Greenland surveys its icy options

The choice is stark. The Inuit homeland can be a missile defence base or lose its Danish subsidy

Axel Olsen smiles his broad, infectious smile. The deputy mayor of Qaanaaq, one of the world's most northerly towns, is serving me a local delicacy - narwhal steak, fresh from the sea. What's tickling him most, however, is the unusual invitation he's just received: dinner next Tuesday with the Danish and American commanders at the Thule airbase. A helicopter will arrive at 5pm and return at midnight - a round trip of about 220 miles. Olsen says he has never been offered quite so expensive a meal.

Nato's charm offensive towards Inuit such as Olsen has been close to full throttle for more than two years now, ever since George W Bush made clear that the Pentagon's controversial plans for a missile defence shield were a top priority. The so-called "Son of Star Wars", an advanced way of blowing enemy missiles out of the sky, requires not just effective weaponry (itself a problem until now), but also early warning. Thule offers precisely that. The most northerly US military outpost since 1951, the airbase houses Washington's most comprehensive radar coverage of the polar region and, along with the Fylingdales base in Yorkshire, its only advanced early warning system in the North Atlantic. Unlike the pliant British, the Greenlandic body politic is in uproar about the US missile defence plans.

"We know the Russians are against it, the Chinese are against it," Olsen observes, "so we are against it. If they upgrade the radar at Thule, that will make us a military target. Maybe even a nuclear target."

The fears are symptomatic of Greenland's long-standing resentment over its perceived vassal status, a resentment directed both at the US military and at the island's colonial masters in Copenhagen. Despite granting Greenland a large degree of home rule in 1979, Denmark is the predominant cultural and political force in Greenlandic life and directly controls foreign policy and defence. It was a grateful, postwar Denmark that granted the Americans control over the 300-square-mile Thule site back in the 1950s without giving much thought to local Inuit concerns. The arrival of heavy aircraft, military vehicles and hundreds of servicemen forced an entire community from their traditional home and hunting grounds.

"We had no choice," recalls the 80-year-old Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, who led the exodus from the settlement at Uummannaq in 1953. "The noise was driving away the seals and walruses. So we had to come here and build a whole new town in Qaanaaq. No one helped us, neither the Americans nor the Danes." The sense of grievance doesn't end there. In 1968, a B-52 crashed a few miles off the coast. Qujaukitsoq and other hunters rushed to help, not realising that the aircraft had scattered four nuclear warheads across the sea.

Some fairly tortured legal claims have dragged their way through the Danish courts over the past decade, granting the local Inuit compensation both for the loss of their homes and for the feared environmental damage caused by the air crash. The US has also handed back title to the land at Uummannaq to Denmark, although a new legal row has developed over alleged pollution and military hardware that is said to be still littering the site.

On an island the size of Greenland, you might think these rows would have little significance to the majority of the 56,000 inhabitants - 95 per cent of whom live at least 800 miles away to the south. But the Thule region, the last bastion of the traditional Inuit hunting economy, has a symbolic status - not least as the original bridgehead through which the first Inuit settlers arrived from northern Canada around 10,000 years ago.

Mikaela Engell, a senior government official in Nuuk, Greenland's capital, puts it succinctly: "The feeling about Thule is that this is our land, our territory, and that Denmark and America do what they like without giving us a say - and that is what has provoked these nationalist sentiments."

The missile defence issue has done more than anything else to galvanise dreams of full independence - about 80 per cent of Greenland's population are now said to favour separation from Denmark. The nationalistic fervour has propelled the left-leaning Inuit Brotherhood (IA) to the forefront of Greenlandic politics. It is now the second-largest party in parliament, threatening the Siumut (social democrat) hegemony that has held sway throughout the 24 years of home rule. But the problem that neither the IA nor anyone else can yet resolve is how Greenland can afford to cut ties with Copenhagen, which at the moment bankrolls it to the tune of £240m, about two-thirds of the island's GDP.

The Danish parliament has provisionally approved US plans to upgrade the Thule airbase as part of the missile defence programme, although publicly the issue remains subject to negotiation.

Axel Olsen, the IA's chief representative in Qaanaaq, knows that the deal will be clinched sooner or later. "It's now all about money. How much are the Americans willing to pay, and how much of that money will come to us, the local people of the Thule region? We need a new hospital, a new school building," he says. Whatever final figure is agreed, the drive for independence is unlikely to be arrested now.

"This is an exciting time to be a Greenlander," says Per Berthelsen, head of the centrist Democratic Party. "My generation was the first to receive a high school education. Now my children are the first to go to university. One hundred and fifty years ago, many Greenlanders in the north and east didn't even know there was an outside world."

But privately, he accepts that independence may be many years off yet, at least until there is a measure of economic self- sufficiency. "It's a political game," he says. "For now, we must keep playing it."