Alaska artist Marcus Gho’s work, which features otter pelt, is once again for sale online, but only after he satisfied Etsy he doesn’t use fur from a threatened species of otter. (Marcus Gho/Etsy.com)

The North’s way of life is no match for social media’s prudish algorithms

Northerners now find their cultures under a new kind of puritan scrutiny

Last week, Etsy.com, an e-commerce website that’s favoured by artists to sell their work, decreed that Marcus Gho’s otter-fur artwork was no longer allowed to be sold on its site.

Gho, an Inupiaq artist in Alaska, makes jewelry, clothing and baubles with fur from sea otters. He was, according to the Associated Press, one of several Alaskan artists affected by the blanket ban.

The reason behind Etsy’s decision was more or less sound: It wanted to clamp down on the sale of work made from species at risk, specifically elephant ivory and, in Gho’s case, what Etsy thought was fur from Alaskan northern sea otters, which are threatened.

But Gho, who lives in Juneau, uses fur from southeast Alaskan sea otters, which are not threatened. I couldn’t tell you the difference between northern and southeast otter fur at a glance, and, evidently, neither could Etsy. So perhaps the confusion is understandable.

All’s well that ends well, in a sense. Gho’s work is back up on his page after he satisfied Etsy that his materials are sustainable. He seems content with the outcome. “Thank you to Etsy for allowing me to relist my sea otter fur handicrafts,” he wrote on his page Feb. 10. “Each of my items now includes information in the listing that specifies the sub-population of sea otters I use, which sub-population are neither threatened or endangered.”

Still, the dispute was significant enough to draw the attention of U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who wrote to Etsy urging the company to allow the sale of work made with sustainable ivory from walruses or petrified mammoth tusk.

But in a letter to Sullivan quoted by AP, Etsy says it won’t budge on the ivory, even though walruses are plentiful and mammoth have been extinct for millennia. Etsy’s reason, AP reports, is that the company is moving away from national and local laws — trade in non-elephant ivory is legal in the U.S. — to international standards to “reflect the increasingly global nature of our business and community.”

This sort of thing is becoming increasingly common as the behemoth companies that run the world’s most popular social media networks sweep across regions once considered “remote.”

We also saw it last year when Facebook temporarily blocked the sale of products made with seal skin in Nunavut.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of seals to Inuit culture and Facebook groups offering the sale of sealskin-based handicrafts do brisk business. In Canada’s poorest territory, such sales are of great economic importance and the craftsmanship helps preserve traditional knowledge.

To Facebook’s credit, it reversed the decision after CBC caught wind of the story. The company told CBC it would be interested in hearing from Nunavummiut to learn how the social network could “work better for this community.”

“We recognize the deep importance of seal and other animal products to Indigenous Canadians and want to clarify that products like the one the seller posted are allowed for sale on our platform,” Facebook said in a statement to CBC.

But Facebook, as the world’s dominant social network, keeps getting in trouble for this sort of thing. It banned the famous photo of Kim Phúc, the nine-year old Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack, one of the most searing and iconic images of the Vietnam War. It banned a piece of 1920s Renaissance-style art for depicting a woman’s breast. Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo sharing app, has driven artists, including Canadian Ambera Wellman, nuts with its prudishness over nipples.

To be sure, Facebook and other networks have a right to keep pornography off their sites. And they have a duty to curtail sexually-exploitative imagery, including child pornography, which is objectively criminal.

But in far too many cases, the algorithms that increasingly rule our lives are designed to conform to the most tepid of American social mores.

This should concern us in the North, where, for example, hunting is still not only a central part of our cultural identities, but also a key source of sustenance for many. As these social media sites now enable anyone’s photos to go anywhere in an instant, Northerners now find their cultures under a new kind of puritan scrutiny.

Just this week, CBC reported that an Inuk hunter from Labrador was swamped with racist abuse on Facebook for posting a photo of a legally-hunted polar bear.

“People are saying that they’re almost extinct and that they shouldn’t even be killed and that the people killing them should be strung up or thrown in jail,” Darrell Voisey told the CBC. “I guess some people just don’t know the way that we live up this way.”

People who have never set foot in the North or the Arctic declare themselves experts on how Northerners should live. Indigenous people are often told they should forego modern tools like rifles and hunt with bows.

Or, it is sometimes suggested, they should just go to the grocery store. This one is offered by people who have clearly never laid eyes on the limp and hyperbolically-expensive produce at a Northern store in, say, Pond Inlet.

This is a modern, high-tech variant on the old argument that “savages” need to be taught the benefits of civilization, regardless of their own wishes.

Colonialism didn’t die. It just went viral.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

Just Posted

New transitional home opens its doors

Supportive housing, semi-independent living and drop-in services are set to be offered

Yukonstruct, Poor Creature wrap up legal arguments

Justice Ron Veale is expected to give his decision on the case next week.

Second attempted murder charge laid in downtown Whitehorse shooting

Two men are now facing a total of 17 charges in relation to the shooting outside the Elite Hotel

WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World

Yukon Energy announces rate hike

The average Yukon household will pay an extra $20.48 every month

EDITORIAL: Time for the Yukon Party’s opening act

Having a competitive leadership race could be good for the party

City news, briefly

Some of the news from the Dec. 2 Whitehorse city council meeting

Arctic Sports Inter-School Championship draws athletes from as far as Juneau

The three-day event included more than 300 participants from kindergarten to Grade 12

Access road to Telegraph Creek now open

Ministry has spent $300K to date on work to clear rockslide

Freedom Trails responds to lawsuit

A statement of defence was to the Yukon Supreme Court on Nov. 19.

Whitehorse RCMP seeking suspects after robbery at Yukon Inn

Robbery took place in early hours of Nov. 27, with suspects armed with a knife and “large stick”

Yukonomist: Your yogurt container’s dirty secret

You should still recycle, but recycling one might be giving you a false sense of environmental virtue

History Hunter: New book tells old story of nursing in the Yukon

Author Amy Wilson was a registered nurse in the Yukon from 1949 to 1951

Most Read