. What do you think are some of those, simple behaviours that whether you’re working at a political level or just a human being level, what are the things that really you’ve seen that help people cooperate and collaborate together?

Nauja : I think being humble towards, what came out of world war two, just to start there, was extremely important, in the case of the Nordic countries, they’re all small countries. Denmark has a population of around 6 million people. The same goes for Norway. Sweden has a population of around 10 or 11 million people and so forth. Iceland as a population of 340,000 people. So all of these States within the Nordic cooperation are small. and I think that, that, that teaches you something about the necessity of good neighborship or a good neighborhood.And, and how you can use each other to, to advance not only yourself, but each other. And I think that’s one of the reason that it, it makes the Nordic region one of the most integrated regions in the world. On top of that, obviously, the EU came and, and I think that has not only strengthened integration within political cooperation, but also strengthen the sense of identity, within  the Nordic countries.

Sue : And if we were, if you were encouraging our listeners to visit Greenland, and you’ve done a great job already and describing it to us and some of your experience there, what do you think would be some of those reasons that people ought to get up and go and visit Greenland, as and when they can in the future?

Nauja :  Well, first of all, I would love more people to come and visit my home country and I think everybody would find it a very unique experience. Now being in these Corona times that we are currently Sue, I think all of us has gotten an appreciation of each other, but also an appreciation of being isolated and also an appreciation of not rushing ourselves to the fullest every day. And I’ve always seen the potential in Greenland as offering this pause in a very busy and stressful everyday life that most of us have. So besides being pristine and beautiful and unique, Greenland really offers you, a place for contemplation and I think you can get that wherever you go in Greenland. So, I would just advise you to go there and sort of build on the isolation experience that we get from being in these Corona times.

Sue : So I’m imagining that you’re having been brought up there, you’re well placed to manage and be resilient in this current climate that we’re all facing.

Nauja : Yeah. You, you know what? I actually do think that I’ve brought along, a sense of that it’s ok, that we’re far apart. we’ve always lived with the fact that we’re far apart. Even when I was six years old, my, my sister had to go to, to high school in Denmark. That was before we had high schools in Greenland. So, I’m used to the distance, and the social distancing that we are experiencing now and even though I’ve been in a very busy and hectic working environment in Europe and North America, the last many years, I do feel that I bring along a sort of a fundamental, ease with that type of life as well.

Sue : Well, you’ve certainly given us some new insight into the experience that you’ve had in Greenland, how it’s perhaps relevant, particularly today with those isolation and resilience challenges. It’s been a real pleasure to speak to you Nauja. Now, if people want to follow up with you on social media having listened to this podcast, how can they find you out there.

Nauja : Yeah. they can find me. I’m on Facebook with my own name. I’m on LinkedIn with my own name, but also, with my consultancy firm, which is called Isuma consulting. and I’m on Twitter as well.

Sue : Fantastic. Well, we’ll put links to your different social media connections on the show notes from this conversation, it’s been fantastic speaking to you today. Thank you so much for your time.

Nauja : Great. Thanks a lot soon. It’s been fantastic to speaking to you as well and catching up again.