An icy reflection of the prejudice of the Danes against native Greenlanders
The protagonist of Peter Hoeg's thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow is a product of a union between a native 'Greenlander' or indigenous person and a wealthy Danish doctor. Although the plot of the book is ostensibly a murder mystery it is just as much about Smilla's struggle for her identity. Smilla embarks upon her detective 'quest' partially because she believes a fellow 'Greenlander' named Isaiah Christiansen has been murdered. Although Isaiah was only a child of six, Smilla identifies with the boy's sense of loneliness and isolation. The mystery novel depicts the Danish legal system as shadowy and unknowable, and much of the book revolves around Smilla's attempt to unravel it and understand it, as well as get to the bottom of Isaiah's death. The book is an accurate reflection of the spirit of much of Denmark, which is a society that prides itself on its liberalism yet has also been characterized by its prejudice against Greenlanders. This is embodied in Smilla, particularly in her relationship with her father, who was willing to have a relationship with an indigenous woman even though he embodies conventional Danish norms of patriarchal authority. Whether the precise legal details of the book are true is less important than the atmosphere and mood of prejudice and existential disenchantment with one's identity that the book conveys.
"I think more highly of snow and ice than love. It's easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings" (Hoeg 45). Although she is of indigenous heritage and connected to the land, Smilla is presented as a cold character, without a true sense of self. She feels disconnected both from her native heritage and from her father. Her love of snow is not just a reference to her heritage, but also to her icy temperament. Greenlanders are portrayed as unable to assimilate into Danish society, either resorting to alcoholism like Isaiah's mother or utterly detaching into a world of numbers like Smilla. The legal system, rather than encouraging Greenlanders to uphold their heritage proudly or integrate seems to regard them as dwelling in a kind of never-never world: neither as equal to Danes, but neither possessing a valuable separate heritage. The alcoholism of Isaiah's mother is seen as inevitable, and Smilla's embodiment of a different potential character for a Greenlander is seen as an exception and a product of her mixed heritage, or simply ignored.
The legal system is portrayed as quick to dismiss the death of an indigenous child, despite Smilla's findings that the evidence around the scene of the crime indicates that the child was being chased off a snowy roof to his death. This lack of recognition of the weight of a child's death parallels the struggles of Greenland within the Danish legal system and non-Danish ethnic groups within the country as a whole. Greenland's struggle for recognition in the Danish legal system has been hard-fought. "The Greenland Home Rule Act of 1978 proclaims that "Greenland is a distinct community within the Kingdom of Denmark" (see Chapter 1, section 1 (1) of the act)" ("Denmark," Multicultural Policies in Contemporary Democracies, 2012). But while Denmark voted in favor of adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, "this declaration is non-binding and does not impose duties or obligations on the Danish state" ("Denmark," Multicultural Policies in Contemporary Democracies, 2012).
Although Denmark is often considered a 'liberal' Scandinavian country, "affirmative action has not been introduced as a legal measure in Greenland" ("Denmark," Multicultural Policies in Contemporary Democracies, 2012). Danish society is extremely homogeneous. "Danish representatives to the United Nations have remarked in the past that there was only one indigenous people in the Kingdom of Denmark: the Inuit of Greenland" ("Denmark," Multicultural Policies in Contemporary Democracies, 2012). But the indigenous ways have not been preserved as natural 'treasures' as a part of the Denmark's heritage. "Starting with colonization of Greenland in 1721…the legitimacy of Inuit methods of social control were rejected and traditional Inuit ways of conflict resolution, peace management and rituals almost ceased to exist…Greenlanders were subject to a dual system of law, which made a distinction between Danish and Greenlandic customary legal practices" (Loukacheva 2012:3).
Attempts have been made to create Greenland-specific courts of law, but they have been criticized in terms of how they have been implemented. "The system of law and justice in Greenland has come under increasing scrutiny and the advantages of codification of Inuit customary law are questionable. The Greenland Criminal Code has been criticized for lenient sentences, as rapists and other sexual offenders are given less severe sentences, than thieves. The growing amount of new types of crime and cases before the lay-judges and lay assessors, require specific knowledge from the latter" (Loukacheva 2012:15). While in theory giving Greenlanders some 'home rule' confers greater autonomy and the ability to use community norms in their administration of justice, Greenland has no permanent prison and only spotty law enforcement. A lack of education of the justices and growing modern-day crimes have made this an ineffectual solution, living the areas of Greenland under Greenland Home Rule in 1979 means frequently existing in a state of legal limbo (Loukacheva 2012:15).
Greenlanders in their own territories were thus denied the protections accorded to Danes, but as 'others' living in a society that deemed them aliens, their lives and struggles were also not protected within the legal system and frequently ignored even when they were residents of white-dominated Danish society. This is metaphorically demonstrated in Isaiah's plight. It seems as if no one took the proper forensic procedures to take care of the boy after he died: "I'll eat my old hat if someone hasn't taken a muscle biopsy on him…They all swear on a stack of bibles they did nothing of the kind" (Hoeg 61). The forensic system in Denmark is portrayed as just as archaic as the legal system -- "there are only maybe three people, tops, who can call themselves experts in forensic medicine" -- which does not bode well for discovering the truth in a society in which there are so many lies (Hoeg 59).
The legal system is thus codified to denigrate the traditional ways that Greenlanders have enforced justice through setting community standards and other indigenous ways and instead relies upon a false perception of 'objectivity,' as is typical of many postcolonial societies in which colonial-era tensions still remain. There is also a great deal of prejudice in Danish society against 'Greenlanders' that contaminates the supposedly objective legal system. "To most Danes, being Greenlandic means having serious social and substance abuse problems, and to some it even means coming from a backward culture. There's a well-known saying used to describe someone who is very drunk that goes, 'Drunk as a Greenlander'" (Madsen & Sullivan 2003). This perception is to some degree reinforced in the book by the alcoholism of Isaiah's mother. Smilla's coolness and reserve, and her obsessive fixation on mathematics and academic subjects can be seen as Smilla's attempt to not endorse such racist stereotypes. Amongst the "socially excluded Greenlanders of Vesterbro Torv or Christiania, a counter-culture commune in the heart of Copenhagen where hash is openly sold. They are often homeless and flagrantly drunk, contrasting sharply with a relatively reserved Danish culture" (Madsen & Sullivan 2003).
In fact, Smilla may be more typical of Danish Greenlanders: "according to recent studies, the destitute Greenlanders only constitute approximately 10% of the Greenlandic population in Denmark. Thus the vast majority of Greenlanders, estimated to be between 7,000-9,000, lead lives similar to that of any other Dane but have to nevertheless reckon with a both unfair and misrepresentative stereotype of indigence" (Madsen & Sullivan 2003). According to one Greenlander, they [Danes] "say 'Oh, you don't look like a Greenlander,' and they mean it like a compliment, but if they saw me with a beer in my hand they would say that I look like a Greenlander" (Madsen & Sullivan 2003). Smilla's 'half-breed' status enables her to apprehend the prejudices of ordinary Danes that they might not otherwise reveal to a full-blooded Greenlander. "Many Greenlanders have been brought up to believe that everything Greenlandic is worse than, or not as good as, Danish" (Madsen & Sullivan 2003). But the image of what she is supposed to be like as a Greenlander obviously has had a profound impact upon her psyche.
Denmark's policies to its indigenous people have long been criticized as hypocritical. At the time when the book is set, "when Denmark in 1997 ratified the European Council's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, it only granted status as a national minority to the Germans living in the southern part of Denmark… Endowing national minority status to the Greenlanders residing in Denmark would provide directly claimable rights regarding language, culture and traditions," which it was unwilling to do (Madsen & Sullivan 2003).