The ongoing ethical debate around seal-hunting has resurfaced in the form of a 21st century style twitter-off. The battle ensued after talk show host, Ellen Degeneres, donated 1.5 million “selfie” generated dollars to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) which actively opposes seal hunting.
This contribution was not an oversight on Degeneres’ part as her website explicitly states seal hunting is, “one of the most atrocious and inhumane acts against animals allowed by any government”.
Her symbolic and overt stance against seal-hunting has attracted widespread criticism from Inuit communities across Canada whose livelihood, spirituality and tradition rests on the longstanding practice. The response from Inuit and Inuit supporters has gone viral with the introduction of #sealfies, pictures featuring Inuit and others with seal meat or seal skin clothes.
— Derrick Barbour (@SJNfldRealtor) March 27, 2014
The tagline #sealfie vs. #selfie reflects the debate flawlessly. For, there is nothing selfish or inhumane about cultural and physical survival. But, there is something very selfish about a wealthy individual raising money to publicly shame a historically destitute population on their cultural practices.
Before delving into the historical and cultural significance of seal hunting amongst Inuit, it is important to outline their diverse political, cultural and geographic realities to avoid generalization.
The term “Inuit” is employed on its own as it means, “The People”. Inuit are diverse and stretch across the circumpolar Arctic, from Chukotka to Greenland in the U.S. (called Inuit Nunaat) and Northern Canada (called Inuit Nunangat). Within Canada, they live in 53 different communities in the four main areas: The Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Northern Quebec and Labrador. The estimates of how many Inuit there are range from 40 000- 55 000 and there are no reserves amongst Inuit as they form various communities. All of these communities share Inuktitut as a common language which has evolved into different dialects in each large region.
In addition to their linguistic diversity, their historical oppression cannot be understated. Similar to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Inuit were largely affected by colonial interventions, the residential school system and forced relocation efforts by the Canadian government which has continued to plague the communities. Their suffering has manifested itself as mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, suicide, alcohol and substance abuse and many other emotional symptoms.
One cultural practice which has survived such insurmountable oppression is the practice of seal hunting.
Seal hunting amongst Indigenous peoples dates back to 4000 years ago and has largely remained the same in terms of its cultural and physical significance. It was and still is a means of survival for Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples both in order to fight famine and promote spirituality.
Also, if anyone is concerned about the seals, it is Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples. For, it was only when the Europeans colonized Inuit that the exploitation of seals began. In the early 1800s, the settlers began mass extermination of seals, killing 546 000 in the early years of the 1840s.
Inuit have no interest in mass extermination but rather, mass conservation. They also leave nothing left to be wasted.
In an article written by Inuit hunter Leonard Okkumaluk in 2009, “We eat the seal meat, brain (best part), raw or cooked and use the skin for clothing. We use seal fat for qullig (oil lamp) and skin with rashes… Everything is used when we catch seals.”
— Tim Rollwagen (@trollwag) March 28, 2014
Not only is every part of the seal used, but every part is respected and honoured. Based on the animistic culture of Indigenous Peoples worldwide, animals are tied to the Indigenous belief system which worships the land and the food it has to offer.
Sandi Vincent, an Inuk woman, has spoken out against Ellen’s stance and said: “In Inuit culture, it is believed seals and other animals have souls and offer themselves to you. Humanely and with gratitude we accepted this gift…”
I can’t say for sure but I sincerely doubt Ellen has ever felt such a strong tie to seals. I have always been a fan of Ellen, but for someone who has been extremely active in advocating for marginalized populations and for someone who poked fun at a “potentially racist” Oscar crowd, her stance is shockingly ignorant.
Of course to many the sight of dead seals isn’t pretty, but neither is starvation. While people seldom see pictures of impoverished Inuit communities, the internet is littered with sights of them killing seals. The Council of Canadian Academies produced a recent report on food insecurity in Inuit communities, which reported that 35 per cent of Inuit households in Nunavut alone don’t have enough food and that 60 per cent of preschoolers have gone a day without eating, along with 76 per cent of preschoolers who skip meals.
And, of course there is something to be said about the unethical and wasteful nature of commercial seal hunting, just ask Inuit and Indigenous Peoples. But there is nothing unethical about a means of cultural and physical survival.
If there is anything positive to say about this current debate, it is the impressive show of activism, collectivism and support on behalf of and for Inuit issues. Historically, it is seldom Indigenous issues are recognized in mainstream society and since the start of Idle No More in 2012, I hope this is only just the beginning.
Let’s see you dance your way out of this one, Ellen.