Sealskins and the Eskimo Economy
Canada’s Arctic is inhabited by nearly 15,000 Eskimo people. They are in many varying stages of transition. With government programs, economic developments, improved social services and the education system, all designed to enable a higher standard of living, many are taking advantage of wage employment and changing from the old way of living on the land. This trend is more recent in the Eastern Arctic where 80 per cent of the Canadian Eskimos reside. There are still, however, something like 1,000 to 1,500 families spread over a vast area who continue to live by a hunting and trapping economy. Many of these people derive their main cash income from the sale of sealskins.
Reports from the latest fur auction sales indicate that an upward trend in the price of sealskins is now evident. In comparison with the last few years when prices dropped from $15.00 to $2.00 and the market demand for sealskins was nil, January offerings of this year were 99 per cent sold out within two days. Price ranges for top quality clear silvery extra large jars to medium and small, ranged from a low of $18.75 to a high of $40.00. Social Assistance payments to the hunters and their families which have doubled and in some cases tripled during the period of uncertainty are now expected to decrease considerably as a result of the more favourable market conditions. The morale of the Eskimo hunter will be raised as he will once again be able to take his place in society and assume his role as the family provider.
In recent years, unfavourable and wide-spread publicity was given to the annual spring hunting of baby Harp seals on the large ice fields off the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and the Labrador coast. The public (particularly in European countries where Canadian sealskins have found a ready market in the past) reacted by boycotting sealskins. Their resentment was transferred to all “seals” regardless of origin, species and hunting methods. It is not our intent to condemn or condone sealing practices in the Gulf. Our purpose is to clarify misunderstandings that have linked Eskimo sealing with the controversial harvesting of “white coats” in the Gulf and off the Labrador Coast.
The Harp seal that is taken commercially by the St. Lawrence seal fisheries in the Gulf is a migratory animal. It moves in herds from the Atlantic-Arctic area in the summer to the breeding grounds of the Greenland Sea and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the fall. In the spring the “white coats” or seal pups are born in and lie by the thousands in open view on the ice fields. It is then that the widely publicized hunts that take place.
On the other hand, the seal most commonly hunted by the Canadian Eskimos is the Ringed or Common Jar seal. The “netsik” as it is called is not migratory in the ordinary sense. It is found singly in Arctic waters all year round. When young seal pups are born in the spring they are concealed beneath the ice on a ledge above the water. These seal pups are seldom taken. If a hunter does break through the ice cave, the disturbance alerts the pup and he escapes.
The Eskimo hunt of the seal has always been a challenge and a test of endurance, pitting the skill of the hunter against the elements and the wariness of the animal.
In early times stakes were particularly high; survival depending on the capture of the seal. “Netsik” provided the food, skins, for clothing and tents, oil for light and warmth. After the kill, the grateful hunter gave his seal a drink of water, a ritual to appease the soul of the seal and Sedna, Goddess of the Sea, so that seals would return.
Although not as important in terms of food, the seal today still provides an important source of cash income to the Eskimo with which he may purchase the necessities of life including outboard motors and motorized snow vehicles. Even with the use of modern equipment for hunting, the Eskimo still pits his skill against the wary animal and his endurance against a climate that is as deadly as any in the world. In winter he waits through cold dark hours for the seal at the breathing hole with no assurance that it will appear. In summer, he hunts from a boat, pinpointing the small dark head in the choppy water; then he must manoeuvre his craft quickly into position to harpoon the dead seal before it sinks. In the spring and early summer, the hunter crawls slowly over the ice to get within firing range. At the slightest sound the seal slips into the water. Countless hunters have lost their lives when the spring ice has given way and carried them out to sea.
Because the silver grey and black marked pelts of the mature Jar seal from the Arctic are immediately identified as “seal” by the public, they have borne the brunt of the buyers’ strike. By contrast, the pelt of the controversial “white coat” is white and woolly. It is seldom seen in Canada, and even in Europe, in its natural white state or dyed, it is not readily identified as “seal”.
The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in its responsibility for the welfare of Canada’s Eskimos continues to undertake a campaign to inform the public here and abroad of the disastrous effects of any boycott on the Eskimo economy. It is hoped that when the facts about Eskimo sealing and sealskins are made clear, buyers will turn again to the silvery grey skins from the Canadian Arctic for strikingly attractive clothing and sportswear.