Indigenous Rights v. Animal Rights: Response to Vanessa Friedman
Last week, The New York Times reported on tiny fashion company Shaman Furs and Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams, its owner and designer, an Alaska Native and member of the Yup’ik tribe. Williams lives and works in Sitka, Alaska using traditional means for harvesting the sea otter furs with which he creates fashionable garments and accessories, melding the traditions of his people with the modern aesthetics of global fashion. At a moment when many people in North America are thinking actively about issues of indigenous sovereignty (due largely to a brutal suppression being attempted on behalf of oil pipelines such as the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota), the Times article asks how the materials and production of fashion might play a role in Native self-determination and activism as well.
Judging by the website, it helps that Shaman Furs makes beautiful things, including headbands, earrings, and pencil skirts. If he didn’t roughly adhere to a contemporary fashionable ideal, the Times wouldn’t be interested. When was the last time they reported on someone making traditional ethnic clothing without some of that all-important “crossover appeal?” As exciting as it is to see coverage of an indigenous-run fashion company, author Vanessa Friedman seemingly can’t help but mention, in a slightly disdainful aside, that “he has a ways to go before the aesthetic catches up” to haute couture. Right. Just in case we were doubtful of Friedman’s ability to distinguish between the work of the members of the Chambre Syndicale and that of a guy working alone in Alaska. What purpose does it serve to do this little bit of undermining? Just making it clear that Ms. Friedman is reporting on this company as a sort of feel-good public service instead of doing straightforward fashion reporting, perhaps? Harumph.
Beyond this little dig, the article (headlined “Is All Fur Bad Fur?”) highlights an ethical question that is too rarely asked in relation to fur and other wearable animal products, which is: Is wearing fur always wrong, as animal rights groups would have us believe? Do the rights of animals outweigh the rights to the sustainability and self-preservation of indigenous people who have been practicing trapping, tanning, and garment-making since long before this continent was colonized? When set up directly against one another, it’s not so clear. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing Native American groups as victims of the fashion system through a series of highly publicized complaints and lawsuits against companies like Urban Outfitters and Paul Frank who used Navajo and other traditional motifs in unjust, appropriative ways. It’s odd, therefore, to have aboriginal fashion practices set in opposition to the prevailing narrative of “good” (i.e. animal cruelty-free) fashion.
Sometime in the late 90s, seduced by the very sexy PETA ads of that decade featuring all of my favorite supermodels declaring they’d “rather go naked than wear fur,” I told my mother that I thought it was wrong to wear fur because innocent animals were killed for it. (I was not a vegetarian, which is important to note.) She replied that she understood that perspective, but that a) we live in Canada and it gets very cold, and b) there are communities of aboriginal people who make their living from those furs, and boycotting their product does as much damage to them as embracing it does to the animals. Did animals matter more than humans? I definitely never brought it up again, and have spent all the intervening years attempting to sort out my thoughts and feelings on the issue.
Of course, not all the fur on the runways is caught and treated in the traditional fashion, with proceeds benefitting indigenous communities of the North. Far, far from it. But with the anti-fast food movement towards ethical meat – the whole farm-to-table, knowing-where-your-food-comes-from trend – why hasn’t there been more of the same conversation around fur? Where are the advocates for ethical fur, the Netflix shows celebrating The Mind of A Trapper, and the NYC boutiques advertising heritage otter pelts and fetishizing the rituals by which they’re respectfully turned into coats and bags? I suppose the Times is doing their part to bring attention to one such producer in Mr. Williams. He says he wants to keep his company small “to maintain the individual relationship I have with the animals, and create an intimate experience for those wearing my work.” If that doesn’t make him sound like a fashion Dan Barber, I don’t know what could.
So does it all come down to an issue of marketing? Has PETA simply done a better job of promoting their “cruelty-free” message than indigenous groups have with their version of sustainable fur-harvesting methods? The cuteness of a baby seal is hard to deny. But nothing in our current politico-ethical climate is straightforward anymore, is it? For every corporate boycott, there are thousands of much-needed jobs lost. For every well-meaning organic food outlet dropped into a food desert, there’s an affordable option displaced. Aren’t we all just doing the best we can? I hope we are.
The holiday season forces us to confront a lot of these questions, at least if we allow. As Friedman writes, “When PETA pops up, you know it’s that time of year, with temperatures dropping, gift guides proliferating and fur […] once again becoming a topic of debate.” And it’s not just fur that makes some of us feel queasy around the holidays; the overall excesses of consumption are always hard to avoid, and hard to stomach. But again, we make ethical trade-offs and compromises. I’d rather never buy a Christmas gift again as long as I live, but not every one of my relatives wants a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center instead, and I’m not trying to create disharmony for the sake of it. It never feels good to accept gifts we wouldn’t buy ourselves for ethical reasons, but it doesn’t feel any better to throw them back in the faces of our loved ones.
I guess my point is that nothing’s perfect, but I know the only two things I could ask for this year that don’t make me feel sick: a hearty donation to the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock (in Canada, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs or Coast Protectors, who face a similar battle against two newly approved pipelines), and a digital subscription to The New York Times. Scratch that, The Guardian.