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We Spoke to the Inuit Women Behind 'Sealfies'

A few weeks ago, Ellen DeGeneres used a selfie-driven social media campaign to raise and donate $1.5 million to an organization petitioning the Canadian government end seal hunting. This upset many in the Inuit community, who feel they're being...

Dave Dean



The attention-grabbing group Sealfie, in downtown Iqaluit, via Twitter.
In a post on Ellen’s blog, the selfie-loving talk show host dramatically referred to the Canadian seal hunt as “one of the most atrocious and inhumane acts against animals allowed by any government.”

It’s great to know that DeGeneres—who I assume spends most of her daily life driving between a Beverly Hills mansion, a Beverly Hills condo and whatever studio she films her show at—still finds the time pass judgment on how people live outside of La La Land. In a weird way, it’s commendable. Where would we be without a talk show host in LA, providing a moral compass on Arctic ethics?

Recently, the Goddess of Selfies was able to generate $3 million dollars in charity through the retweets of a photo featuring herself and some other all-knowing celebs like Jared Leto and Channing Tatum, so it was good to see Ellen stick to her convictions and give $1.5 million to an organization that aligns itself with her beliefs in petitioning the Canadian government to put an end to the hunt of those dewy-eyed, Arctic Ocean puppies.  

But what the frosted tipped, bowtie and blazer adorned deity failed to see in her wisdom, however, is that surprisingly, in this day and age, people who hunt and rely on seals also have access to the internet. Who knew?

In response to Ellen’s hella-ignant, selfie-funded affront on the seal hunt, members of various Inuit communities have taken to social media to take Ellen to task on a way of life she’s now poured millions of dollars into attacking, without really knowing anything about.

Iqaluit resident Laakukuk Williamson Bathory sparked the “sealfie” hashtag in Canada, a concept that in the past few days has gone viral on Twitter and in the news. It has people posting photos of themselves (often mentioning @theellenshow) with seal meat, seal accessories, and in their sealskin Sunday best. 

“I wanted to it to be a tongue-in-cheek protest to all these very serious animal rights activists,” Laakukuk told me via Facebook message. “Many of us Inuit use humour to make a strong point instead of anger. I also wanted the sealfie to focus on cultural celebration and positive self-esteem.”

For some further perspective on the subject, I got in touch with Nancy Mike, a member of the Iqaluit band The Jerry Cans (they go seal hunting in one of their music videos) and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an accomplished filmmaker who’s currently putting the finishing touches on a project that deals with this exact subject. “The film is called Angry Inuk… but this is a working title, we've also considered Phoque You. Seal in French is phoque. We'll see.”

Along with Laakukuk, Nancy and Alethea organized a group sealfie in downtown Iqaluit last week, as an act of protest, and to show solidarity with the Nunavut seal hunt. I spoke with Nancy and Alethea by phone on Saturday morning.

VICE: How is seal hunting important—beyond the practical and survival uses—when it comes to keeping your culture alive?
Nancy
: When someone like Ellen, or anybody who’s a celebrity or is well known, says something like that, it’s attacking us as minority groups because we not only use the seal as a practical thing, we use it to build relationships. We eat the meat, we use the bones or the skin—the bones to make little games for children so they can have fun with it. I don’t know if these words can even explain what I want to say about the importance of seal, because it’s our life. Not only our culture, but our daily living and how we’re taught to be good people and to respect others and respect animals. It’s much more than the practical use of it, not only seals, but any animal we have up here in the north.

Alethea: It’s such a dense subject, but in terms of modern day need—it’s just coming out in the news now, there was a report that was just released stating that Inuit have the most trouble with food security out of any indigenous population in any developed country. So, you know, we’re the poorest population in North America by far. Seven in ten kids go to school hungry, the majority of kids skip meals or go an entire day without food at times. So with that in mind, seal hunting is absolutely critical, literally for the survival of our people still to this day.

As a territory, even our territorial government barely has enough money to operate, to have enough buildings for schools, housing is an issue, we have ridiculously high suicide rates… there have been estimates made that if we were to stop hunting seal and stop eating seal meat that it would take about $5 million dollars per year to import food to replace what we catch on our own. This is still and always will be critically important to sustainable living in the arctic.



Alethea's sealskin wedding attire. Photo via Alethea Alrnaquq-Baril.
What’s your favourite piece of seal clothing, accessory, that you own?
Nancy: A pair of sealskin boots I have that were made by my very good friend from my hometown. Her husband is a great hunter and supports their family with food and sealskin that she prepares by herself—cleaning them, scraping the fat, cleaning them again, stretching them, softening it, sewing it, all those different processes—so they’re very special to me, because I know a lot of work was put into them, knowledge was passed on from somebody else to teach her how to do all those things, it was hunted by her husband, the seal fed her family and others. It's just a great circle of togetherness.

Alethea: It’s just like any other clothes. I’ve got sealskin mitts. I’ve got different kinds of sealskin boots—ones I can wear in the south and ones I can wear in the north. It’s part of my daily life, it’s not like when some people have their one fur coat and that’s their fancy special thing. This is just our daily clothing and so much of it is made from skins that husbands, fathers or grandfathers caught, and we sew ourselves, you don’t have to be rich to own sealskin clothing. It comes with pride to wear them because we’re constantly aware of outside pressure and judgment. But I guess if I had to say one special piece of clothing it would be my wedding dress. I was married in August 2009 in a sealskin wedding dress that I sewed myself. My husband also wore a sealskin vest, and sealskin boots that I made for him as well.




Grade 12 student Killaq Enuaraq Strauss absolutely schools Ellen on the historical and cultural significance of the seal hunt.

If you could tell people in LA to change something about their way of life, what would it be?
Nancy: Instead of living a pretend life, they should come and see what it actually is to live in the north, or to live in such a harsh environment, so they can actually understand, and then maybe they can voice their opinions about these things from their own understanding, not just from other people’s perspectives.

Alethea: Gosh, you know, I’ve been thinking about this issue day and day out for the last five years because I’m making a film on the subject. And I’ve thought about the sealing issue my whole life because I’m Inuk and I live in the north and eat seal meat, and feel judged. And I’m quite judged—verbally and outwardly—sometimes when I travel and people see that I’m wearing sealskin, but I’ve never thought about how to direct people’s lives in LA. I mean, I guess that’s what we’re trying to fight against.

It can also be argued that so much that’s done in cities like LA also affect the north, things like pollution, all the traffic…
Alethea
: Well, I mean that’s a very good point because, yeah, we actually do have concerns about our seal population. The level of mercury that’s in their blood and in their livers is very high and affects our health as well. The pollutants that we’re dealing with in the arctic that end up in our bloodstream are very real threats to us, and the seal population. Hunting is absolutely not a threat to the population but all those pollutants are. As would be increased shipping through the northwest passage, uranium plants and coal mining, all that kind of stuff. We do see threats towards the environment in the arctic and animal populations and it’s not the hunter.

For Ellen or Paul McCartney or whoever it may be, hunting seals is a choice issue to pick on. Why do you think they avoid going after something with a bigger impact like, say, the increased shipping or mining?
Alethea: Seal hunting is done out on the open for anyone to see. It’s red blood on the white ice. There are no abattoirs: it can’t be hidden away, you can’t write laws against people coming in and filming seal hunting, as they’ve done with abattoirs with the farming system. We are exposed and we always will be due to the nature of seal hunting, there are no trees to hide behind. So it’s low hanging fruit and unfortunately it’s the poorest people in North America that are affected by it.

What article of seal clothing do you think Ellen would look good in, and what kind of seal dish might she enjoy?
Nancy: I think she’d look awesome in a pair of sealskin, Converse-style shoes that they make nowadays, and maybe a bowtie. And I think that she would enjoy a piece of seal rib that has been boiled with vegetables in it, with a bit of dill pickle on the side.

Alethea: I would never try to force her into sealskin, she’s a vegan, and I totally respect that, for the environment she lives in, it makes sense for her. What I hope to come out of all this is for people to maybe think about a different kind of animal rights activism. One that’s more custom to each environment; one that’s thoughtful and respectful of indigenous peoples in whichever country or region you’re dealing with, because they tend to be at the forefront of defending the environment and the wildlife. 


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