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How Indigenous people are strengthening fur traditions in an anti-fur world

Unreserved48:15How Indigenous people are strengthening fur traditions in an anti-fur world

Inuvialuit fashion designer Taalrumiq says she knows first-hand how using real animal fur can foster harsh criticism and anger in people who are against the fur industry. 

Taalrumiq, whose English name is Christina Gruben King, creates couture pieces and fine art using the materials and designs of her ancestors. She travels from her home in northern British Columbia to sell these pieces and often has to explain to non-Indigenous people — whose responses she say can range from discomfort, to disgust, to anger — the uses, beauty and cultural importance of fur. 

It doesn’t always go as expected.

“I had a booth at Indigenous fashion arts in Toronto, so we had quite a variety of customers coming through,” Taalrumiq told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. “And there’s one man who came to my booth about five different times throughout the day. First few times he was arguing with me about fur and [saying], ‘It’s disgusting,’ and ‘How could you?'”

Taalrumiq remained calm and tried to explain the beauty and utility of the products she was selling. 

“He kept coming back to look and then started to touch them,” she continued. “And then actually came back the next day and … he bought some earrings for his partner.”

Colourful Indigenous-made earrings, which are for sale, sit on a table.
Taalrumiq’s hand-made earrings on display. (Submitted by Taalrumiq)

Anti-fur sentiment has made it harder for the people who hunt and trap animals, as well as artists like Taalrumiq who use these harvested materials, to make a living from selling their wares. Animal rights activists have long called the fur industry inhumane and unnecessary. 

But despite the negativity toward using and selling fur, Indigenous people say fur can be a sustainable, respectful and even luxurious material for clothing, accessories and art. They believe it’s important to preserve fur’s place in Indigenous cultures and traditional economies.

Economic opportunities in the North

In Johanna Tiemessen’s role with the Northwest Territories government, she helps small communities turn their lifestyles on the land — through activities like hunting, trapping and fishing —  into economic opportunities. She also helps artists using these materials bring their work to market. 

The N.W.T.’s department of finance notes that while trapping doesn’t make up a huge part of the territory’s total economy, it’s a sector that is important to many residents — especially those in smaller communities — for food, clothing and income.

Conversations like the one Taalrumiq had with the man in Toronto are a way for artists to spread information about fur and help the industry survive, said Tiemessen.

“When we look at the Queen not wearing fur, or talk about the RCMP not wearing fur in their garments anymore, they again are under the pressure of these groups that have tons of money [and] famous musicians speaking out against the use of fur,” she said.

“But they’re not thinking about the damage that they’re doing to … small Indigenous communities where economic development opportunities are scarce.”

A woman, standing outside in the winter, wears a black and grey fur hat and coat.
Johanna Tiemessen is the manager of the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment in the Northwest Territories. (Johanna Tiemessen)

The N.W.T. government offers several programs to support these traditional practices, including a Hide and Fur program, which helps artisans access affordable materials; a Seal Certification program that gives Indigenous harvesters an exemption to the European Union’s seal ban; and the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur program, which gives N.W.T. trappers access to the international fur auction market. 

She says in her eyes, all of this work isn’t just about changing anti-fur sentiment or getting consumers to purchase fur; it’s about something bigger. 

“It’s part of our country’s move towards reconciliation of supporting Indigenous communities to have [economic] opportunities,” she said.

Knowledge passed down through generations

No fur from the territory is farmed, Tiemessen said. Fur farms breed and raise animals for their fur, and are considered cruel to animals that would otherwise be living in the wild. According to Humane Society International, fur farms have been banned in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Austria and the Netherlands. 

Instead of being farmed, N.W.T. fur is harvested sustainably by people like Nathan Kogiak.

Kogiak, who is Inuvialuit and lives in Yellowknife, says he learned the skill of trapping as a young child, from his father. 

“He loved being in the bush. He loved being outside,” Kogiak said. “It’s definitely something that he made sure to teach me. How to trap, how to survive out there … what to do in certain situations. It was great knowledge to be handed down.”

Kogiak doesn’t rely solely on trapping for income — he has a full-time job with the N.W.T. government, working on the Hide and Fur program, and traps in the winter — but he has seen the prices of furs fluctuate drastically year to year, making his returns unpredictable. 

A man stands in a room holding up animal pelts
Nathan Kogiak, who is Inuvialuit and lives in Yellowknife, learned the skill of trapping as a young child from his father. (Nathan Kogiak)

He says he recognizes that the negative views of the fur industry play a role in how economically viable hunting and trapping can be. But this negativity, he suggested, stems from ignorance.

“I don’t want that word [ignorance] to be demeaning in any way,” Kogiak said. “It’s just that people think that I’m trapping all these animals, but it’s really I’m trapping the sick, the injured and the old because those are the animals that are hungry, starving, you know, that can’t hunt on their own.” 

Healthy animals don’t go after the frozen bait he leaves in his traps, Kogiak said.

Kogiak says he believes the programs offered by the N.W.T. government are vital to help trappers continue this long-standing practice and keep their traditional fur economy going. And he hopes to pass his trapping knowledge down to his niece, who’s nearly three years old. 

“I don’t even know what generation trapper I am. It’s always been in our family,” he said. “It connects me with my culture. It makes me feel good about myself. And it’s just super relaxing, calming and something I foresee myself doing until I’m an elder.”

WATCH | Seal skin and Inuit culture:

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The Winnipeg Art Gallery launched a virtual tour of Qaumajuq — a new 40,000 square foot space devoted to Inuit art. Artists Beatrice Deer and Julie Grenier talk about the importance of seal skin in Inuit diet and why sewing is a vital skill in Nunavut.

‘Sense of identity and belonging’

Taalrumiq, whose home community is Tuktoyaktuk, says nothing compares to real fur when you’re out in the frigid N.W.T. temperatures. 

“Fake fur falls short. It doesn’t have the same qualities or characteristics. It’s not as fluffy. [It] doesn’t have the guard hairs or the undercoat, like the fluffy, fuzzy undercoat. As soon as it gets wet, it’s matted, and then you’re going to have frozen ice around your face, which is not good,” she said.

“And it’s just not as beautiful and luxurious … not to mention, it doesn’t biodegrade,” she continued. “Real fur is biodegradable. It’s sustainable.”

Taalrumiq collects a lot of materials herself — like fish vertebrae from the beach, which she can turn into earrings — and with the help of friends and family. 

An Indigenous woman wears a parka with a fur trimmed hood.
Taalrumiq says faux fur doesn’t compare to the real thing when you’re trying to stay warm in the North. (Taalrumiq)

“A lot of times [the materials are] byproducts of subsistence living,” she said. “If someone has gone out hunting, things like the fur, the antlers, even the hooves … we’re not going to necessarily eat those parts, so then I can use them in my art.”

It’s what her ancestors did. And creating clothing and art that resembles the fine skills of her seamstress grandmothers makes her feel at peace, she said. 

“There’s something to be said for wearing traditional clothing that just makes you feel proud to be who you are,” Taalrumiq added. “It’s so important [for] not only Inuvialiut, but Indigenous people to remember where we come from. Our connection to nature gives us a sense of identity and belonging.”

Part of her efforts to challenge anti-fur sentiment takes place on TikTok, where she shares funny skits, her art and sewing and aspects of Inuvialuit culture.

She does get push back from people who aren’t comfortable with fur, but overall “the response has been positive,” she noted. 

“There’s still a lot of educating to do, but that’s good,” Taalrumiq said. “I’m here for it.”

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