Etsy suspends Calgary Indigenous artist's account over use of seal skin
Published Friday, March 15, 2019 5:46PM MDT
Last Updated Friday, March 15, 2019 6:42PM MDT
An Indigenous Calgary artisan is struggling to comprehend Etsy’s decision to suspend her account over the use of a traditional material that is legal to sell throughout the majority of the world and is readily available.
Autumn EagleSpeaker, a Blackfoot artist, began working with seal skin after being gifted some of the material from an elder.
“As soon as I felt that seal fur it was amazing, it was like magic,” recalled EagleSpeaker. “It just ignited something in my spirit and I felt connected to the fabric itself and the beauty of it. I created my first pair of earrings for myself and then I created a pair for my best friend and then a couple more family members.”
The jewelry was well received and drew significant interest. “I had people asking me about my earrings, where they came from and if they could purchase a pair for themselves. I really was not a seller type of person but I thought 'Hey, why not?'.”
The artist started a Facebook page and Instagram account to showcase her creations and realized she would require additional material. “Because I started making more and the popularity of it, I reached out just to find out if I could get seal imported. I went to the local tanneries and leather places and it was no problem, I just would need to buy a large quantity.”
Earlier this week, EagleSpeaker launched an Etsy shop to further increase exposure for her wares. She followed the prompts and offered a breakdown of the materials she used. “You can choose what (materials) are listed in the products you are going to sell but there was really no natural materials that were listed on there so I checked ‘other’ and then I wrote in there ‘seal skin’,” explained EagleSpeaker. “That was three days ago and today I got the email saying that my items were taken down.”
According to the artist, the explanation from Etsy's 'Marketplace Integrity' team centered on the fact the United States government bans the sale of seal.
“There’s seal in abundance,” said EagleSpeaker of her confusion. “Seal’s not a protected species in Canada and globally. In the U.S., they have different legislation that affects us in selling but if I was to send it across the sea then I wouldn’t have a problem.”
EagleSpeaker calls the suspension of her account a ‘slap in the face’ and ‘another layer of law and legislation that really keeps people from being able to practice their traditional culture’.
“It’s really frustrating to be an Indigenous person and to be told by other people that you’re not allowed to use what is traditionally available for you or for other Indigenous people. Seal skin isn’t necessarily akin to my traditional but in Indigenous cultures we did a lot of trading and so we would trade with different communities. We would trade up north, we would trade to the west so a lot of our traditional outfits are adorned with shells and other materials that we gathered from other places.”
The artist says she expected her foray into Etsy to open doors but the organization’s policies have limited her options. “It would be really great if Etsy would look at its policies and see how discriminatory they are to people around the world. If you really want to be a global company, you want to be a global brand, you need to take away the limitations that exist on people especially for Indigenous entrepreneurs.”
She says the policy not only hurts Indigenous artists but the consumer as well. “In the end, it’s the public that’s missing out because there’s so many different, beautiful creations that are made not only by myself but many other amazing artisans that are using seal and antler of caribou, muskox, all these different traditional items that you wouldn’t necessarily find in Michael’s or anywhere else.”
Etsy, a New York-based company, did not respond to CTV’s requests for comment on the suspension of EagleSpeaker’s account.
The United States and European Union currently ban most seal products. Indigenous groups continue to lobby for the American government and E.U. to lift the ban of products from the legally hunted animal that serves as a source of income for Indigenous communities.
With files from CTV’s Bill Macfarlane