There’s a story microbiologist Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann likes to tell about a defining moment in her research into Indigenous Greenlandic foodways. On her way to Siorapaluk, the northernmost community in Greenland, to document and study the making of kiviaq—whole seabirds fermented in the hollowed-out carcass of a seal—she stopped in Qaanaaq for an interview at a local radio station. Later, landing at the heliport in Siorapaluk, Hauptmann encountered an Inughuit [a people indigenous to the region—Ed.] woman who had heard the interview and saw Hauptmann as another “expert” coming in to tell the Indigenous community that their food was wrong, strange, or disgusting. There is a long history of outsiders looking down on Arctic Indigenous communities for eating fermented or raw meat, hunting narwhals, and so on. Hauptmann tried to make it clear her intention was, in fact, the opposite. She was going to Siorapaluk, she explained, not because she was an expert but because she was looking for experts. She wanted to learn more about Greenlandic methods of fermentation and their importance for health. In the end the woman’s anger subsided, and her family agreed to host Hauptmann’s whole research team.

Colonists began arriving in Greenland in 1721, operating under a royal charter from Frederick IV of Denmark, which they believed granted them authority over the territory. The centuries of colonization that followed fit a familiar pattern: the establishment of trading ports for the extraction of natural resources and wealth; the spread of diseases, including smallpox; the missionary work of proselytizing to the Indigenous population. It was only in 1953 that Greenland’s status of colony was finally ended, and it was made a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Inevitably, however, the Danish perspective continued to dominate in Greenland, even in the field of biological research.

It was while studying Arctic metagenomics as part of a doctoral program at the Technical University of Denmark that Hauptmann began exploring the ethics and social impact of her work. Born in Nuuk, Greenland, Hauptmann had grown up between cultures with a father who was Danish and a mother who was Inuit. [A group of Indigenous peoples of northern Alaska, Arctic Canada, Russia, and Greenland.—Ed.] Her household in Greenland had been primarily Danish speaking, and her family had eaten mostly Danish foods. What would it mean, she wondered, if her work as a biologist were to take a Greenlandic perspective instead?

At the time research into the human gut microbiome had been rapidly advancing, but the focus was primarily on plant-based diets sourced from industrial agriculture. Hauptmann would later tell an interviewer at a scientific journal, “I wondered why no one seemed to acknowledge that some peoples, and in particular Arctic Indigenous peoples, have lived healthily off animal-source foods for millennia. It was clear to me that there is a large gap in our understanding of how healthy animal-source foods affect the microbiome. And not just animal-source foods, but foods that are not industrially produced, foods that come straight out of our environment, including microbes from our environment.”

This shift in perspective led her to start a project called the Greenland Diet Revolution. Using what she describes as the “lens of microbiology,” she attempted to understand the complex relationships—microbial, cultural, and historical—between Inuit and the Arctic environment. Her research on the harvesting, preparation, sharing, and consumption of traditional fermented foods radically questions Western beliefs about diet and sustainability.

Hauptmann has helped spearhead the creation of the SILA biology bachelor program at Ilisimatusarfik, a first-of-its-kind curriculum for the study of natural sciences in a Greenlandic context. The program takes its name from the Greenlandic word sila, which contains many meanings depending on context or usage, among them: state of mind, sky, weather, breath, consciousness, the universe. The curriculum will emphasize Inuit knowledge and culture as foundational elements for understanding the natural sciences. Over the past year Hauptmann and I talked several times over video chat, discussing the history of Inuit foodways, how colonialism and racism have disrupted those practices, and the possibility of undoing some of that damage in the future. [Not all conversations are as linear and succinct as they appear. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.—Ed.]

Photograph of Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann.

Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann
© Emil Stach

Williams: When we talk about traditional foods of Greenland, what are they? What are the origins of those traditions?

Hauptmann: To get to these lands, the Indigenous inhabitants traveled over Canada in the north almost a thousand years ago, then over Baffin Bay, down the west coast of Greenland to the south, and up the east coast. It was the close relationship with the seal that made their journey possible. Our survival in this environment has depended on the seal. It is our ancestors and the seals’ ancestors that have brought us here today and allow us to call ourselves indigenous to these lands.

For the earliest human presence on these lands the animals were our food, our fuel, our clothes. All of our culture—values, beliefs, taboos, storytelling—has centered around being able to feed ourselves here.

Williams: How did this relationship with the seal as a food source begin?

Hauptmann: Imagine you’re traveling down the west coast of Greenland into completely unknown lands, and you come across an abundance of seals. You don’t know what you’ll find in the ten kilometers ahead. You aren’t sure if it will be possible to go any farther or if there will be any food. Because of this uncertainty, you might kill more seals than you can eat and preserve the rest.

There are two obvious ways of preserving food in the Arctic: freezing and fermentation, the use of microorganisms to make something last longer, which also alters texture and taste. I know that at least some communities preferred to have the seals fermented rather than frozen, but there was the option to do both. You could put the seal so deep into the ground that it would begin to ferment, or you could keep it at surface temperatures and freeze it.

One method of fermentation is to put the seal under rocks so that polar bears and other predators cannot get to it. You leave it there. If you were an early arrival to this land, maybe people coming after you would find it, and there would be food for them. Or if you traveled farther and found no food, you could go back and get what you had stored.

Outsiders often don’t understand the Inuit fermentation practice. One Danish official in Greenland has described it as leaving seals to “rot” and argued that we are not able to care for ourselves or to prepare for winter and that we are wasteful. [Here’s a quote from Rasmus Müller, who published Vildtet og Jagten i Sydgronland (Wildlife and Hunting in Southern Greenland) in 1906:

The masses of meat produced are immense, and it would seem that if all of it were dried, the Greenlanders could not by any means suffer want in winter; but this is unfortunately not the case, the Greenlanders and especially the women being too much children of the moment. . . . They are often content with drying the smaller part of it and then let the remainder lie rotting, and this in spite of the fact that the very last winter they have perhaps been starving for want of provisions, yes, it even happens so that they do not even care to cut open the seals in proper time, so that both skin and meat lies and becomes rotten in the blazing sun.—Ed.]

Тhat attitude comes from a type of racism that still exists in some places. But if those communities had been willing to think of Inuit as worthy and competent, they would have recognized a preservation process, and not wastefulness.

We perceive people who have savings accounts and who store food in their cupboards to have good sense; they’ve done the right thing for the future. But that’s actually frowned upon in an Inuit context.

Williams: Is this kind of preservation key to the food traditions in Greenland?

Hauptmann: Not exclusively. You don’t kill more than you need just to do it. In southern Greenland fresh food is the most important. It’s considered the most nutritious. It has the most flavor. It corresponds to the season and the place that you’re in. The way fresh foods connect us to a time and a place is incredibly important. If you have access to seals and it’s a good time to hunt, then you hunt as much as you can eat, and maybe some more to share. People still do this. There are still networks in bigger towns like Ilulissat, where when people go hunting, they know who would like some of what. If a hunter accidentally catches a big old male seal that will probably not taste the best, they might know a person who will want that for their dogs.

This culture of sharing is an interesting contrast to the way we view good behavior in Western countries, where we perceive people who have savings accounts and who store food in their cupboards to have good sense; they’ve done the right thing for the future. But that’s actually frowned upon in an Inuit context. There, you don’t save for yourself. If you have something, you give it away. The people who give more are the people who have more respect and power in communities.

Williams: How does seal hunting work? Can you describe it?

Hauptmann: First you need to be conscious about the time of year and to have an understanding of seal behavior and life cycles. The seals at different life stages have different names in our language. They also have different names depending on their age and gender. I guess from a Western scientific perspective, it almost sounds like we’re speaking about different species. You need to know which seals are arriving where and which breeds live in which areas. To hunt properly requires you to understand a lot about seal biology. And there’s the weather, of course. You need to know when you’re safe to go out. You need to know how to sail a boat and how to handle a gun.

On the boat you slow down among the icebergs and look for the heads of seals coming up to breathe. You watch how quickly they go up and down, get an understanding of whether this seal will surface again soon, and then try to get as close as you can. If it has been a rainy spring, the water will be more fresh than salty among the icebergs in the fjord. That means the seals, once you shoot them, will sink much faster. So you need to know what the weather was like this spring, and you have to have an understanding of physics. After you shoot, you have only a few seconds to put the gun down, race over, and grab the seal with a hook. Then you tow it behind the boat, find a stable ice floe somewhere, and take care of the carcass there.

Williams: Is there a type of commercial seal hunting that differs from the subsistence hunting you describe?

Hauptmann: Yes, we do engage in commercial hunting in Greenland, and some of our traditional foods are sold in supermarkets, like minced reindeer or caribou and musk ox. This type of meat is also sold at our hunters’ markets, where the hunters can sell their catch of the day. You can go there early in the morning and get fresh fish and seal and whale and caribou. This is different from in Canada, where there is still a taboo against selling traditional foods—or “country foods,” as they call them—in stores. We have had commercialized hunting here for more than a hundred years.

Williams: Does commercial seal hunting have drawbacks for the ecosystem?

Hauptmann: Seals here are not endangered. I can’t speak with scientific expertise, but I believe the level of hunting we have today, with the number of people we are—not that many—in combination with importing a lot of foods, has created a pretty good balance between the seal and human populations. The hunting period for reindeer in recent years has been extended because the populations were growing too big. Some animals—caribou, musk ox, and seal, for instance—need to be hunted for their populations to stay in balance.

Williams: In the US we have certain wild animals—feral hogs, to name one—that no longer have apex predators to keep their populations in balance. Because of that imbalance, wild-hog populations have become enormous and are doing damage to native ecosystems and crops in large parts of the country. Commercial hunting of feral hogs would help manage the problem, but there is a taboo against selling game meat in this country. There are, of course, some good reasons for that; market hunters in the nineteenth century vastly overhunted North America. But it’s also worth noting that the taboo has roots in class-based and anti-immigrant prejudice.

Hauptmann: Sometimes we hold on so tightly to the ideology we’ve chosen that we develop blind spots or aren’t willing to see that our ideology no longer accomplishes what we hoped it would.

Williams: How do the seasons in Greenland—and Arctic communities in general—shape food traditions?

Hauptmann: Our foods are very seasonally specific, as well as geographically specific and family specific. Consider the little auk, a small seabird that comes to northern Greenland in May to breed. It arrives by the thousands, if not millions, and stays for several months. So it’s a very abundant food source during that time. When a food is abundant only at certain times of the year, you need to find a way to preserve it. So families developed a way to ferment the little auk and make what is called kiviaq.

The same happens with the capelin—a small fish that we call ammassaat. It arrives in late May or early June off the west coast of Greenland and travels north. Many families harvest the capelin in large numbers, then dry them and store them for winter.

Sometimes we hold on so tightly to the ideology we’ve chosen that we develop blind spots or aren’t willing to see that our ideology no longer accomplishes what we hoped it would.

Williams: Have these practices changed as the climate has changed?

Hauptmann: Many seasonal practices that depend on sea ice have. Especially in northern Greenland, people depend on the use of dogsleds to travel far distances over sea ice to hunt. We have a thousand years of elaborate seal-hunting practices that revolve around a seal’s behavior underneath the ice. In recent years the sea ice has not been forming the way it used to. It’s really hurting communities in northern Greenland. This year there had to be a gathering of resources and money for communities there, because they could not go hunting. The ice was not strong enough. Hunting is crucial for feeding families and their dogs.

I’ve been working with fermenting seal blubber, which is called iginneq, in southern Greenland. It’s made from the blubber of hooded seal that is laid out on the rocks along the shore, where it is transformed by wind, weather, sun, and microbes. The blubber starts running, and you get the tastiest oil and pieces of fat, which you can eat with dried fish and dried meat. One year we wanted to purchase a batch of fermented seal blubber in Nuuk, but we couldn’t because there had been no sea ice on the southern tip of Greenland, and therefore no seals, who arrive with the ice. So no one could ferment the blubber that year.

Williams: So climate change is altering the fermentation practices in Greenland?

Hauptmann: Our practices are completely dependent on the weather and the natural environment. Many cultures use salt to help control fermentation processes, but our fermentation practices do not involve salt. So it’s hard to imagine that the changes in climate will not affect fermentation. But I think people here are flexible. The year 2019 was quite warm, which affected the process of making kiviaq—the fermented seabirds. Each family evaluates when the kiviaq is done based on how much sun there has been that year. The sun can’t shine directly on the kiviaq, but it shines on the rocks, and that is what creates the fermentation process. Families decided to put it in the freezer earlier than expected because there had been a lot of sun that year. They couldn’t ferment it as long as they would in a year where the sun was not shining as much.

A hunter in North Greenland perches high on a rocky cliff and extends a long pole with a large ring at the end covered with netting to catch in flight a certain type of small seabird—little auks—that are abundant for several months in the spring.

Savissivik, North Greenland, July 2014. Little auks breed by the millions in the Thule District. A hunter catches them using a net on a long stick.
© Carsten Egevang

Williams: Could you describe the process of making kiviaq?

Hauptmann: You hollow out a seal until all that remains is just a little bit of fat and the skin. You’re left with this sort of tube of sealskin with holes at both ends. Then you catch your seabirds. For the little auk, in the very northern part of Greenland, people hunt with nets. Depending on the size of the seal and the type of birds, you might be able to fit several hundred seabirds inside a single sealskin.

Before they can be stuffed in the sealskin, you need to allow the birds to cool completely. While the birds cool, you cannot allow the sun to “see the food”—that’s the way that it’s phrased—meaning the sun cannot shine on it. Once they’ve cooled completely, you start putting the whole birds inside the sealskin. You stuff it really full and carefully sew up all the holes in the sealskin, then press down to push out any air that might get trapped inside. You can even stomp on it to get the air out before you sew the last hole shut. Then you put rocks on top and let the sun do its thing.

Williams: How long does it ferment?

Hauptmann: Sometimes five to six months; it varies a lot, depending on the weather.

Williams: Do you have a sense of how long these fermentation practices have been around?

Hauptmann: No, we don’t, but it’s obvious they developed out of need. If you have a thousand birds that you would like to keep for winter, and you need something to put them in, and the main thing you eat is seal, then of course you’re going to stuff the birds inside the sealskin. And of course you’re going to put them under rocks so the polar bears and foxes and wolves don’t eat them. It’s such a close collaboration with the conditions and the environment that you don’t have to control or manage the process too much.

Williams: Is it possible that these fermented diets might be in some way beneficial to our health?

Hauptmann: Very possible. A hot research topic today is the human microbiome—the ecosystem of microbes that live on and inside of us. Researchers are starting to understand how a lot of modern diseases—inflammatory diseases, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease—are connected to our microbiomes and especially to our intestinal microbiomes. One explanation for the rise in such diseases is that we have decreased the diversity of our internal ecosystems. Higher diversity is usually better. It creates more-robust ecosystems. In the modern Western person’s gut certain microbes seem to be missing. We have somehow created a dysfunctional gut ecosystem.

What I’m interested in is: Where did the diversity come from originally? Diet is an obvious place to look for the answer. We have established that if we dry capelin traditionally, they contain more-diverse microbes than if we dry them using an industrial process. Industrialized food production exposes us to fewer microorganisms. Getting rid of bad microbes was a goal of industrializing our food production, but in the process we’ve lost some of the good microbes too.

In my lab we have a pilot project now with a chef who’s been kayaking from southern Greenland to northern Greenland and eating only Greenlandic foods. He ate the dried capelin for three weeks. We’re studying him to see if this shifts his gut microbiome.

Williams: How did the arrival of the Danes in Greenland change the Indigenous foodways?

Hauptmann: Colonization by Denmark began in 1721. That also marks the meeting between two very different food cultures: one that is 100 percent hunter-gatherer, where everything eaten comes from the wild and is not domesticated in any way; and a Danish food culture that is predominantly agricultural and in which both plants and meats are domesticated. We know that before colonization we had no diabetes, extremely rare occurrences of cancer, and no cardiovascular disease. What we have learned about omega-3 fatty acids and marine oils and how good those are for heart health comes from early research in Greenland, inspired by the historical lack of cardiovascular disease here. Today, however, the Inuit in Greenland have incredibly high rates of diabetes and heart disease and cancer. That shift in disease patterns is massive.

Williams: Is it safe to say there was also a change in the environment following the Danish colonization of Greenland?

Hauptmann: I can’t speak to how the climate has changed over the past three hundred years. I do know we have food contaminants that didn’t exist before. Pollution from industrialized areas around the globe accumulates in the Arctic food system as a consequence of industrialization.

Williams: Earlier you mentioned a Danish observer describing fermentation practices as wasteful. As I understand it, colonization disrupted the generational knowledge of hunting and traditional food practices. Do you think that shift was part of a racist attitude toward Indigenous food practices?

Hauptmann: I think the Danish official who described the “wastefulness” he saw is definitely an example of racism. There’s an underlying assumption that, because he didn’t know what these people were doing, they must be unintelligent and not able to handle themselves. Prior to the 1950s there was a tendency to view the native Greenlanders as “noble savages,” and efforts were made to preserve their authenticity, which fed into a narrative of Danish people as good colonizers. Then in 1953 Greenland officially became a part of Denmark, and there was an intense strategy of “Danization,” which meant making Greenlanders Danish. When I meet Danish people from my grandparents’ generation, a lot of them still talk about Greenland as “northern Denmark” and Greenlanders as “Northern Danes.”

This period had immense consequences. A huge part of Danization was moving Greenlanders out of “unhygienic” houses where extended families lived together and into apartment complexes that were “more efficient.” During a public comment on this process, a group of Greenlandic women gathered to explain that the new houses did not have enough room for handling traditional foods like seals. They said they missed having the space to store Greenlandic foods. And when the men came home dirty and smelly from hunting and fishing, where was the hunting equipment supposed to go—the kick-sleds, skis, and the like? They were told by Danish officials that our diet would go extinct anyway, arguing that there was no need to build homes that were fit for our food culture—which is the foundation of all culture and identity for the Inuit.

The Danish journalist Kjeld Hansen wrote a book called A Farewell to Greenland’s Wildlife, in which he says the Danes need to let go of their romantic notions about Greenland’s Indigenous population, because look at the incredible harm they’re doing to their environment. He was quoted in a Danish news article about hunting of the narwhal, saying that the notion of the sustainable Inuit way of life is “drunken nonsense.”

For him to openly refer to our community and one of our biggest social issues as . . . [Stops talking to cry.] I’m sorry.

Williams: Take your time.

Hauptmann: I had to open myself up and become willing to feel hurt by statements like this. When I was younger, I probably would have laughed at it, but now it makes me so sad. Because we do have incredible alcohol problems. But people like Hansen are using it against us instead of recognizing that it’s not because we’re terrible people; it’s because we are broken by colonialism. I had to open my eyes to this view of us and cry over it. It goes straight to my stomach.

Williams: When reading about traditional Greenlandic foods, I often see them described as “disgusting” by Western writers. I’m curious about where culinary disgust comes from and what it might say about the person who describes another culture’s food that way.

Hauptmann: When someone describes our foods as disgusting, I see someone who forgets that we exist. That is reflected a lot in Danish attitudes toward our foods. For example, when you fly into Greenland, there are these short clips you can watch on the plane about Greenlandic foods; they are made by two Danish guys who are literally spitting out the food. They don’t like it. These flights are the only way you can get into the country, so that’s most people’s introduction to our food: through the eyes of Danish people. The fact that this is broadly accepted is really interesting to me. What are “normal” foods? For a lot of the people who make decisions about our food system in Greenland, seal is not normal. To some, seal is an extreme and even disgusting food.

Williams: Do you think our relationship to food is different when we have that experience of actively harvesting it in nature? How would you describe that experience?

Hauptmann: As the rawest emotion of gratitude. This particular aspect is often forgotten when we talk about global food systems. At the core of it for me is the experience of going hunting with my family some years ago. My family has a specific historic hunting area called Angujaartorfik. Many, many, many generations of ancestors have hunted there every year.

And I was lucky that, when we moved back to Greenland, I could bring my son hunting with my family. I was able to hunt and shoot a musk ox. The process of killing an animal was terrible and emotionally unpleasant, but it’s my responsibility to feel that emotion, because that’s the truth of what it means to eat and to draw resources from this planet. That’s the best way I can describe it: the terrible emotions I was filled with are the truth of what it means to be alive. When you live, something else dies. Even if you only eat plants, animals die for you to be able to eat. We do not talk about that often enough.

Our global food system lets us avoid those emotions. We can avoid feeling emotionally the consequences of our being alive.

It sounds like I’m saying we should all feel terrible all the time, but it’s actually the opposite. When you’ve shot this animal and you’ve had to watch it die, when you’ve spent the hours preparing the carcass and cutting it up, and when you’ve carried kilos and kilos of animals for ten or fifteen kilometers—that emotion of gratitude and reverence you feel for that meal is how we should all feel about our food. But we don’t feel that sort of gratitude when we go to the shop and buy groceries. And the same goes for plant-sourced meals: you have more gratitude and reverence for the food if you’ve acquired it through a relationship with the source.

There is a Greenlandic word, sila, which means many things in our language. The primary meaning is “weather,” but sila also means “mind.” We often talk about the dominant narrative around climate change, confining sila’s meaning to climate only, but I think we have to talk about sila in terms of weather and mind. The weather changes because our behaviors and attitudes toward the environment have changed. What is wrong with human behavior today is that we do not feel respect for our environment or gratitude for the things that we take from it. We use so much more than we need, because we don’t have respect and gratitude for everything that we eat. Keeping the conversation about change of sila as climate change is keeping the focus on the symptom instead of the source of the problem, which is human mentality and behavior. That’s the aspect of sila that we need to change. For me, the most profound way we can change that is for people to have a direct relationship to their food and to experience gratitude for it. We’re not talking about that enough.

Long, uniform rows of a large number of small fish, capelin, caught in the spring for a family’s winter use. The fish are set out to dry naturally on rocks to retain their nutritional value. The sea with some ice is visible in the background.

Oqaatsut, Disko Bay, West Greenland, June 2023. The capelin is an ecological and cultural key species in Greenland. In early summer the small fish is caught and then dried on rocks.
© Carsten Egevang

Williams: The EAT-Lancet food-policy initiative claims to be “healthy for both people and planet.” The idea that there would be one healthy or virtuous way for every person and the whole planet to eat seems like an industrial concept or philosophy, motivated by a belief in uniformity. Do you see any connection between Western notions of health and the philosophy that drives industrial foods?

Hauptmann: I’m not sure I would call that philosophy “industrial.” For me it’s more closely tied to colonialism, which is a level deeper than industrial. Colonialism enabled industrialization. Both tie back to the Enlightenment, where we have mechanistic explanations for hierarchical evolutionary concepts.

Essentially it’s a paternalistic philosophy driven by an inability to see people from other cultures as equals, to trust them to be competent and creative and capable. It prevents the Indigenous perspective from becoming part of solutions even today—even on Indigenous land. We get hate for hunting animals on our own lands. People judge us based on some European narrative, rather than asking what they could potentially learn from us, people who have lived and thrived in the Arctic for millennia.

That idea of sharing I mentioned before is a profound difference between our cultures. In a society built on sharing, you give power to people who share rather than to those who have the most money. The universalist Western approach prohibits different virtues like that from being part of the conversation about how we shape our future. Those assumptions of uniformity are apparent in the message that we all need to eat plant-based diets. This message connects to industrial values and is amplified by capitalist incentives. You can see this in the promotion of lab-grown meat, for instance. There’s an assumption that it’s more climate friendly than eating animal meat, which is supposed to be bad for the climate, even though some of the calculations suggest that lab-grown meat is way worse for the climate than conventional beef. Which is not to say that we should all eat conventional beef, but the ideology of what is sustainable gets prioritized rather than the fact of what actually is.

Williams: Do you see a way for us to untangle industrial thought and philosophy from the solutions to industrial problems? Creating an industrial solution to an industrial problem seems wrongheaded to me.

Hauptmann: It breaks my heart when I have conversations with close friends in Denmark who work with policy on climate change. They might say, “Yeah, we need the EU to change their regulations around novel foods so that we can have someone make pea protein for . . .” I’m like, Really? I’m not done thinking through the arguments around it, but when it comes to the EAT-Lancet approach—the planetary diet, global solutions, the fifty foods that should be distributed around the planet [an initiative sponsored by Knorr and the World Wildlife Fund that aims to eliminate “dietary monotony” by identifying “fifty foods we should eat more of because they are nutritious, have a lower impact on our planet than animal-based foods, can be affordable, accessible and taste good”—Ed.]—we need to ask, “Who is this for? Who does this serve? Does it serve people? Does it serve the planet?”

Those global initiatives are ways of conquering local diets and culture. They don’t allow local agency or meaningful change anchored at the local level. It’s essentially about centralizing control over the food system. I just can’t understand how anyone could think that’s a good solution.

There is an underlying assumption that the solution needs to be top-down because BIPOC communities cannot do it themselves. This white-savior approach is very much entangled with a colonial view of the world. There’s a deep distrust of Black and brown and Indigenous people’s ability to find their own solutions, because, “Look at their suicide rate. Look at how much they drink. Look at how poor they are.” Yes, our communities are struggling, but it’s not because we’re terrible savages. It’s because of the history that we’ve been through.

What is wrong with human behavior today is that we do not feel respect for our environment or gratitude for the things that we take from it.

Williams: When you look at that history, do you feel hopeful about the future?

Hauptmann: Yeah, I’m hearing more and more Black and brown and Indigenous voices talking about these things. I think the first step is to establish that a universal solution doesn’t exist, that there’s no one way of doing things, and not everything can be done the Western European way.

The next step is to give ourselves time to think of a solution. We can do it, but we’re not all there yet. And it’s easy for people to criticize us for not being able to manage our environment right now. But I’m seeing it happen. People are beginning to think of new ways of being and doing, and that makes me really hopeful. I’m so privileged to get to work with the SILA biology program, where we aren’t held captive by a dominant narrative around what biology programs are and what biology is. We’ve actually managed to come up with something different. I feel confident that we’re doing the right thing.

Williams: What are the origins of this biology program?

Hauptmann: After years of studying biology at the University of Copenhagen, I had the idea that going caribou hunting would be an incredible way to learn biology in Greenland. The amount of biological knowledge you need to be able to hunt here is incredible. I spent probably seven or eight years thinking about how the subjects we study through biology are connected, but we learn them as separate. We don’t connect biophysics to biochemistry to molecular biology to genetics to cellular biology and the microbiome. In academia we have made these silos of knowledge. And I started growing an idea for a biology program based in Greenland. We have people in our communities who have a deep experiential understanding of biology. And we have this deep love of our land and of being outdoors with our families. That’s what made me choose to study biology in the first place. The outdoors and nature are really at the core for Greenlanders. It’s so important to us. So when, about a year and a half ago, I was given the go-ahead to do this, I was ready.

Williams: Have you encountered a resistance to this kind of approach to learning, or are most people immediately receptive to it?

Hauptmann: The most common response is something like “I wish I could go back to school and join your program. That sounds amazing.” The other response that we get is “Will they be good enough?”—meaning the students who come out of the program. Will they be good enough? Even though what we’re doing adheres to the newest pedagogy. It is research based. Because it turns out that what makes sense for us is actually what the latest literature says makes sense.

Still, some people worry that if we don’t do it the conventional way, the graduates will not be good enough. But the reason we’re doing it this way is because our students won’t succeed if we drag them through their studies the conventional way. And that’s not because there’s something wrong with our students. It’s because there’s something wrong with the conventional way.