What to wear on the first day of school — Greenland style

A child's very first day of school can be important for family members in any part of the world, but for Inuit in Greenland, it's a chance to celebrate a child's culture by dressing up in their national costume.

From sealskin boots and shorts to long, beaded necklaces once a sign of wealth

Six-year-old Viiva Emilie K'unerséK Liimakka Laue and her classmates started their first day of school in Nuuk, Greenland, wearing their national costumes. (submitted by Linn Ivalo Liimakka Laue)
Every parent wants their children dressed in their best for the first day of school, but in Greenland, that means a whole different thing.
Akutaq Williamson Bathory wore a traditional Greenlandic outfit on her first day of school in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (submitted by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory)

Inuit in Greenland mark a child's first day of school by dressing up in their national costume, elaborate and often colourful outfits that speak to their Inuit heritage — everything from sealskin boots and shorts to long, beaded necklaces once a sign of wealth.

"It's a big deal here," says Linn Ivalo Liimakka Laue of Nuuk, Greenland, whose niece started school Aug. 18.

"The whole family gets dressed up in our national suits."

The formality is reserved for a child's very first day entering the school system, marking something "symbolic," says Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, who lives in Iqaluit, but is of Greenlandic origin.

"It's a wonderful thing to be able to celebrate children for who they are in a cultural context and make them excited about their scholarly career," Williamson Bathory says.

Though the special, first-day dress is not traditionally practiced by Inuit in Canada, Williamson Bathory and a friend, who is also of Greenlandic origin, carried on the custom in Iqaluit when they sent their daughters to school on their first day of kindergarten.

'Extra special for girls'

Laue says dressing up in the national costume is only one part of the celebration in Greenland.

The family who's sending their child to school also hosts a big feast with traditional dishes made of reindeer, seal and maktaa — frozen whale skin and blubber.

Laue's niece, six-year-old Viiva Emilie K'unerséK Liimakka Laue, started her first day of school with 90 other classmates; the occasion was marked by a special assembly.

Linn Ivalo Liimakka Laue with her sister Aili Liimakka Laue and her niece Viiva Emilie. Laue says the very first day of school for a child in Greenland is a community celebration. (submitted by Linn Ivalo Liimakka Laue)

Laue says the whole thing was bittersweet, bringing a tear to her eye.

"It was heartbreaking because she's the youngest," says Laue. "It was a great day also because I know it's a first step to her getting an education."

Laue completed her nursing degree last year at age 38. She says Inuit in Greenland have historically faced many hurdles when it comes to getting an education.

"It's extra special for the girls," says Laue. "It wasn't so long ago... that girls didn't get an education."

She hopes her niece doesn't wait as long as she did to pursue post-secondary studies.

The makings of a national costume

Though the traditional outfits differ from region to region, there are some staples that are maintained across Greenland, such as sealskin boots, called Kamiit, worn by Inuit all over the circumpolar world.
Viiva Emilie K'unerséK Liimakka Laue at the assembly in her school marking her very first day of classes. (submitted by Linn Ivalo Liimakka Laue)

The women's outfits also include sealskin shorts and a red shirt.

In western Greenland, elaborate beaded necklaces are also worn, a remnant from the fur trade. The beads were given to Inuit in exchange for fur.

"Traditionally, the more beads you have the more wealthy you are," says Laue.

Though it's no longer a sign of wealth, Laue says women take pride in making one-of-a kind patterns.

The men wear simple tunics and shorter sealskin boots.

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.