This article is part of an Arctic in Context series featuring Winter 2017 Arctic Research Fellows from the International Policy Institute, in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington. This Arctic research program is dedicated to improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs.
By Lucy Kruesel
Animal-rights activists stirred a global outcry against the Canadian seal hunt in the 1970s and 80s with graphic pictures of the annual slaughter of baby harp seals. The anti-sealing campaigns—aided by celebrities such as Brigitte Bardot and Paul McCartney—were extremely effective. In 1983, Europe banned the import of newborn sealskins and, in 2009, closed its doors to all seal products.
In her new documentary, Angry Inuk, activist, and filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril shows the impact of those anti-sealing campaigns on Inuit communities, which have been sustained by seal hunting for centuries. While the bans technically exempted them and their products, their way of life was threatened when the economic value of seal products plunged. Some Inuit went hungry and others left their tiny coastal villages in hopes of finding work in larger towns. Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuit from Nunavut in northern Canada, documents this devastation as well as indigenous efforts to fight back. The film, which is touring festivals in Canada and the United States, sends a powerful message against cultural imperialism.
Angry Inuk does this by exposing the flawed thinking of anti-sealing campaigners and providing evidence of their ignorance. Animal-rights and environmentalist groups argue, for example, that their advocacy targeted commercial sealing, not the hunts of the Inuit. But the film suggests this distinction is immaterial since indigenous hunts are also commercial in nature. “They want us to be like little stick Eskimos who are stuck on the land and go out in our little Eskimo clothes with a harpoon. They will not let us hunt with rifles and snow machines. They will not let us sell commercial products. It’s a form of cultural colonization,” Aaju Peter, an activist, lawyer, and sealskin seamstress who appears in Angry Inuk, told This Magazine. Meanwhile, harp seals are not endangered, a fact Arnaquq-Baril says is obscured by activists.
The film is deeply personal, opening with Arnaquq-Baril’s memories of sealing with her own family. At moments, the viewer witnesses the direct harm of the campaigns to people in her community. The film also shows how seal hunting is not a barbaric act but rather a generations-old practice that demonstrates the Inuit’s strong kinship to the Arctic environment. Many aspects of that practice are lost in translation, highlighting the challenges of applying a Western lens to colonialism’s consequences and to the relationships between indigenous people and the land. Arnaquq-Baril’s film redefines terms such as “sustainable,” “commercial,” and “traditional” while challenging stereotypes of the Inuit, still known to many Americans as “Eskimo,” a name often considered derogatory.
In an interview with blogger Jen McNeely, Arnaquq-Baril says her main objective with the film is “unshaming,” or erasing the stigma associated with the Inuit practice of sealing. She also wants to lift up Inuit voices, which are often censored or misunderstood. In one recent example of silencing, Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer, watched as her Facebook account was shut down after she posted a photograph of her baby beside a harvested seal. The post was a part of an Inuit social-media movement to demonstrate pride for sealskin products through the hashtag “#sealfie.” Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary asks: Who are we to criticize?
The film also explores the question of indigenous political representation. The Arctic Council, a group established by eight nations with Arctic territory, with six indigenous organizations as Permanent Participants, has twice denied observer status to the EU on the grounds that it lacks sensitivity to indigenous concerns. The Arctic Council has raised the international profile of indigenous interests and given the Permanent Participants an opportunity to push back against organizations like the EU and to protect the Inuit way of life.
Angry Inuk has been well received so far. Arnaquq-Baril was recognized as one of 16 young leaders who will make a mark on the Arctic, and the film has won several audience awards. With contact deepening between the Arctic and areas south, efforts to spread Inuit perspectives could grow. Arnaquq-Baril, meanwhile, says she was conscious of creating a film that would educate both general and Inuit audiences. “Part of the reason I chose the title was to bring attention to the fact that Inuit people tend to express anger more quietly than Western society,” she told an interviewer with Pacific Standard. “I wanted the non-Inuit to learn this … however, I also wanted to bring this to the attention of the non-Inuit, so we could be conscious of the fact that our anger is often underestimated.”
Lucy Kruesel is an M.A. candidate in education at the University of Washington. She focuses on amplifying unheard voices and on oral history, memory studies, and mindfulness as community-building mediums, as well as how we can come to see public institutions as transformative spaces for social change.
This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.