On the balcony of a new apartment house here, strips of reindeer meat and freshly caught fish hang from a clothesline to dry in the frigid Arctic air.

The apartment house is dormitory-style modern, like a dozen other long low, faceless buildings that stretch for blocks through this town.

In those new apartments live thousands of people whose Eskimo ancestors survived for centuries by hunting and fishing but who, in the past 30 years or so, have been catapulted from a primitive society into an ear of apartment houses, schools, helicopters, stereos and whiskey.

For the most part, the 40,000 nativeborn Greelanders who populate this gigantic frozen island -- the largest in the world (exclusive of Australia) and 10 times the size of England -- have only been onlookers in this development process. For 250 years, Greenland was a colony of Denmark, shut off to all outsiders. In 1953, it became a Danish county and since then the plans, decisions and money to "modernize" the island have come from Copenhagen.

There have been positive effects from all this, to be sure. Hygiene and education are better. Once rampant tuberculosis has almost been wiped out and life expectancy is beginning to lengthen in a land where 55 percent of the native population is 18 or under. Yet, the price of such a rapid change in an ancient culture has been high.

The suicide rate among Greenlanders, according to Danish-born Dr. Inge Lynge, one of two psychiatrists on the island, is between two and three times as high as in Denmark, a country whose own suicide rate is already among the highest in the world. Here in Godthab, the administrative capital where about one-sixth of the native population lives, the rate is five or six times as high as Denmark. She says the figure reflects the difficult adjustment to a small-city environment for people who came here from tiny villages.

In the past few years, Greenlanders say, murders have also increased to about the same rate as suicides in a land of hunters where most people have guns.

Linked to both grim statistics is an alcohol problem that surveys show affects more than 10 percent of the households and has become so severe that the provincial council has voted to begin rationing beer and liquor in May.

These seemingly self-destructive trends are a source of both embarrassment and frustration to the Greenlanders because they tend to overshadow the more traditional generosity and close family ties that existed here and because they obscure what many believe will be a turn for the better.

Under the home rule measure, which is expected to pass by a wide margin despite some strong opposition, Greenland would remain a part of the Danish kingdom and subject to the Danish constitution. It would also continue to depend on the roughly $250 million annual subsidy from Copenhagen since the fishing economy here has been unable to support the new life style forced upon it.

The new law however, would give the Greenlanders a large measure of self-government, with a control over taxation, education, labor and cultural affairs and a potentially important veto over future resource exploitation. The home rule proposal resulted from five years of work by a joint Danish-Greenlander commission.

Perhaps most important, says Helena Risager, a specialist in youth and social affairs for Greenland Radio, "we hope the knowledge of home rule, the feeling, will raise the political consciousness here so that people will get engaged in their future. We have serious problems now, but for the first time we'll have a chance to solve them and I think eventually we will. They will be our problems."

Greenland actually began its turn to modern ways in World War II, when Denmark was occupied by Germany, and the United States -- through a request by the Danish ambassador in Washington -- assumed responsibility for protecting the island. Military contacts gave Greenlanders a taste for a different life.

After the war, islanders began backing U.N. resolutions attacking colonization. So the Danes, perhaps also worried that Greenlanders might turn to the United States, granted the island rights in 1953 as a part of Denmark rather than as a colony.

The Danes poured in money, teachers and skilled workers and allowed in whiskey for the first time. But, as Lynge says, "The planners in Copenhagen looked mostly at the technical side. One couldn't imagine what it would mean to family and emotional life."

Over the centuries, the Arctic and Canadian Eskimos that settled here have intermingled with Dutch and Scandinavian whale hunters and fishermen. Only a few thousand pure Eskimos remain, in the vast permanently frozen northern reaches. The rest of the island's 50,000 people live along the coast further south.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a score of small villages were abandoned as the Danes sought to encourage people to move to larger towns so they could earn money -- which was now needed -- and be cared for by a doctor. There was an element of forced migration in this, many natives feel. By closing the stores of the Danish trading company and luring away the young skilled hunters, eventually there was no one left in the island's outer reaches to care for the elderly.

In 1950, Godthab had 1,500 people and its first car, says Mayor Peter Thaarup Hoegh. Today, there are 9,200 people and a fleet of 80 radiocontrolled taxis.

What happened, says Lynge, is that the traditional bonds of family and village life shattered. With the move to larger towns, "parents still loved their children as before but the parents became confused about what their children ought to learn. If you don't know yourself how to live in these new strange surroundings, how can you show your children? So there is partly a lost generation here. They lost their old life and do not have a life of meaning in these new times."

Cultural changes continue. The Greenlanders, Helena Risager points out, in 1953 inherited the Danish welfare state... a concept alien to past masters of survival in a harsh environment. This, she sayd, has split the socity between those who take and those who won't, adding to the confusion about work.

Gadthab today looks much like a typical provincial town in the more modern Scandinavian provinces. "But we have nothing to be proud of in these towns because everything was given to us," Risagar says. "They have no relationship to it and that's why some of the young ones destroy it."

New apartments are expensive compared to wages "and people are suddenly living over their heads," adding to the tension and, she believes, the suicide rate.

Youngsters sent to school in Denmark have a different perspective from their parents when they come back. Although Greenland is now turning out about 20 teachers a year, there are still almost four times as many Danish teachers here.

This means that native children are taught Danish in school, which further alienates them from their parents, who speak Greenlandic. The result, says Risager, is that "we have many half-lingual rather than bilingual youngsters, in that they can speak neither language very well."

Like the forthcoming alcohol rationing measure -- which limits everyone over 18 to three bottles of whiskey or 72 beers a month -- a new law that is to accompany home rule requires that Greenlandic be taught in school for the first six years. Home rule, if accepted, is to take effect in May.

It is partly because of these new measures that Mayor Hoegh believes the worst is over. "We are through the developing years," he sayd. "We know of the experience of other developing countries in the world and that there has to be some cultural losses. But it also brings a new awareness of culture. I can say that living today, even though it's more expensive, is easier than before." Although there is still a serious housing shortage, the mayor says the progress in the past three years "has been enormous."

"We know we started from the Stone Age," said weekly newspaper editor Jorgen Fleischer, but "there is no way back."