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Inuit: The True Animal Rights Activists

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03 December 2009

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This video blog is for all you animal rights activists out there. Eat your heart out on this video from Iqaluit elder Rita Nashuk. Actually, maybe you should just consider eating a piece of heart, maybe seal?

Since the 1980s, animal rights activists have targeted the human use of seal, particularly the cute and cuddly harp pups on the east coast of Canada, as a symbol of abuse and mistreatment. However, in systematic reviews of this history, it is very clear that animal rights and environmental groups have consistently failed to differentiate between commercial and traditional aboriginal subsistence hunting of seals. This has had a dramatic and disastrous socio-economic and cultural impact on Inuit communities. Arguably, those groups seeking to protect baby seals both inadvertently and intentionally were the final wave of colonialization against the people of the north, following in the footsteps of whalers decades before.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, whalers made first contact in many Inuit regions, and overharvested their marine biological diversity. As an example, in the Baffin Bay-Davis Straight region - spanning Nunavut and Greenlandic waters - it is estimated that approximately 29,000 bowheads were landed between 1719 and 1916. Eventually, European and American commercial whaling depleted the bowhead population in this region to hundreds of animals, and only now are these populations on the rebound due in large part to Inuit conservation efforts. Indeed, near Pangnirtung at Kekerton Island whaling station, the rocks are literally stained red with blood from this history. To put this in context, large bowheads can be over 20 meters long and weigh up to 100 tonnes. Whalers were taking the blubber and baleen back to southern communities where these resources were used prior to the discovery of fossil fuels. The blubber was rendered into oil and used for lanterns. The baleen - the keratin sheets that form the filter system of a bowhead's mouth - was used as a pre-fossil fuel plastic and was manufactured into flexible items such as combs, corsets and wagon wheels. With the arrival of "qallunaat", or southerners, Inuit way of life began to dramatically change.

The early to mid part of the 19th century was a particularly difficult period of Inuit history. In Canada, the government rolled out a program called "project name tag", and every Inuk man, women and child was given an "Eskimo number", or "e-number" for short, and an associated dog tag to wear around their necks. Southern names were given to Inuit in a government effort to control and civilize this nomadic and land-based people that thrived in the Arctic for over 4000 years prior to qallunaat. The state did not consult Inuit about their traditional naming and kinship structure, which is arguably core to Inuit culture and believes, and is predicated on the passing on of souls from previous generations. Reincarnation if you will. So, today, in the north, Inuit often have southern qallunaat names as well as their traditional Inuktitut names, which is yet another sign of their ability to navigate a complex and changing world. Despite the colonial presence of southerners, Inuit remained a people of the land until around the 1960s, when they were forcibly removed from camps and placed in communities.

In our interviews this spring, one elder told us about the relocation period and said: "we were lied to".  He explained how government officials told Inuit being relocated into communities that they would be given a house that was cheap to live in. While Inuit did receive government housing, the financial reality of living in a qallunaat-style settlement turned out to be very expensive. Inuit now had to pay for southern goods and services and were no longer near their traditional hunting grounds. Modern boats, motors, rifles, skidoos and gasoline were now required to travel to traditional hunting areas and this was costly. To navigate this complex socio-cultural and economic change, some Inuit turned to wage paying jobs, while others remained hunters. For those continuing to live on the land, the key link towards living traditionally in the modern world was the sale of sealskins. Prior to the seal controversy, hunters could catch seals for sustenance, and still sell the skin for money to purchase the costly tools to remain a hunter in the modern world. The sale of sealskins allowed both the traditional subsistence and modern cash economy to co-exist.

However, in the 1980s, when the seal became the symbol for environmental and animal rights groups, the public was dissuaded from purchasing sealskins, and this effectively destroyed the once lucrative markets that allowed Inuit to live simultaneously on the land and in settlements. Ironically, environmental groups like Greenpeace - who based their environmental protection efforts on the indigenous "Rainbow Warrior" story - targeted the seal, and unfortunately were partly responsible in undermining traditional Inuit people living sustainably on the land. To this day, Greenpeace is a "four letter word" in many Inuit communities, and there is a lack of trust between northern indigenous peoples and environmentalists. As an environmental scientist working in partnership with Inuit communities, I have been on this cultural fault line, and Inuit have made me realize the danger of righteous environmentalism.

Now, Inuit are perhaps at an even more complex cross-roads, as climate change continues to alter and erode the Arctic ecosystem, and environmentalists, scientists and policymakers are all increasingly having a say in how northern resources are managed. Polar bears, seals and whales are in the cross hair of all stakeholders. Researchers want to study them. Environmentalists and animal rights groups want to protect them. And Inuit want to live with the animals as they have done for thousands of years, which means at times, they will be killed for food, clothing and cultural well-being. It's a complex issue.

For Inuit, above all, having respect for animals is most important. Their culture is predicated on the "harvesting of souls", if you will, and it is very dangerous work. If animals are taken without respect, this can lead to adverse repercussions for a hunter and his/her family or community. Therefore, animals are "never to be played with", "never to be tampered with", and "always to be treated with respect". These are Inuit teachings passed on over generations that have allowed Inuit and animals to co-exist healthily for thousands of years. As Rita Nashuk points out, this arguably makes Inuit the true animal rights activists.

 

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