We interviewed 2014 Polaris Music Prize winner Tanya Tagaq about why ending her acceptance speech with "Fuck PETA!" shouldn't be the dominant narrative about that night.
Photo via Polaris Music Prize media.
If you hadn’t heard, Nunavut–based throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s most recent album, Animism, just won Canadian music’s coveted Polaris Prize. Since her win, the interweb has been aflutter with opposing reactions. The Vancouver Sun celebrated her amazing performance at the Polaris gala, our sister site Noisey questioned if this is actually a win for independent music, and the AV Club ran a confusingly racist headline: “Drake and Arcade Fire lost the Polaris Music Prize to a seal-eating throat singer.”
Tagaq magnetized the press by using her acceptance speech to single out PETA and their stance on seal hunting—literally finishing her speech with “Fuck PETA!” The animal rights group struck back saying, "Tanya should stop posing her baby with a dead seal and read more." To which they later added, "We take no issue with the Inuit subsistence seal hunt." But as any Inuit can tell you, this argument is flawed at best—because any amount of disruption to the sealing industry is detrimental to those who still hunt today. In Nunavut, seals provide a sustainable and nutritious food source for Inuit, and as such they’re a vital part of a healthy culture. Just as they have been for generations.
But Tanya Tagaq is celebrating her win by celebrating her culture, as she’s always done. Through her music she’s raised the profile of Inuit culture, even though her solo style of throat singing raises the eyebrows of those who are used to a more traditional approach (when Inuit women throat sing, there are traditionally two of them, facing each other, holding arms, and imitating the sounds of nature and animals).
Whether it’s the reactions she elicits from her performance, her advocacy work, or the accolades she’s received, Tanya Tagaq brings awareness to issues and an art form that would most likely go unnoticed or ignored—so for that, the Inuit love her. Whether you’re confused by her art, or perhaps just don’t see the appeal, you can’t help but be shocked, confused, and enthralled by her raw energizing performance style and interpretation of her culture.
I recently called Tanya to talk about her Polaris win and the subsequent media reaction. Here’s how that went.
VICE: Tanya, congratulations! How does it feel to receive this award after many years of hard work?
Tanya Tagaq: I can’t believe it! It doesn’t feel real yet. It’s like something that happened to someone else. I’ve been working at this a long time now. I quit my day job in 2001—so it’s been a long, long road of hard work. It’s something I stuck to. It’s something I stuck to it even though it there was a lot of opposition from traditionalists in Nunavut, also there’s the people not knowing what to do with what I was doing, in the South [anything south of Nunavut], or around the world. So now, it’s finally like, “OK, everybody is happy and moving forward.”
You’re a huge advocate for traditional inuit sealing, your “Fuck PETA” at the Polaris has been getting a lot of attention in the media, but what drives you to take on this battle—especially in the face of ignorant and uneducated comments?
I don’t engage with anyone who’s not willing to have a sane and clean conversation. I’m happy to converse and talk and debate with people. But the second people are being abusive, I don’t even bother to acknowledge them. When I posted the sealfie trying to convince people what was right and wrong, I learned the hard way, and the reason I’m saying these things is so that a few intelligent, educated people will understand what’s going on at the indigenous level, and what’s happening with the seal hunt, and that’s where my aim is. Not to convert people, but to help the sane, awesome people understand. If there are a bunch of nasty psychos out there who tell me to kill myself, then that’s really them talking about how they feel every day, because I would never say that to anyone. Like, how sad of a life, what you do is you get up in the morning and abuse people on Twitter all day and think you’re a hero.
PETA has claimed that they don’t oppose traditional inuit sealing. But as a fellow Nunavummiut, you and I both know that any attack on the sealing industry is an attack on our traditions of Inuit. What do you have to say about their statement?
They’re trying to separate us from the east coast hunt, but that’s bullshit, because the EU ban prevents us from freeing ourselves economically and freeing ourselves from the federal government. As individuals reaping the benefits of our own natural sustainable resource, they don’t understand, they’re trying to ignore the fact that the seal ban caused economic downfall, which has led to a much lower quality of life—like lack of housing, poverty… they’re taking food out of peoples mouths. [They’re] trying to act all righteous about it. It’s not cool and I’m sick of people getting away with it. I had that scroll of 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women—and that’s just in Canada over the last 30 years—and you’re freaking out over some seals. It’s terrifying to the bone that people would care more about that, and I don’t even know how to deal with it.
I think that if they’re going to disrespect indigenous practices so much, they’re going to have to expect some backlash. If I’m going to open my big giant yap, then I expect backlash too. The simplest thing PETA could’ve done was say “Yeah, fuck you too, Tanya” and have been done with it.
What is the connection between your art and traditional Inuit practices?
Well, the thing is, what I’m doing is not traditional, and I’ve gotten a lot of flak for that as well because it’s different. You can ask anyone that I went to elementary school with—I’ve always been different. I sing about my feelings, and how do I feel? I feel like an Inuk person right now. I don’t feel like I’m an Inuk person from 50 years ago. You know, I don’t feel like an Inuk person from a 100 years ago, and it is important to respect tradition and to keep it alive, but it’s also important to have the books open to the cultures and especially in the wake of post-colonialism where we’re suffering the repercussions of Christianity thrust upon us, and suffering the repercussions of amalgamating our culture with someone else’s.
It’s very important that we keep our culture alive and well today, and that means accepting what it is to be Inuk today, and you know what, a lot of me today is hurting. A lot. I don’t want to see people being abused and I’m sick of it. I’m mad, I’m yelling about that, I’m yelling about being sexually abused, I’m yelling about all the pain that people are having to go though, I’m yelling about all of this stuff. I think when it comes to who I am, I also feel like I’m yelling about the land, the experience of the Nuna [land] and the peace on it. The peace—the most deepest, perfect, amazing peace I’ve ever felt in my whole entire life and the whole root of who I am.
Anything else you want to add?
People should understand that behind the seal controversy, Inuit people are coming from a peaceful, awesome place. People might not get that. People that are against the seal hunt are coming from a very, very aggressive, and super abusive, judge-y place. But when we’re out on the land, it’s total peace. And we respect the animals. We respect that they gave their lives to us. We respect the process of the land. We respect everything, and it’s not up to anyone else to tell us how to live—because that’s pretty colonialist. It’s up to us. We should be able to make out own decisions. People should make sure their own back yards are clean before they come up to Nunavut and tell us how to live, and telling us to eat tofu.
The land has its peace. It is peace. It’s dangerous, but it’s peaceful out there, and it’s never like we’re just evil hunters going out. It doesn’t feel that way at all. It’s not like. “YAY! We’re going to go kill everything.” For hunters, it’s a totally different vibe. I don’t think a lot of people understand that living in harmony with nature doesn’t have that violence associated with it when they picture people clubbing baby seals over the head. That’s really important for people to know that I’m coming from a good place where I’m trying to inform, not just the anti-seal movement, but I’m trying to inform the rest of people who eat meat to respect what they’re eating when they go to a restaurant when they order a chicken sandwich. Respecting culture a little more too, respecting “the other culture,” the non-mainstream, not well known, not white.
It’s important to take everybody’s opinion if we’re going to move forward as a human race. It’s not OK that I had a scroll of missing and murdered women and people are losing their minds over seal. It’s not OK.