Northern Light

Nature and culture, youth sexual health and community based research in Greenland.

carolCarol Devine

Elizabeth Rink, courtesy Elizabeth Rink

Elizabeth Rink, courtesy Elizabeth Rink

Dr Elizabeth Rink is Associate Professor, Department of Health and Human Development at Montana State University in the U.S. She received her doctorate in Public Health at Oregon State University.  Her research interests include examining the individual, social, cultural and environmental determinants of sexual health. Specific research includes adolescent sexual health and depression, male reproductive and sexual health, and factors that influence sexual risk taking behaviours among indigenous populations.

Beth has been leading an international team of researchers on a major grant from the National Science Foundation to help decrease unusually high rates of sexually transmitted infections among young people living in Greenland. I met Beth at the Nunamed conference about health, health care and health research in Greenland in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, in early September 2013. It was rainy in Nuuk and in the old harbour you could spot small icebergs.



1. Can you tell me more about your research in Greenland these past years? Where have you been doing your research?

For the past seven years I have been researching the social, cultural and behavioral factors that influence sexually transmitted infections among adolescents in Greenland. Specifically I have been working with community people in Uummannaq and Paamiut in Greenland. I also collaborate with researchers at the University of Greenland (Ilisimatusarfik) in Nuuk.

2. You described at the Nunamed session on Community Based Research Practices your experience of the importance to take time to develop relationships and a cultural understanding with the community. For example, you mentioned the word abstinence isn’t a translatable Greenlandic word when it comes to talking about strategies for reduction of sexually transmitted infections.

Yes. This is correct. Greenlanders appear to have a very natural view of sex. I remember interviewing a young man when I first starting working in Greenland and he stated, “Having sex is like drinking water and sleeping. It is natural.”

3. What’s been something powerful or surprising about youth, particularly female youth in Greenland that you’ve learned?

The young people in Greenland are very comfortable to spend time with. They are very trusting, which after being born and raised in the US I do not think we are so trusting of others. But in Greenland people have needed to rely on others for survival for centuries and this need to work together and to keep harmony has resulted in high levels of trust amongst people.

4. How has working with native communities in Montana informed you in approaching your work in Greenland?

I believe all the work one does influences itself. I have learned a lot from both indigenous populations about the importance of time and waiting and the need to have patience. I have learned about letting events unfold as opposed to pushing my agenda forward or insisting that things be done a certain way. I have learned that everything has ‘it’s own time’ and not to rush things. I have learned also about paying close attention to the environment around me … what is the air doing, what is in the sky, how does the water look, what does the ice look like, what direction is the wind coming from, how does the wind feel.

Paamuit Greenland by Elizabeth Rink

Paamuit Greenland by Elizabeth Rink

5. With the news of the rapidly melting Arctic, the Greenlandic ice sheet and the movie Chasing Ice (James Balog), Greenland is on the brain. How is the community you work with affected by, thinking about or adapting/preparing for climate change?

The Greenlanders I work with have known that their environment has been changing for a while. I have heard them say they knew about climate change long before the scientists starting telling them about it. They will talk about what the snow and the ice was like when they were young compared to what it is like now. They seem to get sad when there is no snow. They will talk with me about how the snow brings light and then the ice comes. They are adapting in that the hunters have to fish more now instead of go out hunting for animals. And the hunters have to go farther and farther away to find the animals. Also the young people do not necessarily want to hunt and fish for a living. They want a more western education and western jobs and this is sometimes difficult as they might have to leave their community to get an education and Greenlanders do not like to leave their home, where they are from, because that is where their family is. That is a central part of who they are.

Ummannaq Mountain Greenland by Elizabeth Rink

Ummannaq Mountain Greenland by Elizabeth Rink

6. Can you tell me briefly about a Greenlandic woman you’ve met who has inspired you and why?

You know you have asked me about a Greenlandic woman that I respect and admire … an amazing Greenlandic woman … and I have to say that from my perspective all the women in Greenland that I have met over the years are amazing. They are this incredible mix of strength and femininity. They work and raise families in places with below zero temperatures, windy and dark part of the year and yet they are very gentle in their speech and graceful in their movements. I have often thought that the Greenlandic women reflect the same qualities as the snow around them … intense, powerful, solid and when you touch it, is soft and light. The other aspect of the women in Greenland is of course the men … because in all cultures there is the presence of the balance between masculine and feminine. The men truly seem to respect and honor the feminine in Greenland. There are of course situations in Greenland like in all cultures where women may be treated disrespectfully … but this idea that there is balance between men and women and the need to have both masculine and feminine energies in a place to sustain the people, traditions and the place is strong in Greenland. One of the Greenlandic ancient stories is about the Goddess of Sea and how she was a woman cast out by her family into the ocean and left sad and alone and because of this she became angry and all the animals started to die and go away and so it was a hunter that swam down into the depths of the ocean to make her happy again so that she would bring back all the animals for a good hunt. There is of course more to the story than that but I think it is a good representation of how Greenlandic men know the importance of honoring the feminine. And that in order for life to thrive and grow and for there to be abundance the feminine must be nurtured and supported.

icefjord Greenland by Elizabeth Rink

icefjord Greenland by Elizabeth Rink

7. Even though Greenland is only a two hour flight from Canada (Baffin Island) I have met few people who have been there so imagine readers globally would like to hear a bit more about the physical landscape of this large glaciated Arctic country. What about Greenland’s landscape has captured you? What do you miss when you’re gone?

The ice and the water are amazing. As is all the snow. What has captured me is how quiet it is when I am there. When I come back to the US everything and everyone feel and sounds so loud and rough. There everything feels so still, like there is a softness with all the snow and the color of the ice, yet it is one of the harshest environments on earth. The northern lights are lovely. One of my favorite things to do when I am in Greenland is to walk outside at night and look up at the northern lights and feel the wind around me.

Carol Devine – Activism + Culture
Carol is a Canadian writer, researcher and humanitarian with insatiable wanderlust. For Doctors Without Borders she defended humanitarian principles in Rwanda, Sudan and East Timor. For the Diplomacy Training Program, University of New South Wales, she co-trained Aboriginal, Tibetan and Burmese youth. Carol also led the first Antarctic civilian volunteer ecological expedition. Carol is currently trying meditation, to learn more physics and get back on her skateboard. Carol can be contacted at:
Life Balance = Run. Explore. Laugh.