#Sealfies and Indigenous Food Security
March 28, 2014 12:38 PM   Subscribe

The anti-sealing protests aren't aimed at Native people hunting seals for food, but the wholesale slaughter of animals for commercial purposes. Very few of us would be bothered if the only seals who died were those whose meat went to feed food insecure Northerners. So I say again, go Ellen!
posted by bearwife at 1:04 PM on March 28, 2014

I wish that was the response I was seeing from my fellow vegans in regards to the "Sealfie" thing happening right now.
posted by Kitteh at 1:14 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

@bearwife you know native people in the north don't live in a cash-free utopia, right? there are very few jobs. seal hunting is a job as well as a tradition. It is a dangerous and unpleasant job, but it produces life-sustaining goods as well as real cash income in a harsh region of Canada that has very a high poverty rate and unemployment rate.

If you'll eat a ham sandwich and wear leather, you should have no problem with the seal hunt. It's managed much better and is more humane than many slaughterhouses and abbatoirs, and the seals are free range and totally organic!
posted by erlking at 1:32 PM on March 28, 2014 [19 favorites]

I don't think this is so neatly about food as the article seems to imply. There have been millions and millions in lost revenue since various seal pelt bans went into effect around the world in the 60s and 70s, and while I do not doubt that seals are consumed for food, as noted above, I don't think protesters would really have a leg to stand on with regards to Inuits fending off starvation.

The real issue as I see it, however, is that seals are just so damn cute.

If you want to hunt seals without public outcry, just appeal to Monsanto to engineer an seal which has no traditionally "cute" qualities: lack of symmetry in the face, beady eyes and tentacles instead of flippers.

Protests over, hunt away.

(Bonus: Seal Calamari!)
posted by Debaser626 at 1:39 PM on March 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

The seals are hunted by both Inuit and white hunters as a basic livelihood. If you want to call this a "wholesale slaughter", maybe you should start with the beef cattle ranchers of the world.
posted by jb at 1:41 PM on March 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

One of the most painful moments in my life was when I realized that some leftist/liberal causes were irreconcilable with one another.
posted by Avenger at 1:43 PM on March 28, 2014 [12 favorites]

It's not a package deal. I'm a leftist, but I try to decide my opinion on each issue by the facts of that particular issue. I looked into seal hunting, found that the species in question is not endangered, that it's an important part of people's livelihoods in the North and Newfoundland, and I don't have anything against eating meat in general.
posted by jb at 1:55 PM on March 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

It's ok, those seals are ice associated. Climate change should pretty much wipe them out within 50 years anyway, saving them from slaughter.
posted by fshgrl at 1:55 PM on March 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Please, show me the basis for contending the hunting is limited to subsistence food taking, not killing in the hundreds of thousands, with heavy exporting of the fur, meat and oil. And what on earth about subsistence claims justifies skinning a substantial percentage of the animals alive?

I don't eat meat, but I respect subsistence hunting. That is not what the HSUS and other animal organizations are protesting.
posted by bearwife at 2:01 PM on March 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

Nobody pisses in the wind like animal conservationists.
Of course in this metaphor, the wind stands for unbridled human greed and idiocy, so please animal conservationists, piss away!
posted by mrjohnmuller at 2:02 PM on March 28, 2014

killing in the hundreds of thousands

If you get to post a link to sea shepherd, I get to post this
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:08 PM on March 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Debaser626: "If you want to hunt seals without public outcry, just appeal to Monsanto to engineer an seal which has no traditionally "cute" qualities: lack of symmetry in the face, beady eyes and tentacles instead of flippers.

Protests over, hunt away.

(Bonus: Seal Calamari!)

I think they need to do this.
posted by symbioid at 2:30 PM on March 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

We're also just on the cusp of the 100th anniversary of the 1914 sealing disasters that took 251 human lives . . . Seriously: people would not hunt seal if they did not think it absolutely necessary.
posted by erlking at 2:37 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

You know, I'm a vegetarian(*) and a bleeding-heart animal lover, but I think the seal hunt should be left alone.

The main thing is that the seals are not endangered - quite the reverse, their natural predators are gone, so their population tends to explode.

Yes, I'd be in favor of some more reasonable restrictions on the practice. The "skinning alive" thing sounds bad, but the link given above did not in fact discuss that (I searched the text for both "skin" and "alive" independently) - if that happens, it should not.

I would not personally eat seal meat or wear seal products, but compared to meat farming, this is nothing. I'd also add that a typical way for a seal to die before humans killed all the top predators was being eaten by a polar bear or occasionally a walrus, and that is also very ghastly.

(* - I occasionally slip and eat some fish, but rarely...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:17 PM on March 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Thanks for this wonderful post. I hate that people are demonizing people participating in sustainable hunting. It's just so arrogant for people to have strong opinions about a culture that they know nothing about. GRAR!

Seal hunting is dangerous work. It is also one of the truly sustainable industries in a place without a lot other options. Fishing - sorry, the cod population has collapsed. Mining and forestry are not renewable, environmentally-friendly industries. Tourism to a cold and distant place can hardly be relied upon to feed everyone.
posted by Gor-ella at 3:39 PM on March 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've just been troubled a lot lately by the lack of intersectionality in the vegan community and this is one of the impasses that I have. I am seeing people call Inuit people using this hashtag "douchebags" and "murderers," but I am not seeing anyone at all be aware or care about the food insecurity that afflicts these communities. It's all well and good for us to say "They can just eat like we do!" without understanding that they really really can't.

As a vegan, I realize that this is a very tricky issue. Blanket condemnation without presenting a workable and/or realistic solution makes us look like the annoying shrills we shouldn't be. (So much for compassion, I guess.)
posted by Kitteh at 3:56 PM on March 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't know why anyone thinks Ellen gives a crap about Northern aboriginal communities. Ellen likes cute seals, Northerners remain marginalized and are welcome to die as quickly or as slowly as they please, the same as it has always been. I don't know why anybody bothers trying to change her mind. I don't think protestors really eve care about seals, it's all about white-people intra-group signaling by showing support for the "right" causes. The seals and the hunters are all just symbols devoid of any inherent meaning in protestors' eyes.
posted by GuyZero at 4:27 PM on March 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

I guess the two points for me are:

1. Is it sustainable? Could we keep doing this forever?
2. Is it unreasonably cruelty to the animal?

The seal hunt seems to be quite sustainable. Now, from the point of view of a seal, it seems to me that I have a pretty good life. I get to live in my natural habitat, except that in some small fraction of cases I'm suddenly caught by a predator and fairly quickly, if painfully, consumed. The fact that this predator is happens to be "man" is pretty well irrelevant.

Compare and contrast to factory farming - whose methane outputs are changing the climate, whose water usage is drinking down the water table and whose manure outputs are soiling that same water table. A cow in a factory farm lives a miserable life.

If Ellen really cared, she'd stop talking about the 300,000 seals killed a year in their native habitat and talk only about the 65 billion land animals that are killed every year - over two hundred thousand times as many! - most of whom spend their entire lives in misery before dying horribly.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:35 PM on March 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

If Ellen really cared, she'd stop talking about the 300,000 seals

I don't like this argument. Ellen is doing something good, and you are criticizing her for not doing something better. It doesn't matter if she is not doing the best possible thing, she is still doing something good, and we should be happy about that.

Everyone has their own priorities. Maybe Ellen really likes seals, or has more empathy for animals in their natural habitat, or is choosing a battle that she feels she can win. Whatever her motivation is, it has inspired her to do something positive.

If you think her priorities should be different, well tough titties, because she is the one doing the work. If you want to save the cows you are free to do so, just like she is free to save the seals.

if you want to criticize someone, how about criticizing the people who don't do anything good, or the people who are actively evil. Don't pick a fight with someone who's on your own side.
posted by foobaz at 5:50 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The idea that Ellen is doing something good is up for debate, though, is it not?
posted by peppermind at 6:05 PM on March 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

I've been along for many a seal hunt, helped butcher, and eaten my share of seal meat and oil. I've eaten with families that would have had few options if brother or cousin hadn't come home with a natchik last night.

So I guess I have a particular perspective.

There is nothing special about seals that has anything to do with the infantile anthropomorphization of them in our culture. Keeping them in a zoo is no worse than eating them. They are intelligent animals who are highly evolved to elude hunters, human, Orca, and bear alike. They've been prey for something since their species emerged.

Hunting is hunting. Mammals are mammals. Food is food. Life depends on death. Humans have been hunting seals in the north for several thousand years. And the seals Native subsistence hunters seek (natchik and uguruk, or ring and elephant, in Alaska where I work) are plentiful.

Indeed, their habitats are ultimately most threatened by our profligate consumption of oil, in the longer run, not by a few Native hunters.

If you eat cows or pigs or chickens, get back to me after you check how they live and die for your dinner. But if you're a vegan who also uses little fossil fuel, you're excused up front from any responsibility for killing animals, as far as I'm concerned. Otherwise what you (and I) are doing right now adds pressure to the trigger of habitat loss for seals and many other creatures just as cute, not to mention the ugly ones.

Seals kill their food too. Nature works like that, yo.
posted by spitbull at 6:05 PM on March 28, 2014 [17 favorites]

> Ellen is doing something good,

You should read what I actually wrote. I am in favor of the continuation of the seal hunt and I'm claiming that she's doing something that's not good.

I'm not saying that she's doing a little good thing, and she should be doing a bigger good thing. I'm saying she's doing a bad thing, and more, she's doing either out of ignorance, or worse, because she thinks it is good for her media profile.

She should stop doing the bad thing. If she wants to do good things, one of them is helping fight against factory meat production.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:03 PM on March 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

> But if you're a vegan who also uses little fossil fuel, you're excused up front from any responsibility for killing animals, as far as I'm concerned.

Honestly, you can't avoid using fossil fuels in many places in the United States. The fact that the fossil fuel industry has corrupted our government so that the most profitable business in the world somehow gets subsidies from the largest government in the world doesn't mean that individuals who are forced to use fossil fuels somehow share the responsibility.

I live in New York City in an apartment building so my fossil fuel consumption is fairly low, and I think people should choose to live in area with good public transportation if possible - but for millions of people it is a choice they do not get to make - unlike being veggie or vegan, which is a choice you can make anywhere.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:07 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you live in the Arctic, it's hard to avoid eating seals. Milk cost $18 a gallon. A can of beans is six bucks. This presumes you live in a village or town with a store.

Also, I'm a New Yorker, but I think we pat ourselves too much on the back for not owning cars. How do you suppose all the food we eat gets from Oklahoma or Michigan or Chile to Gristedes? And how much fossil fuel input goes into producing that food? Lots, is how much, whether animal or vegetable.

My simple point is that sentimental opposition to hunting cute seals is ultimately a projection of a guilty conscience typical of well off southerners (which is a slur in the far north). Our ability to choose a vegan restaurant, even, fundamentally relies on our taking more than an equal share of global resources compared to poor farmers and hunters, and in so doing makes our lifestyles a primary driver of habitat destruction, thus killing animals on a mass scale.

I don't have a solution, but seal hunting is a distraction, as are Ellen Degeneres and the goddamn Oscars. When celebrities with limos and jets preach conservation, it rings pretty hollow.
posted by spitbull at 7:22 PM on March 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

How are Inuit people supposed to choose to be vegans? What they hell are they going to eat for the six months out of the year without sunlight?
posted by Avenger at 7:23 PM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

> How are Inuit people supposed to choose to be vegans?

They aren't - I am talking about mainland Americans.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:44 PM on March 28, 2014

In a nice twist of irony, the Magdelenos and Newfoundlanders who will lose their livelihoods from a sealing ban will be off to Alberta to help produce the fossil fuels to get your quinoa to your table from across the world. Win-win for vegans.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:04 PM on March 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

Fishing - sorry, the cod population has collapsed.

Not to mention the fact that hunting seals will (theoretically) help the cod population come back because they, y'know, eat cod.
posted by damayanti at 7:08 AM on March 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Forgot to say how much I LOVE the FPP. Those pictures are awesome.

Do not mess with Inuits, man. They have a better sense of humor than you even if you're a comedian big enough to host the Oscars. You try building a culture around having to spend 3 months a year cooped up in a sod house with 30 of your closest relatives and see if you don't come up with the best joke-telling skills (and games, Inuits are extremely competitive game players, and many an Elder woman can kick my ass on Words With Friends despite my having a PhD) known to humanity. Hey, you have to live on raw meat you have to kill yourself when it's 20 below, life should have some sweetness!
posted by spitbull at 10:31 AM on March 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Thanks you kitteh and spitbull. I have worked for years with indigenous communities and wild food, whether it is pacific fisheries or northern polar bear and seal hunting.

Eating wild meat is not a choice Inuit don't get to make, not without serious health risks. The diabetes rates in northern communities are very high and largely the result of a rapid shift to imported, processed and refined foods. Killing and eating seals makes healthier people, and give folks a shot at a life expectancy somewhere near the median of the rest of North America.

One of the most brutal effects of colonization and environmental degradation has been the action at a distance that places restrictions on wild food sources by people far away from the problem. Whether it is policy makers in Ottawa who privilege commercial activity over the human right to health, or industrialists in far off lands who use the commons of the northern air and water free of charge, the folks that pay the price are indigenous people who are literally dying young because they aren't allowed or able to eat the foods that will sustain their health.

I hope Ellen gets an invite to Arviat or Kuujuuaq or Iqaluit and gets to meet folks and see the world in all of it's complex glory. It is is lovely that she is a spokesperson for a just and humane world. And there are many angles to consider in that pursuit.
posted by salishsea at 1:57 PM on March 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Since no one seems to have represented my viewpoint here, I think I'll post.

I haven't quite decided on a certain point, so I'll give my opinions for either way I might go.

1. If killing an innocent being with interests to save oneself or others is permissible:

Innuit should kill only those seals they need to survive. Surviving is defined as the bare minimum. This does not include killing seals to sell to live more comfortably. If they can move to a place where they don't need to do this, they should. In addition, seals should kill only those fish necessary to survive.

2. If killing an innocent being with interests to save oneself or others is not permissible:

Inuit should not kill any seals. Seals should not kill any fish.

Both of these scenarios assume that an innocent being is one who does not violate the nonaggression principle. This is complicated by a scenario in which a fish violates the nonaggression principle by killing an innocent being with interests (e.g., grass carp). The former is subsequently killed by a larger fish. Is the larger fish innocent? Does it make a difference if the larger fish kills it in order to protect innocent beings? Now what if a seal eats that fish? Is it innocent in scenario '2'? I'm leaning towards 'no', but I'm not sure.

What is my current opinion on seal hunting by Inuit if I haven't decided on these issues?
Inuit should try to move somewhere where they don't need to hunt to survive. I'm not convinced they lack the means to do so. Culture or tradition are not valid reasons for staying.
posted by vash at 3:21 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Both of these scenarios assume that an innocent being is one who does not violate the nonaggression principle. This is complicated by a scenario in which a fish violates the nonaggression principle by killing an innocent being with interests (e.g., grass carp). The former is subsequently killed by a larger fish. Is the larger fish innocent? Does it make a difference if the larger fish kills it in order to protect innocent beings? Now what if a seal eats that fish? Is it innocent in scenario '2'? I'm leaning towards 'no', but I'm not sure.

It seems to me that what you have discovered here is not a moral quandary so much as the inherent paradoxes of applying concepts like "the nonaggression principle", "innocence" and "interests" to animals. What can the nonaggression principle possibly mean in the context of an animal whose ecological niche is as an obligate predator? Are seals really morally obligated to starve themselves to death and go extinct rather than eat other animals? How can a moral obligation possibly be incumbent on something that doesn't have the capacity to understand that obligation anyway?

And why do the Inuit not have a "valid reason" not to commit cultural suicide rather than prey on seals, for that matter? Seals, collectively, don't even have an interest in not being preyed on - their ecological equilibrium is such that without predators they overpopulate and many more of them die much worse deaths of starvation.

All this shows to me is that applying a deontological moral code with an obsessive disregard for the context it was developed in leads to absurd outcomes.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:48 PM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well I am a deontologist. If you don't agree with my basic premises, or even nonconsequentialist ethics, you're not going to like my conclusions. Calling them 'absurd' is not really a criticism of my logic, though.
posted by vash at 4:15 PM on March 29, 2014

Inuit should try to move somewhere where they don't need to hunt to survive.

You first. Move somewhere where you do need to produce your own food then see how it happens.

They've been where they are since before our civilization was a gleam in Emperor Constantine's eyes. We're the ones who messed up the ecosystem.
posted by spitbull at 4:32 PM on March 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

And it is a criticism of your logic. Most human beings are dependent on killing animals. We just have gotten out of the habit of doing it ourselves. Your "logic" is pure hypocrisy. And it is absurd.
posted by spitbull at 4:34 PM on March 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Inuit should try to move somewhere where they don't need to hunt to survive. I'm not convinced they lack the means to do so.

From this statement I take it you are not aware of the history and legacy of colonization of indigenous peoples in Canada. There is no easy solution that involves Inuit moving to a place where they don't need to hunt to survive. The Canadian government tried forced relocation at various points and the consequences have been tragic and long lasting.

Culture or tradition are not valid reasons for staying.

Again, I urge you to familiarize yourself with the actual history of Inuit people in Canada. The situation is so, so much more complex than you are making it out to be, and your statements would be perceived by many as offensive.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:34 PM on March 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Calling them 'absurd' is not really a criticism of my logic, though.

Well, if you're arguing from the kind of nonconsequentialist framework where deciding that basic ecological relationships are immoral is just another day at the office, I guess not, but to me it seems like a sign that the system of rules you're operating from doesn't correspond very well to reality.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 4:38 PM on March 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I am so glad hurdy gurdy girl posted above, very gently and hopefully very constructively, because I am having difficulty picking my jaw up from the floor. With knowledge of context, "Inuit should try to move somewhere where they don't need to hunt to survive" is just, well, a really really racist thing to say, and I don't want to use the r-word lightly. Like, there is an entire long history of colonizers trying to remove aboriginal peoples from their lands, colonizers who believe they have moral right on their side. It does not go well for the aboriginal people. So I hope it was a statement made in ignorance of the context.

Some cultures are tied to place. Some cultures are tied to place very strongly. Why should Inuit abandon the place they've inhabited since before white people set foot on this continent because folks living in luxury in the far cities of a conquering empire think that the way they live is wrong? Why should white Newfoundlanders or Magdelenos, for that matter?

Just by their existence, cities like New York do much more harm than all the northern seal hunts combined, both in general environmental terms and in specific exploitation of animal life terms. Are residents of such cities under a moral imperative to abandon these cities because of this fact?
posted by erlking at 5:51 PM on March 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

I don't value culture. I value life.
posted by vash at 6:34 PM on March 29, 2014

When you make statements like "Seals should not kill any fish" I can only assume you're trolling because assigning moral imperatives to animal behavior is absurd. And as others have stated far more eloquently than I can you are either profoundly ignorant of the history of Canada's First Nations people' abuse or worse are choosing to be flip about the consequences of those abuses.

I'm willing to grant Ellen DeGeneres' good intentions leavened with a hearty serving of privilege and ignorance but that doesn't give her a pass on the moral relativism of thinking that it's far worse to hunt seals than to raise mammals for food and leather in a more industrialized setting. It would be nice if people who feel a need to assert moral superiority would do their homework first.
posted by leslies at 7:12 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The phrase that's missing from this is charismatic megafauna.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:15 PM on March 29, 2014

Don't conflate me with Ellen Degeneres. People shouldn't kill cows either.
posted by vash at 8:06 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The conclusion that Inuit people should move so they don't have to kill seals is shockingly devoid of context. For one thing where exactly could Inuit people move to that would improve their situation in relation to your ethics? It strikes me that your rules creat a moral peril for all human beings. So therefore the Inuit should just stay where they are given that moving would do tremendous damage to the culture and individuals without necessarily improving their ethical behaviour.

But second there is something strange about levelling the same level of ethical behaviour on fish, seals and people without addressing your own privilege or place in this system. And I have to echo the observations of others about the way your narrow and strange focus results in a conclusion that is profoundly colonial.

From the tenor of your post I'm willing to give you the. End it of the doubt that you simply don't understand the reality on this situation because if you did you would know that Inuit in fact cannot move elsewhere or change their diet away from traditional foods without profound physical and mental health effects. This is the crux of the whole "sealfie" issue.
posted by salishsea at 11:06 PM on March 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

My tl;dr here is that if you value life you could not possibly come to the conclusion that Inuit people should give up seal hunting and move somewhere else.
posted by salishsea at 11:12 PM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's strange that I'm getting called colonial. Is it not clear that I'm against the farming of animals? I condemn the entirety of animal agriculture. What kind of colonialist would hobble the establishment at the same time he supports it?
posted by vash at 11:47 PM on March 29, 2014

Let me be clear Indigenous people suffer from high rates of diabetes and other diseases that radically lower their life expectancy when they do not eat traditional diets. If your idea were to become a policy it would be colonization of a Victorian sort and would result in many tragic and preventable early deaths of human beings. This is not merely speculation. This is real and tragic and happening right now, which might explain why some of us are a little sensitive about it.

I don't know if you are personally colonial in nature or not, but your ideas taken to implementation most certainly are.
posted by salishsea at 12:04 AM on March 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

That's really a false dilemma. You're implying that Inuit are unable to be healthy on a Western (specifically, vegan) diet. That doesn't seem to be the case. Education on healthy diet and exercise would serve them just as well as any other ethnic group. It's not as if there are populations of humans (perhaps excluding rare diseases) that will die, or even suffer, on a proper vegan diet.
posted by vash at 12:27 AM on March 30, 2014

erlking nails it, cash. You are saying racist bullshit and calling it logic.

You, typing on an electrically powered device, are killing more animals than any hunter. Right now. You are a killer. That was my point up thread about bullshit projection out of guilty conscience.

You move. Or stop using fossil fuels, killer.
posted by spitbull at 3:46 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

And you are absolutely wrong. Inuit people's' metabolism are highly adapted to the traditional diet. A western diet makes them sick. Google it on pubmed, before you talk more racist nonsense.

I've seen way too many Inuit *people* die to buy your BS about "ethics."

Now you are just saying lies that can easily be proved wrong with basic science.
posted by spitbull at 3:47 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

And if you wrote that stuff about Palestinians or African Americans or Jews, we'd be in MetaTalk discussing racism on metafilter and this thread would have 500 comments. Should African Americans go back to Africa?

Yet more evidence that indigenous people are the exception to MeFi's "Social Justice" politics, as I say often. One would not discuss any other ethnic group in such paternalistic and dehumanizing terms on this website and not get called out hard.

Grrrr. I am so glad for the few mefites who care about this subject. Salishsea and erlking, as they say in Iñupiaq, quyanaqpak for speaking up.

If you care that much about being ethical, and presuming you live in the US or Canada, the first thing you can do is give up any property you own or use for work and return it to the people it was stolen from. Then you can talk about where you should move.
posted by spitbull at 3:57 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

[Vash, you are derailing quite a bit here with your highly specific personal philosophy and this needs not to further become an extended argument for that. Spitbull, I understand the anger, but don't call people you are talking to here "killers," and if you want to complain about Metafilter, go ahead and do that in Metatalk. Thanks. ]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:53 AM on March 30, 2014

When I go hunting with my crew in Alaska, whether on tundra, ocean, or ice, the take is shared widely with the entire community. It's a joyous occasion when a crew comes back with an elephant seal or 12 caribou or 30 ducks or a walrus. The entire extended family comes over to the house of the captain to spend the day butchering, dividing very precise shares for each member of the crew, the elders of the community, the providers of any equipment or anyone who helped at any stage of the hunt or butchering who wasn't in the crew, and then the captain's wife gets on the VHF and announces to the whole town that there is meat to share. One by one, the poorest people in town come by the house and get a huge bag or cooler full of meat to help them survive, or their children thrive. My adopted brothers and cousins load their trucks and drive all over the village dropping off shares for the sick, the housebound, and the crippled. If it is a big score -- a whale, where I work -- there is a community dance at which the joy is overwhelming, a cultural response to having lived several thousand years with the imminent threat of communal starvation always right around the corner and the source of many very real deaths even well into the 20th century (the US government once tried to force Alaskan Eskimos to become caribou -- er, reindeer -- herders rather than hunters. That caused hunger and starvation even into the 20s and 30s. More recently, the international whaling ban caused devastation and hunger in the 70s and 80s, until the Alaskan Iñupiat and Yup'ik people fought for their traditional right to eat what they had always eaten and won an indigenous exemption quota.)

On Thanksgiving, Christmas, and at a June festival called Nalukataq, the entire community gathers in church or out on the beach for an entire day while each successful crew distributes community shares of fish, caribou, whale, and seal meat and oil, feeding the people all day and singing gospel songs, with a traditional dance at the end where the exchange of gifts and good feelings of gratitude sustain people socially and morally as well as physically through the cold, dark, and traditionally desperate winter.

And this is their approach to relations with outsiders too. If you ever visit an Inuit community, even as a stranger, you will be fed immediately and constantly, offered food to take home, and drawn into the great cycle of reciprocity and obligation that has the sharing of food -- of meat specifically -- at its emotional and caloric core. The poorest family will still feed you their best meat and speak of both Jesus and Inuit tradition in explaining why they do this -- feeding strangers means strangers may someday feed you.

It is their culture, their tradition, and not only is it not anachronistic, it is a highly adaptive way of organizing a society in a place where the margin between life and death depends very much on whether you can make that first shot count. Hundreds of anthropologists have described it and been fascinated with it, going back to Franz Boas as a graduate student. Inuit culture is one of the most compelling examples of an alternative way of organizing society that is neither capitalist nor socialist, but an economy based on the fundamental obligations humans have to each other not to let each other starve. Food is politics, religion, culture, everything.

I have spent most of the last decade learning to hunt (although my skills are still childlike by comparison) from elder Inuits (and their younger sons and nephews and in fact daughters and nieces -- any Inuit woman shoots better than any non-Inuit man I have ever known who wasn't trained in the military). My mentors have undertaken to teach me this because I wanted to understand their way of life and values profoundly; this, they said, was where it started and ended, behind a berm on the tundra as a herd of caribou approaches. Middle-aged and urban, I nonetheless accepted the terms of this understanding, and it has taught me a whole new view of life and death, for which I am extremely grateful. I have worked with hunting communities and hunters before, but I really had no idea how "subsistence hunting" in the north was not the same thing as what I knew in the south, even if my friends in Texas and Arkansas also kill animals for food.

The amount of care and detailed *extraordinary* ecological knowledge that goes into successful subsistence hunting makes professional biologists (many of whom accompany Inuit hunters to learn as well) envious and amazed. I've seen it. I've been along on those hunts with leading climate scientists and animal biologists along for the experience and the learning -- some who have been doing it for decades and are amused to see me just realizing what they have learned, which is that their PhD in biology means they know a fraction of what an elder hunter knows about the arctic ecosystem. You don't understand how much native hunters know until you've heard the world's leading expert on a particular whale species tell you that he knows nothing compared to an 80 year old man with a cane who can still drop a diving seal at 100 yards from a moving boat on rough water, with a single .223 shot.

Young men (and many young women) are taught carefully, patiently, and endlessly how to hunt from age 7 or so on (I've been on ambitious multi-day hunts with boys as young as 7), and to hunt only for what you can use and carry home. They learn how to carefully avoid damaging animal reproduction by observing mating pairs and animals with calves, hunting only for the right animals at the right time, how to dress the carcass with minimal waste, how to shoot for a clean and quick kill so the animal does not suffer (if it takes a second shot, you get teased mercilessly; if you miss, it will be part of the next day's stories, with a strong moral tone that you need to become a better shot to show respect for your prey, let alone to be a useful member of society).

If you gutshoot an animal, it ruins the meat and causes the animal to suffer, and your elder teacher will kick your ass backwards and forwards and be right behind your shoulder next time with his hand on your gun making sure you sever the spinal cord next time (brains are eaten, so headshots are not ideal). We pray for the animal before we shoot (there is a prayer said right before you pull the trigger). We pray to thank the animal and its spirit (all animals of the same species have a single spirit) and God after we shoot. We never cheer when we succeed. We never curse when we miss. We never complain when it's hard going, which it usually is, brutally so. It's God's decision, and for many Inuits, it's other animal and earth spirits as well (Inuit religion is a whole other topic, but intertwined with hunting in fundamental ways). If you failed in the hunt, you did something wrong ethically or technically, but even technical failure is ethical failure at root. Hunting is a moral activity. An immoral person is a bad hunter, and bad or careless hunting (especially if it causes animals to suffer) is proof of bad character like nothing else. (I have seen an elder shed tears over a dead walrus carcass left behind after someone cut off only the tusks and left the meat to rot. He then swore he would find the culprits and ruin their reputations. And it was the talk of the town for days afterwards. Wasting meat is wasting animals *and* wasting human life. It is a cardinal sin.)

Hunting is highly spiritual for Inuits, both in Christian and traditional terms. It's also the basis of political structure. Young men who hunt feed the community; they become community leaders as they grow into their father's or uncles' roles, and powerful figures, and those who don't often wind up in trouble with substance abuse, domestic violence, and other tragedies of a situation where men have no function in the community after thousands of years of being expected to provide this primary function. If you want a healthy, happy son, you teach him to hunt from an early age and know the joy and positive feedback of feeding others through personal sacrifice.

For thousands of years, hunting in this manner was the only way for entire communities not to die of starvation; now it is widely understood to be the only way not to die more slowly from the poisonous effects of western processed foods on Inuit health and the poisonous effects of disruptions to this cultural structure on community health.

Hominids eat meat. We have for millions of years. We are adapted to eat meat. We walk on two legs and have eyes in front of our face and prehensile thumbs because we eat meat. A couple of hundred years of western snivelization doesn't change that fact. Agriculture is far newer in human history than hunting. And, by creating the possibility for cities and huge population growth on this planet, one could argue agriculture was a singularly maladaptive cultural development about 25,000 years ago. We lived well within the means of our planet as a species until we started converting it into a tended garden and stockyard. Now we are 6 billion people, most of whom would starve tomorrow if fossil fuels disappeared, and we're fouling our nest in irredeemable ways that might end our "civilization" based on using up common resources as fast as possible in the very near future, and in developed, urban societies, we live with very little connection to the processes that produce our food and foul our environment and bodies with poison, so we think we're being "ethical" when we condemn the way other people produce their own food with their own hands rather than relying on industrial agriculture, as they have always done.

For my research, I have spent many hours with elders looking at old photographs from the 1940s. The elders in those photos often look different from the younger people. They have a look in their eyes, and a bearing in their bodies, that draws notice from today's elders, and more than one has pointed to a photo of a man or a woman who is 70 or 80 in a photo from 70 years ago (thus, someone who was a child in the late 19th century) and said, with respect and fear, "look at them, they knew what it was to starve."

Obviously, I'm passionate on this subject. I apologize for peppering the thread.
posted by spitbull at 5:02 AM on March 30, 2014 [36 favorites]


That was sort of the viewpoint that I was talking about that really put me in a moral dilemma. Inuit people cannot just pack up and move to a place where they can not hunt seal. Asking a group of people to abandon their culture and their way of life because it makes white privileged vegans/omnis (because we vegans aren't the only ones who get upset with the idea of a seal hunt) angry is incredibly racist and classist, imo. Imposing a Western diet--even a healthier one--or using the term "they just need to be educated!" is pretty horrible to use towards them. That would be treating with them no agency or power of their own...which is pretty much what white people have been doing to them ever since they came to Canada.
posted by Kitteh at 5:03 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry about the "killers" remark, taz. I included myself when I said it, however. I wasn't calling vash a "killer" for what s/he said, but rather pointing out that *all* of us are "killers" of animals when we use fossil fuel resources, and no one reading Metafilter can excuse themselves from this truth.
posted by spitbull at 5:05 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

That said, and in the spirit of humility and conflict avoidance taught to me by my Iñupiaq mentors (if you're curious, read Jean Briggs' famous 1970 ethnography, *Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family*), vash, I apologize for my insulting language and ask your forgiveness in Jesus' name.

Perhaps I can share some akpik berries with you next time I get some.

OK, outta here for real. I have to close this thread. It's too personal for me.
posted by spitbull at 6:14 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to chime in and say that I absolutely support your thinking Spitbull, and find Vash's 'arguments' here repulsive. I hope they are made from ignorance (fueled by generations of cultural bigotry nonetheless). But they are horrifying, racist, and yes, colonialist.

Vash if what you truly want is to increase peace in the world, there are a thousand more effective ways to go about it, and it starts with building compassion inside you (and continues with building both knowledge and humility). But here you seem to be casually accepting, if not advocating, a form of genocide. That is not helping.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:03 AM on March 30, 2014

Spotbull that is an amazing personal reflection. Thanks.

Vash it is clear to me from your comments that you just don't have all the information you need to understand this situation. That's okay. There is lots if stuff I know nothing about as well.

I hope as you think your way through this that you will come to see the complexity of the situation. I hope for all of us that we greet the tricky moral problems of our time with some level of grace and confusion. And I hope that Ellen doesn't start a movement that further distance people from access to sources of food, healthy life and community.
posted by salishsea at 8:53 AM on March 30, 2014

I had not posted on the blue prior to this thread, so I'm not sure how derailing is defined here. I trust that if taz says I'm derailing, then I am. I just thought that it was important that I present a non-speciesist viewpoint as no one else had. I think that my position makes a lot more sense once you understand some basic assumptions, and if anyone would like to inquire about them respectfully, I welcome private messages. I won't respond to further posts on this matter here.
posted by vash at 10:30 AM on March 30, 2014

I just thought that it was important that I present a non-speciesist viewpoint as no one else had.

I realize you won't respond, which is fine. But FYI this is so incredibly reductionist as to be actively harmful. It's like choosing which medicine to take based on the colour of the pills. While you may view it as "non-speciesist", it's definitely colonial to the point of being borderline genocidal.

I think that my position makes a lot more sense once you understand some basic assumptions

That humans don't need to eat animals? This is a debatable point - groups like the Inuit are very much adapted to eating a diet that's almost all meat. And they live in such small numbers that they're no more a danger to an ecosystem that any other part of the ecosystem. This isn't like residents of New York importing tonnes of meat from around the globe each day to keep themselves fed.
posted by GuyZero at 4:10 PM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much for the comments, spitbull. It's really fascinating as well as helpful for discussion to hear from a perspective that many of us aren't familiar with.

Is it confirmed somewhere that the money raised actually went towards protesting the seal hunt? The article in the first link just says that "She gave a portion to the Humane Society of the United States, one of the most prominent critics of Canada's seal hunt," but doesn't say where the money went, and that seems like a very minor role of the Humane Society. The only other thing I see in the article is that she has a 3-year old blog post protesting the seal hunt. Is there more to the story that I'm missing? I don't tend to follow celebrity news so I'm out of the loop here, just wanted to verify that she is in fact actively protesting the seal hunt.

I guess Ellen's personal views don't matter that much to the overall discussion anyway, since there are so many other voices involved. I don't have any problems with the seal hunt provided that it isn't excessively cruel, which it doesn't seem to be. I tend to agree that factory farms are more cruel overall. I suspect that seals are more appealing to protest because of the cuteness factor, and it's also much easier for most people to give up wearing seal fur than to stop eating factory meat.
posted by randomnity at 11:03 AM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Inuit should try to move somewhere where they don't need to hunt to survive. I'm not convinced they lack the means to do so. Culture or tradition are not valid reasons for staying.

Cool pro-genocide stance, bro.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:13 PM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

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