‘It’s our way of life’: Inuit designers are reclaiming the tarnished sealskin trade

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Seal hunting is widely misconstrue, says a new wave of fashion designers, who the hell is challenging perceptions with a mixture of modern and traditional work

First, she appeared to tradition, immersing herself in the Inuit customs of mitten and parka-making. Next, Victoria Kakuktinniq attempted out the contemporary, heading south to train in fashion design before returning home to Nunavut, Canadas northernmost territory.

The result is a fashion line that marries modern design with tradition captured in a first collection that includes four sealskin wintertime coats and which has established Kakuktinniqs place among the cadre of designers and seamstresses in Canadas north working to reclaim sealskins place in haute couture.

Its part of my culture, said Kakuktinniq, 27, who launched Victorias Arctic Fashion in 2013. The Inuit are genuinely trying our best to promote our culture and indicate our way of life and how our ancestors lived.

It a way of life that has increasingly come under attack in recent decades. Opposition to seal hunting gathered force in the 1960 s and 70 s, with graphic campaigns that featured fluffy seal pups being bludgeoned by hunters. It soon snowballed into a global, celebrity-studded motion that insured the US and European union ban the import of nearly all seal products.

But little thought was given to the impact these anti-sealing campaigns would have on Inuit, said the film-maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. When you totally erase Inuit from the picture, it can appear as a black and white issue, she said. But were the people of the seal, were hunters.

Starting in the 1950 s, the carnage of hundreds, if not thousands, of sled puppies by the Royal Canadian mounted police left many Inuit with few alternatives but to abandon the semi-nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors and settle into permanent communities.

Other Inuit were forcibly relocated north by a Canadian government keen to claim sovereignty over the high reachings of the Arctic. Some Inuit were also sent away to residential schools, described by a truth committee as a church-run tool of cultural genocide and rife with abuse.

Rannva Simonsen, a luxury fur outerwear designer in Iqaluit, models one of her seems. Photograph: Ashifa Kassam for the Guardian

Throughout these turbulent years, the seal hunting acted as an anchor, providing a stable source of food and a dependable income as Inuit struggled to transition from the ways of their ancestors and into sedentary lives in one of the harshest surroundings on the planet.

Then came the bans. The prices of sealskin merely crashed, said Arnaquq-Baril, whose film Angry Inuk delves into the devastatingeffects anti-sealing activism has had on the Inuit.

Iniut communities were exempted from the ban, but much of the market for sealskin evaporated, inducing the exemptions meaningless. Communities lost 90% of their income, in some cases, said Arnaquq-Baril.

Poverty became the new normal in Nunavut, sending the already high suicide rates soaring and leaving about seven out of 10 Inuit children running hungry to school.

The campaigns proved lucrative for animal rights activists, often raising tremendous amounts of money for the organisations. But many Inuit felt vilified by the movement, which at times be interpreted to mean that the seal populations hunted by Inuit were threatened.

Its not only an attack on our ability to survive, its an attack on who we are and our worth as people, said Arnaquq-Baril. Its very frustrating when the organisations that are putting us in this position live in some of the richest parts of the world, with the richest farmland in the world, and the easiest temperatures to live in those are the people running the campaigns that affect us.

In 1985, Greenpeace Canada issued an apology to Inuit over its 1976 anti-sealing campaign, which went global. By some criteria, it was a successful campaign, Joanna Kerr, the executive director of Greenpeace Canada, noted in a 2014 blog post . But in one major way, it failed very, very badly.

The campaign, she noted, hurt many, both economically and culturally. The organisation has since made efforts to mend its liaison with indigenous peoples, Kerr added.

Footwear by the designer Nicole Camphaug, who adds sealskin to high heels and dress shoes. Photo: Ashifa Kassam for the Guardian

Some who point to the lingering cultural and economic the health effects of the campaigns have called for more than an apology. After all the money that was generated by Greenpeace over the years, they[ should] compensate each Inuit$ 1m, Aaju Peter, a sealskin seamstress in Iqaluit, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last year .

Others are doing all they can to revive the slumping market. The designer Nicole Camphaug began experimenting with layering sealskin on high heels and dress shoes several years ago, foreseeing the combination as another way of showcasing Inuit culture. I always think its so important to get sealskin out there, she said.

Soon afterwards, she launched a small side business out of her Iqaluit home , capitalising on social media to reaching customers across Canada and as far away as Greenland.

So far, the grassroots pushing by designers does seem to be attaining some change, said Rannva Simonsen, a luxury fur outerwear designer in Iqaluit , the capital of Nunavut. The attitude has changed, she said, pointing to a growing number of orders she had received in recent years from Toronto. Sealskin is actually being more and more agreed to by Canadians.

Originally from the Faroe Islands, Simonsen moved to Nunavut in 1997, launching her company shortly afterward. She was quick to espouse sealskin which she calls the local cow describing him as a humane source of food and income in a region with few other options.

Since then, she has watched as Inuit wage a David and Goliath battle against animal rights campaigners in a bid to keep the slumping industry alive a battle whose roots overlook the Inuits deep reverence for the land that surrounds them. I find its culture bully when people from the bigger society crush the small little culture, she said. Instead they should learn from the Inuits connectedness and respect for nature.

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