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The Enduring Power of the Inuit Frame Drum: Questioning (Post-)Colonial Power Structures

"I don't regret anything. I had to do it. I had to finish the struggle of my ancestors, who are right behind me", says Markus E. Olsen about the service he held on June 21, 2022. The former parish priest in Nuuk, the capital of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), caused with this sermon a considerable debate in Greenland, which raises many political questions regarding post-colonialism and seems not to have reached an end yet. However, despite a presentation at the "What Sounds Do" conference in Copenhagen (Sept. 15 - 18, 2022), the discussion hardly received attention outside Greenland, although a UNESCO cultural heritage, the qilaat, the Inuit frame drum, plays a significant role.

Parish priest Markus E. Olesen (pictured left), who invited the well-known drum dancer Anda Poulsen (pictured in the middle and right) to Our Savior's Church in Nuuk on Greenland's National Day 2022. Photo: YouTube. collage

What Olsen did and what eventually turned him into an ex-priest: On June 21, 2022, the 37th anniversary of the National Day of Kalaallit Nunaat, the then still priest held at the cathedral of Nuuk the holiday service, which was broadcast by the national public radio station KNR all over the country. His sermon decisively addressed the Danish colonial history in Kalaallit Nunaat (1721 - 1979) and its ramifications, with which the Greenlandic society is still struggling today. Olsen asked in what respect Greenlanders are still colonized - and to what extent they bow themselves to outdated colonial power structures for various reasons. To illustrate his point that many Greenlanders still cling to the former colonial hegemony of Denmark and accept the ongoing influence of Danish settlers in Kalaallit Nunaat, despite the official status of self-governance since 2009, Olsen used the qilaat, the Inuit frame drum, as an example in his sermon. Thus, he preached:

“The norms that we have humbly accepted and adopted over the almost 300 years of our existence under the state as normal have become so ingrained in our hearts that there is no longer any room to question or act differently. (…) Some of the customs of our ancestors were sacrificed at the behest of one-sided missionaries. We have even begun to believe that it is forbidden to bring our own drums into the church, even though the Greenlandic translation of the Old Testament says in the Book of Genesis, Ex 15:20: "Then Miriam, Aaron's sister, the prophetess, took up her qilaat, and all the women followed her in the dance with their qilaat.“ And in Ps. 81,3 it says, "Inhale the song, sound the qilaat, the lovely zither and harp." Why then should we forbid the qilaat?“

His sermon was followed by the drum dancer Anda Poulsen singing a drum song of the famous priest and drum dancer Amandus Petrussen (1927 - 1993) in church. (cf. video 16:27 - 17:34) The next day, Paneeraq Siegstad Munk, the bishop of the diocese of Greenland, which belongs to the Danish national church, suspended Olsen. So far, she hasn't declared her reasons officially. The only statement she gave to the press and to an e-mail inquiry asking for her point of view, was that the case of Markus E. Olsen was a "personal matter" and, therefore, could not be commented on by the bishop. However, looking at the case in more detail leads to the conclusion, that the case of Olsen's dismissal is a political, and not a personal matter, as the bishop claims.

In contrast to the church, Olsen officially shared the three reasons that were given to him by the bishop for his suspension, which are all connected in regard to their political claim for true independence and self-esteem of the indigenous people of Greenland, who make up with 88 % a large majority of the population in July 2020. (cf. according to a publication of the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA)) This led anonymous supporters of Olsen, who is called by his friends Makkorsi, to set up an online petition. The Greenlandic text of it translates into English as:

"According to Markus E. Olsen's letter, the reasons for the suspension are the following: 1. That he used qilaat, 2. Not mentioning the Queen (and the like ) in the prayer, 3. That it was far too political that in his sermon he called on the people to be independent. The people have never had so much need for a spiritual community, I believe that Makkorsi should remain in his position, and I therefore sign."
Screenshot of the online petition in support of Markus E. Olsen after its termination.

Within four weeks, between July 17 and August 16, the online petition in support of Olsen was signed by 1091 people, a comparably large number in a country with a population of 56'000 citizens. But Olsen has not only supporters. There are also fierce critics, who think, that his sermon was far too political. Some even called it "unchristian" and "violent", as Olsen, for example, also spoke about the lack of Greenlandic self-determination and Danish influence by stating:

"Having nailed their outside values and norms to us and decided what we should do and not do over three centuries - through religion, schools, educational establishments, and institutions - they are still trying to dictate how we should set our boundaries."

He also mentioned the lately revealed enforced sterilization of thousands of Greenlandic women between 1965 and 1975, the so-called "spiralkampagnen", and the so-called "Little Danes experiment" dating back to 1951, when 22 Greenlandic Inuit children were taken away from their families and sent to Denmark to turn them into the potential future elite of Greenland according to Danish standards. And Olsen also questioned his compatriots and their entanglement with the (post-)colonial status quo of Greenland, which still relies on money from the former colonizer Denmark:

"Why must we continue to believe that we cannot fend for ourselves unless we receive subsidies from the outside? - why must we simply accept that we have been brought up to believe in everything that comes from the outside?"

The translation of the whole sermon into Danish can be read here:

DK_Prædiken MEO
Download PDF • 97KB

(For translation into Spanish see below.)

There is no doubt, that this sermons was very political and that Greenlanders are not used to such an understanding of a critically Christianity, which Olsen stands for. However, he himself doesn't think that his sermon was too political, as he told Kristeligt Dagbald:

"The Bible itself is very political, the Israelites use the Old Testament as their politics, and in the New Testament the Sadducees and Pharisees are political parties, so what is not politics?"

Despite its criticism on the political stance of Olsen's sermon, the Greenlandic church seems to have a political understanding of religion itself. For example, it is still obligatory for each priest in Kalaallit Nunaat to include the Danish Queen and the Greenlandic government in his or her prayer at church services. This obligation is written down in the ritual book, which was authorized by both the Queen and the Greenlandic bishop in 2005. With his decision not to mention the Queen and the Greenlandic government explicitly in his prayer and instead pray for all people in Kalaallit Nunaat, Olsen took a liberty Danish priests have nowadays, but which goes decidedly against Greenlandic church rituals.

The most challenging question remains why - according to Olsen - the bishop justified her decision to suspend and eventually fire him with his use of the qilaat, the Inuit frame drum. This is even more astonishing as on December 15, 2021, the qilaat was enlisted as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. If you research about the qilaat, you quickly come across claims that it once was forbidden by Hans Egede (1686 - 1758) and his sons and fellow missionaries, who evangelised the Inuit in West-Greenland in the name of the Danish-Norwegian king. Some of these missionaries considered the qilaat not only as heathen but also as "the work of the devil", as the ethnomusicologist Michael Hauser called it. Another claim regarding the qilaat, you come across when you research on it, is that it is still forbidden by the Greenlandic church today. However, although the qilaat and drum dancing and singing were fought to some degree by the Danish-Norwegian missionaries starting in the 18th century, it is not true that it is still forbidden at church today. Flemming Nielsen, head of the theology department at Ilisimatusarfik, the University of Greenland, says:

"The standard ritual says nothing about the qilaat, and I have been present at a church service, not conducted by Markus, where the qilaat was used."

In fact, the qilaat is also an integral part of the church room of the new prison of Nuuk, which the Greenlandic artist Julie Edel Hardenberg was chosen to create. At its centre are three brilliant white snow crystals on the grey, raw concrete, which symbolise the father, the son and the holy ghost, and which have tiny crosses in the middle. A closer look reveals the shapes of the crystals. They are made out of narwhals, walruses, rabbits, crabs, spiders, and mosquitoes, to name but a few. Hardenberg explains, that her design is meant to give the inmates a sense of cultural recognition, and to give them the chance to reconnect with their cultural tradition even more, there is also a qilaat in the room, which everyone is allowed to use. (Photos: Julie Hardenberg)

Hardenberg's inclusion of the frame drum in the interior decoration of the prison's church room is as provocative as progressive, as the qilaat still today might be associated by parts of the Greenlandic society with demons or the devil. Nielsen confirms this:

"I think that some members of the church in Greenland think that the qilaat is just a musical instrument like any other instrument, whereas others associate it with evil spirits. But I am not aware of any scientific research about what the members think. Such research might be illuminating."

Such a believe in evil spirits, which are associated with the qilaat, is a remnant from the former propaganda of the missionaries against the Inuit frame drum. This believe might also be the reason, why the church of Greenland is concerned about its use inside church. Regarding the official handling of the qilaat today, Nielsen explains:

"There is no written law against the use of the qilaat in the Greenlandic church, but any deviation from the standard ritual of church services should be endorsed by the parochial church council (elected representatives of the church members) and the bishop or her representative, the dean (in Danish: provsten). Neither the church council, nor the dean had given their permission at the specific occasion."

Asked why he used the qilaat without official permission by the church council and the bishop, Markus E. Olsen states:

"As a pastor, I have the right to write and plan my sermon myself and to choose the content of the sermon myself. I decided to include the qilaat because it was part of my preaching. I did not ask for permission but informed the congregational representation and my superiors that I would do the following: after my sermon, I will let a person apply qilaat. I didn't ask for permission because I knew I would be refused to do so if I would have asked for it. My email was answered by the 'domprovst', the dean, who told me that I must follow the ritual and that I must not apply the qilaat. He also asked me to confirm that I had received his message and had read it, but I did not answer. If I had replied to his email I would have had to let them know that I did not accept their objection and that I would not cancel my plan. Therefore, I didn't reply to the email."

Olsen, who comes from a very political family and whose cousin was the famous Greenlandic politician Moses Olsen (1938 - 2008), explains why he was so determined to do what he did - although he knew that this might have severe consequences for him - by referring to the history of his family:

"I listen to my heart and I follow the conscience of my soul, the spirits of my ancestors, because I feel that they bid me to do so, and therefore, I have done it. I have to complete a duty. My great-uncle, my grandfather's younger brother, whose name was Seth Olsen (1882 - 1921), was a member of the Landsråd (The National Council). After a meeting, he returned home in a kayak, where he was exposed to storms and bad weather. He fell ill after arriving back home in Sisimiut and soon after died. Shortly before his death, when he had to hand over the responsibility as a member of the Landståd to my grandfather - to his brother - he uttered some words that are always on my mind. He said that he tried to break the 'naalagarsuit's' (Greenlandic expression for "the mighty lords" or the colonial power in general) pillar, but that he may have only cracked it, and that now the next generations must continue the task."

If his ancestors were dedicated to fighting for the independence of Greenland from Denmark with political means, one might wonder why Olsen doesn't the same and instead chose to fight for the independence and self-respect of Greenlanders with his sermon on the 37th national holiday of their country, and with the qilaat as symbol of the struggle for cultural identity of the Greenlandic Inuit. As a main reason he names his frustration with the slow process towards independence in politics and that he thinks the most important task therefore now is to "decolonize the minds", that Greenlanders first and foremost have to "emancipate themselves from mental slavery", as he calls it referring to Bob Marley's famous "Redemption Song":

"What does the Home Rule mean to us or the Self Governance? If our efforts are not in the heart, and if we do not have the spirit, then the signatures on the treaties, which are supposed to lead to independence, mean nothing. If politics cannot achieve something, it must be achieved in the spirit first, and this spiritual freedom can only be achieved by deciding for yourself, without others deciding for you."

To reach this goal, Olsen sees his role in fighting for a renewal of the church of Greenland. 95 percent of the Greenlandic population are members of the Greenlandic People's Church, which only got the status of an independent diocese with its own bishop on November 1, 1993. But even almost 30 years later the church of Greenland still seems to be stuck in former colonial power structures, as the dismissal of Olsen shows. In an interview with Kristeligt Dagbald, Olsen said:

"I want to renew the Greenlandic church. Since I started as a priest, I have proposed new initiatives and presented various development projects to my provost and the bishop. And I know that there are many Greenlanders who want renewal. But the old guard in the church, the Pharisees, is against it."

After his suspension on June 22, 2022, the bishop of the diocese of Greenland handed over the case to the Greenland Personnel Board with a recommendation to fire the priest. After some mediating meetings and debates during the summer, Olsen eventually was dismissed on August 12. One week later, on August 19, a demonstration in his support was held in Nuuk. One of the participants of the demonstration was Aleqa Hammond, a former prime minister of Kalaallit Nunaat. It was her first demonstration ever, Hammond says, and as the reasons why she attended it, she states:

"I think that it is crucial that the church itself reconsiders and reevaluates its behaviour and procedure. It has to be debated and discussed by the parliament of Greenland. It has to be changed in the procedures of how we run our church to the benefit of our people, to benefit and strengthen the souls of the people, and how we can have people like Markus to serve in the society to strengthen us in a time where we need all hands to be stronger, in a society with many suicides, many social problems, and many challenges that we have to overcome. We need people like him. We don't need people that are angry and firing everyone that says something smart."

Although Olsen himself says that he is convinced that his suspension and dismissal are not primarily because of the use of qilaat, but because of his opposition to the backwarded state of the Greenlandic church, Hammond is not surprised that the qilaat plays an important role in the whole case:

“It is not a small incident. Qilaat is THE thing, that is not to be kicked out or moved away, not even being questioned, because qilaat has been the reason why my ancestors survived in the region where no other cultures ever could survive. It is not a small thing. It is the biggest thing! And if you try to keep the qilaat out of everything else, you are killing the heartbeat of the people.”

The dismissal of Markus E. Olsen after his sermon on June 21, 2022, is a complex, political case. By using the enduring power of the qilaat, Olsen addressed (post-)colonial power relations between Kalaallit Nunaat and Denmark and questioned them. He addressed many burning questions, which urgently have to be tackled and solved by both sides, by the Greenlanders and Danes alike, to build a better future for their highly entangled, more than 300 year old, intense relationship. Getting rid of the messenger of tough topics, though, is no solution.


Translation of the sermon into Spanish:

Download PDF • 52KB


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