For those completely out of the loop, it began when Ellen Degeneres donated a considerable sum to PETA in protest to seal hunting, the funds were raised during Ellen’s famous #selfie photo that she took with a number of celebrities and award nominees at the oscars. As this PETA donation made headlines, inuit people responded quickly in opposition to this. It quickly evolved into a hashtag entitled #sealfie where those opposed to Ellen’s recent anti-seal hunting endorsement took photos of themselves with recently hunted seals or their seal-skin apparel.
The inuit people have routinely opposed PETA’s anti-seal hunt stance and it is understandable if you know anything about the North. Think of it like this, the inuit live in remote northern areas that are so rugged that typically one can only get to these communities by planes. I pluralized planes because depending on where you are located you would probably need to travel to a more popular northern destination (by this I mean, Whitehorse, if you’re from the West Coast) then take a smaller plane to continue your voyage. Ah, but before I even say that, depending on the time of year, the weather could be so challenging that it might take you several days to get to your final destination. So, bundle up and get ready to brave the north that is not for the weak of heart.
Similar to an island community, one must import goods to these places and as you can imagine, the more difficult it is to get somewhere, the more expensive it will be to import these goods. The high expense of importing goods makes the cost of living in these areas extremely expensive.
When I was working for the Federal gov’t, we received per diems when we went on work trips. It’s basically a work allowance for you to spend per meal. In BC, I think it went something like this: Breakfast $13, Lunch $12, Dinner $38, and incidentals $16. If you were to go to Nunavut, You could add 20-40 dollars to each of these meals. I distinctly remember that you would receive $70-odd dollars for dinner alone. FOR DINNER ALONE. I asked a friend who grew up in the North whether this was an accurate amount and she mentioned how expensive it was to buy anything that was brought in by plane. Also, let’s take a moment to recognize how extravagant the federal gov’t’s per diems are. Ho ho ho, there goes my tax dollars.
Besides expense, let’s talk about indigenous diets. But first, some generalized history.
In Canada, it’s widely understood amongst indigenous people that we are experiencing 500 years of resistance. This is especially true to the first nations back east, in New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec, etc. Where settlers really dug their heels in and decided that is where they wanted to stay.
In BC, I often think about this. Although there is historic writing of settlers arriving to BC hundreds of years ago, I feel like it’s safe to say we’re experiencing probably less than 200 years of widespread colonial resistance. That is to say, when settlers decided to live on our land and claim it on their own; vanquishing herds of wild game…which in turn, disrupted nomadic hunting lifestyles leading to starvation amongst first nations contributing to a dependence on western food; creating the residential school system which contributed to future generations regularly eating refined sugars and flours and not learning the necessary skills to eat locally. Haha, had to say it like that because I think it’s good to reflect on those phrases.
Let’s talk about indigenous diets. And no, I’m not saying those weird diet trends that ask you to monitor how many calories you eat or that delivers boxed meals to your door. I’m talking about what foods you choose to eat for your body as fuel, for comfort, for family get-togethers and beyond. I worked in programming for the Public Health Agency for a little under a year and I worked in communications for the First Nations Health Council for two years. I was exposed to a lot of information, expert speakers and reports but despite all of this, I want to acknowledge I am very far from being an expert. I did learn a lot, though, and some common themes are the following: indigenous people are more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and obesity. Although my focus is on indigenous diets, it’s becoming common knowledge that many other non-western cultures adopting a diet of processed foods and sugars are also experiencing health issues that are quite similar to indigenous populations. I’m not here to debate whether the western diet is good or bad, but I will say that my people (interior First Nations: tsilhqotin, okanagan and carrier) have had less than 200 years of eating these refined flours and sugars and it does not surprise me that it’s a shock to our bodies and we’re not adapting well to these foods. Despite bannock or frybread being considered ‘native food’, I think we’re finally recognizing it as native colonizer food. Hell, I love bannock but we all know that shit ain’t healthy. The area of my body that is most likely to gain weight is around my stomach, which is a horrible contributor to my long-term heart health. I noticed when I cut our flours and refined sugars, I have been able to decrease my waist circumference.
I think a lot of what my body was built for. It was made for long travels (we were nomadic), it was made to bear weight on my back and to store food when we experienced a dry spell in hunting. The food available to my nations in the interior of BC includes: Moose, salmon, deer, potatoes, wild vegetables, berries, etc. This means that my people had a history of a high protein diet, with vegetables, and other starchy foods to help my body type to gain weight (besides salmon skin, potatoes would help with that). The way my body looks and how it gains weight and muscle makes a lot of sense to me when I think of my people’s history.
Let’s get back to the inuit. Take a moment to think about what you have in the north. You have ice, lots of ice. No real landscapes for gardens. You have icy cold waters where fish and mammels thrive in. You have some of the most treacherously cold environments that any group of people have managed to survive in. Short break to acknowledge how tough as nails the inuit are and that anyone (native or otherwise) that realized people were living and thriving in the north has got to admit that the inuit are BAD. ASS. That being said, what would you need to survive the cold? Warmth. What keeps us warm? Well if you’re a vancouverite, maybe you’re thinking your subzero northface jacket. And yes, you’d be right. But you also have body fat. There’s a reason humans in colder climates gain weight in the winter and trust me, it’s not just because we’re netflix binging. The inuit have a history of maintaining a high protein diet and the need to eat a lot of fat. Think about it.
Think about the localized meats available to communities that have been living there for thousands of years. There are reasons for why seals and other northern mammals and fish are dietary staples for particular communities. It’s because they provide a lot of meat and fat that is necessary for the health of the people living there.
Take a moment to realize the difficulty of importing foods and creating farms or even ranches in the north. Does it even make sense to introduce an entirely foreign way of living into a climate that will tear you to pieces if you try to outsmart it? In the water, there are animals. The relationship that the inuit have with their surrounding landscape it beautiful and necessary. Hunting is a way of life, it’s a way of being. Indigenous hunting is necessary for many First Nation and Inuit communities across the continent. In an environment as vicious and beautiful as the north, it goes without saying that life needs to respect life. Whatever life you can find in the north deserves understanding, respect and ongoing relationship based on survival. To hunt for food is an important aspect of indigenous culture. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s easy. Every animal my family has killed has been used to its fullest, if we don’t tan the skin of a moose, we find someone who will. Besides using the animal you hunt for food, it is considered downright disrespectful and wasteful to kill something and not use everything to the best of your ability. The nice part about smaller communities is that even if you don’t know how to use everything, there’s probably someone in the community who knows what to do with whatever part of the animal that remains. There is something to be said about close and connected communities and networks that share knowledge and refute waste. The connection one makes with something they kill should be profound. When the land gives you something to eat, you don’t shrug your shoulder ambivalently, it is a gift.
How do you eat? Do you think of where the items on your plate or in your bowl and how much work was put into getting them there? Do you think about the damage your diet might be causing? The ecological impact of a banana sitting on a boat for almost a month so that you can have a smoothie? On one hand, I feel like present-day society has a complete lack of understanding of the labour involved with what we choose to eat and what we choose to kill. Do you understand how long it took to grow that tomato? That someone picked it and canned it for you so that it could travel thousands of kilometers to end up at your local grocer.
Do you wonder about the horrible life that a cow has had while it’s stuffed inside a cage too small, choking every day of its existence until it is killed? The right of an animal is that it deserves to live freely until it dies. All of us urban, westernized folk are cruel creatures with little empathy for what it takes for our societies to live the way we do.
I went hunting this past fall. We didn’t get anything. But there was a fleeting moment where we almost shot a deer. I don’t know what I would have done. My heart was full. My uncle says a prayer following each kill. You don’t forget the gift of an animal that has given its life for you so that you may eat. Had we killed something, it would have been the first red meat that I’ve eaten since I was a child. I haven’t eaten meat because I used to be vegetarian and I don’t believe I should eat meat until I know what it is to take life out of respect, need and consideration of an animal’s dignity. My philosophy is that you should be able to kill and hunt what you eat, because it teaches you respect for the animals that live around you and makes you better understand the living environment that we (humans) are privileged to live within. And while I don’t think I should be selling my opinions to others, I truly believe most native people share these sentiments on what it means to hunt.
This relationship between food and land and how we live is essential. Not only to indigenous people, although it is important and something that people continue to practice, but to everyone.
When I think about this uproar of the #sealfies and the anti-seal hunt and the rigamaroll that many inuit people are going through trying to explain how they live to many ignorant people (who are often convinced that settler life is best)…it is mind blowing and some of the messages out there in internet land is downright hateful.
So to anyone unsure of this argument, I am not trying to convince you with my writing. You have probably already made up your mind and there are far more intelligent people that can break it down for you. But I will ask you to do something. Consider your relationship to what you eat and the land around you, what does it mean to you? Because from what I can gather, based on what many inuk people are saying on social media, it means everything. And it is beautiful.
Also, a small shout out to social media operating as modern day smoke signals so that indigenous people can better connect, communicate and understand one another.