A month after Ellen DeGeneres tweeted her record-breaking celebrity-laden selfie during the Oscars on March 2—now surpassing 3.4 million retweets—Samsung’s $1.5-million donation to an anti-seal hunting organization has sparked a new viral meme.
What started with a teenager’s video explaining Inuit lifeways to the star has morphed into a twitter hashtag answering “selfie” with “sealfie,” as social media–savvy Inuit—who have for millennia depended on seals for meat, clothing and trade—fire back with their own hashtag featuring photos of them garbed in seal fur coats, mittens, boots and shawls. DeGeneres, fans and Twitter followers were elated when Samsung pledged to donate $1 for every retweet of DeGeneres’s Oscars selfie to a charity of her choice. The trouble started when the star, who hosted the Academy Awards, designated $1.5 million for the Humane Society of the United States, an organization that campaigns strongly against the seal hunt in Canada.
The online trend was sparked after Iqaluit teenager Killaq Enuaraq-Strauss, 17, uploaded a March 23 video to YouTube imploring DeGeneres to reconsider her choice of the Humane Society of the U.S. as a designated charity for Samsung’s post-Oscar donation.
“We do not hunt seals, or any animal for that matter, for fashion,” Enuaraq-Strauss said in the video. “We hunt to survive. If Canada were to ban the seal hunt, so many families would suffer, would face harsher forms of malnutrition, and wouldn’t be able to afford proper clothing for the Arctic environment we live in. Even more so, another part of our culture would have been killed.”
The Iqaluit youth took particular umbrage not only with the AHS’s campaigns for Canada to ban the controversial seal hunt—long a target of animal rights protesters—but their successful push for the European Union to ban seal imports (although the EU made some exemptions for traditional Inuit products).
The hashtag was started by journalist Leila Beaudoin, who encouraged others to jump into the furry fray: “Show your fur, people!”
And they did. The hashtag and “sealfie” craze has been taken up by others across the Arctic, ranging from Nunavut residents to top officials, including the leader of the national Inuit organization and Canada’s environment minister, who is also Inuit.
“It’s really hard to take a Sealfie with sealskin mitts on,” quipped Iqaluit resident Aaron Watson, noting it as a “NunavutProblem.” Nonetheless he managed to post a shot of the “pualuk my Sakik made for me,” tweeting the Inuktitut words for mittens and in-laws.
National Inuit leader Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Inuit organization in Canada, tweeted a photo of himself in seal-skin vest in his office.
Canada’s environment minister Leona Aglukkaq—a longstanding supporter of seal hunting—tweeted a photo of herself wearing what looks like the world’s softest cape, with the words, “Proud to support Canada’s humane and ethical seal hunt!”
DeGeneres is not a newcomer to the thorny seal hunting debate.
“Seal hunting is one of the most atrocious and inhumane acts against animals allowed by any government,” her website stated in a 2011 post, Stop Seal Hunting in Canada Now, promoting a campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “Canada is allowing the slaughter of a record number of seals.”
Enuaraq-Strauss replied that despite being “a big fan” of Ellen, she was “a little bit insulted and hurt and disappointed” that Ellen—a role model for many—chose to pit herself against an Inuit tradition so important for their economic well-being and food security.
“I also eat seal meat more times than I can count,” she said in her video. “And I can’t apologize for that.”
In fact, in Canada’s far north, everyday groceries often skyrocket to astronomical prices because everything must be flown in by airplane. As a Globe and Mail investigation highlighted recently, in some Northern communities a liter of milk costs nearly $4, a loaf of bread almost $6, a pound of beef hitting $16.
Many have decried out that the government-controlled price on alcohol is often lower. So animal rights activists’ anti-seal hunt campaign hits at the heart of high levels of malnutrition and poverty for many Inuit, who see wild, traditional food sources as vital to preserving their food security.
“We’ve never been cruel,” the 17-year-old said in her video. “We see animals as gifts, as precious things that we were given in order for us to survive, to be able to feed our families and move forward. To be painted in such a cruel light, without a voice to speak up for us, isn’t fair. So I’m speaking up for us.”
So although the viral message had a lighthearted overtone, underlying it was a much more serious message—and implications that the very ban that is considered humane is actually just more colonialism.
The Iqaluit teenager added that “to take away such a vital part of who we are is detrimental to our culture—it’s oppressive. We’ve suffered under the Canadian government, the Canadian people, and now even worldwide for doing things that are only natural to us.”