Letter From Greenland
Does Seal Hunting Have a Future?
Christal Mattiwise plunges a curved knife into the flesh of a freshly skinned seal. "My cousin killed this today," she says, cutting out steak-size slabs of muscle. Tugging at the heart, she slices off a sliver for me. Raw seal heart is a delicacy in Greenland, but to me it tastes of blood, as if I've just bitten my tongue. We go inside her brightly painted wooden house, located on the treeless outskirts of Illulissat, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. She offers me delicacies to be served at a family gathering--chewy whale meat, smoked reindeer fat, a pink strip of Atlantic char.
Cuisine is one of the few things left of Greenland's traditional Inuit culture. Christal, 50, who dresses in a fleece shirt and sweatpants, and her husband, Arquato, 52, were once professional hunters. They traversed this ice-capped landmass on a dogsled for days at a time, searching for reindeer and seal. Now, Christal is a government clerk, while Arquato, like many former hunters in this settlement of 4,000 people (and 6,000 Siberian huskies) is in the tourist biz. He takes cruise-ship passengers in a battered taxi to watch the sun set over the creaking icebergs. "I prefer hunting," says Arquato, "but the outside world didn't give me a choice."
The outside world turned against Greenland hunters in 1972, when the U.S. government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans the importation of seal products. Then crusades against seal hunting in the mid-1980s caused the European market to crash. The national tannery went bankrupt, and Greenland's two fur-coat companies, Eskimo Pelts and Great Greenland Furhouse, nearly went under. Hunters started dumping the fur from the seals they and their huskies ate because it fetched such a low price. Greenlanders entering the U.S. often had their sealskin clothes confiscated at customs.
But now the Greenlanders are fighting back. The government is attempting to open seal-product markets in Asia and South America, where environmentalists hold less sway. An American, Dave Stevens, is exporting seal sausages to China. "The Scandinavians are also buying fur again," says sealskin dealer Darthe Birthe.
And the Greenland Home Rule Government will protest restrictions on exporting seal parts at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Officials will argue that the harp seal is not in danger of extinction. Some 4 million inhabit the waters between Greenland and Canada; Greenlanders kill just 75,000 a year. WTO regulations prohibit countries from setting up barriers to trade in products from animals that are not endangered. That means bans on seal-product imports should be lifted, Greenland's government claims. "Preventing us from exporting sealskin is like canceling our culture. There are no other ways possible for the people of Greenland to exist," says Finance Minister Josef Motzfeldt.WHALE STEAKS. With little income from hunting, Greenlanders live on Danish welfare (this island of 56,000 is a Danish colony) or work at tourism jobs. And they have social maladies that tourists wandering the streets in search of whale-steak dinners rarely see. Greenland has one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection in Europe. Suicide accounts for 10% of all deaths and is most common among young men. Alcoholism is rampant. Those who can't carve out new roles in post-hunting society congregate in nappittarfiks, chilly outdoor meeting places, to drink beer from cans in brown paper bags, under the dazzling midday sun.
The government wants to enlist the help of indigenous people's organizations such as Arctic Peoples Alert to its pro-hunting cause. It has also signed up lobbyists in Brussels. But swaying outsiders won't be easy. It all comes down to one question, says Aqqaluk Lynge, head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents Inuits in Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Greenland: "Whose face do you think is cuter, that of a seal or that of an Inuit?" Those seals are pretty photogenic--and that doesn't bode well for Greenland's hunters.By Lucy Jones; Edited by Sandra DallasReturn to top