Hunting for the Right Words: Inuit Seal Hunting in Cumberland Sound Is a World Away from Pamela Anderson's Tube Top

By Lennon, Kathryn Gwun-Yeen | Alternatives Journal, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Hunting for the Right Words: Inuit Seal Hunting in Cumberland Sound Is a World Away from Pamela Anderson's Tube Top


Lennon, Kathryn Gwun-Yeen, Alternatives Journal


SKYWATERSKYWATERSKYWATERSKY.

It feels clean and good to be out in the openness of Cumberland Sound. No mosquitoes. Just skywaterskywatersky. Icebergs. Seagulls. The gentle rocking lulls me and I fight to keep my eyes open, not wanting to miss a second of this day.

Joanasie Karpik, elder and hunter, looks back over his shoulder at us and chuckles. Maybe he's checking to see that no one has fallen in, or that we're not scared, or maybe he finds the situation humorous - seven Qallunaat squeezed into his boat, all bundled up against the July wind. Or perhaps he's laughing at the delight of the sun and the sky and the water. Joanasie's 15-year-old grandson, Markus, clad in a baseball cap, parka and track pants, huddles at the back of the boat, fiddling with the motor. Leelee, his 10-year-old grandson, is fast asleep in the cabin up front. I don't have the nautical language to fully describe what's happening, nor do I have words to understand this moment. So, I'm quiet.

I'm one of Joanasie's seven passengers, each with a camera, eager to capture our first seal hunt. We're part of a group of 25 students and instructors, with the University of Manitoba's Panniqtuuq Bush School. The six-week-long program takes place in and around Panniqtuuq or Pangnirtung or Pang, a Baffin Island community of 1300 people. We learn about contemporary and historical Inuit cultural politics and environmental issues through workshops, lectures and hands-on activities such as seal hunting. Peter Kulchyski, a native studies professor at the University of Manitoba, started the course 14 years ago to show students that the Arctic is Inuit homeland, and not just a barren tundra playground for geologists, archeologists, mining companies and adventure seekers.

Southern cameras have trained their lenses on Canada's seal hunt since 1922, beginning with Robert Flaherty's silent film, Nanook of the North. In 1977, French actress Brigitte Bardot hugged a stuffed white harp seal pup on a Newfoundland ice floe and so began Europe's focus on seal products and the era of celebrity involvement. Inuk artist and writer Alootook Ipellie's 1993 short story, "After Brigitte Bardot," appeared in his book Arctic Dreams and Nightmares. Ipellie's narrator observes the theatrics of the photo-op. He wonders how Bardot ended up fighting for the rights of baby harp seals when "France has never even seen a single seal in its entire history." Clearly frustrated, Ipellie's narrator states, "If I had realized Brigitte Bardot was going to destroy the seal industry, I would have taken her for a long ride in my dog team that day and told her about the realities of our lives as hunters and gatherers. But I am not sure she would have comprehended what I would have told her."

In 2009, the European Union banned imports of all products and processed goods derived from seals. Targeting the massive East Coast seal hunt, which is responsible for 85 per cent of the Canadian harp seal harvest, the ban doesn't apply to products derived from traditional Inuit hunts, such as the one I'm experiencing. But the Inuit are concerned. Despite being exempted from the 1983 European ban on the import of white-coat and blueback seal pelts, they suffered. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami is an organization that represents the Inuit in Labrador, Quebec, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. In a press release, the group noted that the drop in the price of sealskins as a result of the 1980s ban undermined the Inuit economy and imposed far-reaching hardships on Inuit families, including a significant rise in social problems.

According to Daniel Shewchuk, Nunavut's environment minister, the territory's sealers harvest some 35,000 seals per year, of which about 10,000 are sold on the open market. So Inuit groups are suing the EU over the ban, arguing that the seal hunt is neither inhumane nor environmentally harmful.

Pamela Anderson, the former Baywatch star and advocate for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), is today's Bardot. …

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