Commentary

Battle dress

The dress/Instagram

“The Salmon Sisters” – an entrepreneurial pair of young women from Homer, Alaska – added a tailored version of a kangaroo-pocketed pullover or shift or what the rafting company NRS calls a “hoodie dress” to their online store only days ago hoping to make a little money.

Little did they know what a shitstorm was about to erupt.

“The Seaworthy Dress”, as they called it, seemed a little over-priced at $172, but the sisters – who’ve built what appears to be a successful business pitching Alaska seafood, Salmon Sisters-branded Xtratuff boots and other whatnots to an upscale clientele – surely knew their customers and their market niche better than anyone the outside looking in.

Five years ago, Vogue, the national fashion magazine, lauded them as “probably the only entrepreneurs who design their own clothing while selling their own fish.”

They were featured in The New York Times and Outside magazine. They wrote a cookbook Martha Stewart claimed “whisked (her) away on an adventure in the country’s northernmost state.”

And these are the kinds of publications read by luxury consumers whom Branding Strategy Insider describes as “largely about exclusivity. If everyone has it, it’s not luxury….A luxury brand is a complex platform that conveys messages about quality, lineage, status, and taste.”

In the luxury-brand world, $172 is pocket change.

But the Sisters – Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton – might have gotten a little too close to that world and forgotten where they live. In the wake of the Seaworthy Dress blowup and their apology for the garment, it’s clear they forgot how sensitive some in Alaska can be and how vicious social media can become.

After they pitched the dress online as their take on the Alaska Native kuspuk worn by many in-state – the Alaska Legislature has actually had “Kuspuk Friday’s to celebrate the garment designed by the indigenous residents of Alaska’s Bering Sea Coast in the 1800s – the company’s Facebook page lit up with outrage amid accusations of cultural appropriation, theft of intellectual property, lack of respect, shameless American capitalism and more.

Kuspuk?

Such views were not universal. Some looked at the body-hugging Seaworthy Dress and had trouble envisioning it as a kuspuk no matter what the Salmon Sisters might have claimed. A kuspuk is not something a woman is supposed to have to squirm into.

The kuspuk was designed as a loose-fitting, zipperless, pullover that could easily accommodate one or more layers of insulated clothing beneath, a perfect garment for the Arctic where even the summers can be chilly.

“Kuspuk is an English word based on the indigenous Yup’ik word ‘qaspeq’ which translates to ‘cloth over parka.’ The original qaspeq was made from gut skin, animal hide, or feathered bird skin to keep the wearer warm and dry – a constant struggle known all too well by those who have live, work, and travel in the arctic,” according to a National Park Service history.

The Yu’pik Eskimo Dictionary has a definition both narrower and broader: “a thin hooded pullover garment, of length varying from below the hips to below the knees, usually of cloth nowadays (formerly of thin skin), often brightly colored and well decorated (especially those made for women), worn as a parka cover, as a jacket or dress; anorak; snowshirt; rain parka or other uninsulated parka.”

 The Complete History of the Parka as compiled by Denver-based Heddels, which describes itself as “a news and education website dedicated to helping people own things they want to use forever, says the word parka itself appears to have come “from Nenets, a language of the Samoyedic people of the Ural Mountains in the northern part of modern Russia. Some speculate though that the term is derived from the Aleut people and thus took shape via the Russian language instead – the word in Russian simply translates to animal skin. It’s hard to know for sure, but the word didn’t enter the English dictionary until the late eighteenth century.”

It is likely the word originated not too long before that.

“In the 1800s, European whalers brought goods to trade, which included cloth bags filled with flour or sugar,” according to that NPS history, which one would hope was thoroughly researched. “Indigenous (Inupiaq/Yup’ik) women repurposed the cotton flour sacks and sewed a lightweight summer garment that resembled the ‘over parkas’ worn in the winter.”

It would be hard to describe a garment as a “cloth over parka” before cloth became available.

And the Yup’ik didn’t have “cloth” – a woven fabric of linen, wool from sheep or goats both wild and domestic, cotton.  or flax which appears to be the first woven fabric which the History of Clothing dates to Eygpt in 5,000 B.C. – to work with until after the whalers arrived. shortly after the founding of the United States of America, one of the planet’s newer nations.

A young Inuit woman modeling a kuspuk in 1903/University of Washington Libraries

 

Evolution

The Seaworthy Dress resembles nothing one would have worn in the Arctic a century go, but it might still have some connection to traditional Alaska kuspuks.

“Today, kuspuks are often made of colorful or patterned cotton material and are locally hand-made,” the NPS history adds. “There are many variations on the pattern and can be specific to a village or family.

“A village or family could have a specific style or pattern that is unique to them. Variations can be seen in the trim pattern, sleeve cut, addition of a skirt, color, or perhaps the addition of a zipper. The kuspuk is a versatile piece of clothing that can be dressed up or dressed down; it can be worn berry-picking or for formal celebrations or even in the state legislature on Fridays.”

One of the accusations leveled at the Seaworthy Dress is that the patterning on the sides copies that of an earlier kuspuk “locally hand-made,” as nearly all are, in a rural village. The Seaworthy Dress is made in Montana, a couple of times zones away from the nearest of those villages.

And Homer, where the Salmon Sisters base their business, is not a rural village, but a steadliy growing smalltown of now more than 5,000 people at the end of the Sterling Highway that stretches north into Alaska’s urban heartland, the Anchorage Metropolitan Area.

The Anchorage Metropolitan Area with its access to most of the conveniences of modern life is now home to approximately 399,000 people, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, or about 54 percent of the state’s slightly more than 734,000 residents. 

Two nearly equally modern, urban census areas surrounding Fairbanks and Juneau account for another 128,000 Alaskans to place about three out of every four Alaskans in postage-stamp-size locations in a vast expanse of the north riven by a simmering urban-rural divide.

If the rural-urban divide plaguing the rest of the U.S., as nicely defined by those much discussed “red states” and “blue states”, is problematic, Alaska’s urban-rural divide is nightmarish. There is a pervasive view in poverty-stricken rural Alaska that the wealth of the state comes from the land and urban Alaskans steal most of it.

An estimated 28 percent of the Alaska Native population living in rural areas would fall beneath the income poverty line were it not for the annual payment of $1,000 to $1,600 to all Alaskans from the state’s Permanent Fund, according to studies conducted by the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISR).

The economic divide makes it easy for many in rural Alaska to view urban-based businesses as the state’s “robber barons,” to steal an old label, and though Homer isn’t technically an Anchorage urban area, it is close enough and home to enough former or would-be Yuppies to be identified as urban by rural Alaskans.

Throw in the fact that the Salmon Sisters confessed to outsourcing the manufacture of the Seaworthy Dress to that shop in Montana in that part of the country Alaskans universally refer to as simply “Outside,” and the garment was pretty well set up to explode on social media.

Social outrage

 The Facebook blowback was fast and sometimes furious.

“Glad to see yt’s stealing ideas from other cultures and ‘making it their own’ yet again. Despicable,” wrote Warren Smith from the village of  Napaskiak, but now living in Japan, wrote on the Salmon Sister’s Facebook page.

“Take accountability for your actions(;) take off the atigluk/qaspeq off your line! It was shown 5 years ago and you stole it to the ‘t’,” posted Anna Clarkson from Point Hope, but now living in Anchorage.

“BUY NATIVE MADE. i’m compiling a list of qaspeqs/atikluks made by indigenous businesses. here you go: https://twitter.com/retrograde/status/1561214892022960129.., chimed in Rebecca Wells from Sutton, but now also living in Anchorage. “Support small indigenous businesses, it puts food directly into the mouths of our children. this is theft.”

The first response of the Salmon Sisters was to remove the Seaworthy Dress from the Facebook page and take down the initial posts, but that just fueled the outrage. So, in the end, they did the obvious thing and apologized.

“We hear your voices and are sorry for failing to recognize that our recent dress release appeared to be influenced or inspired by the Alaska Indigenous kuspuk design without appropriate credit. We understand that despite our best intentions, our community is showing us something important and we are listening,” they wrote.

Kuspuks/quspuks/qaspeqs/atikłuks are a symbol of Alaska Native identity and are beautiful, multi-purpose garments. Like kuspuks, our recent dresses are meant to be a versatile piece of clothing that can be dressed up or down, worn outside, and put to work. We want to offer clothes that people feel good and proud to wear, and never set out to offer a garment that shares likeness with an Alaska Native kuspuk without credit. We have edited our product pages to acknowledge the kuspuk with resources to learn more about their importance in Alaska Native culture and where to find Indigenous makers of kuspuks in Alaska.

“We loved making these dresses because we got to partner with and support another small woman-owned business (a company of 3 full-time employees operating in Montana) with domestic production and sustainable fabrics. It has been difficult to see how this garment we worked on together has affected people in ways we did not intend.”

And, they added, “moving forward, Salmon Sisters will be donating our proceeds from the Blueberry and Seaworthy Dresses to Yukon River villages to feed families.”

That appeased some, maybe most who cared to comment, and further angered others.

“This apology is all fine and dandy,” posted Teresa Haskins Potts from Anchorage, “(but) my first question is why, as Alaskans, would you ever think to partner with someone from outside of Alaska? Why would you not partner with one of our many great artists?

“Then…..being from Alaska, how could you not recognize the similarity between the product and what is worn by indigenous Alaskan people daily?

“Why have you not, as an Alaskan born company, ever partnered with the indigenous people of this land? Why is it taking an uproar from the public to have you say you plan on doing so in the future?

“At this point, having Inupiaq blood in me, I feel more angered by this apology. Our people are dying. Our language is virtually dead. I hope you follow through on sending funds to the villages.

“As for my SS (Salmon Sisters) pieces….I’m kind of happy I accidentally got bleach on my black zip up hoodie at work the other night. My Xtra Tuffs may end up melted…haven’t decided at this point. But, I do know this, I will not buy anything with the SS logo again.”

And, of course, over on Twitter – the internet’s sewer – it was all even worse. A boycott was urged there.

From there it just sort of all went downhill as so often happens on social media with all sorts of accusations flying back and forth between critics of the Salmon Sisters and supporters of the Salmon Sisters with a fair bit of name calling thrown in and most everyone seemingly missing the point as to how markets work.

They are both competitive and fluid.

Were the Seaworthy Dress to catch fire in the marketplace – something that seems unlikely given that the Salmon Sisters aren’t exactly Old Navy, Ralph Lauren or Nike – it might mean some Alaskans who sew custom kuspuks might lose business, but it might also mean they gain business.

Kuspuks are at this time a largely Alaska-centric product, and Alaska is a tiny, tiny market. There are fewer than 800,000 people here. Just creating an interest in kuspuks in the Seattle Metropolitan Area, home to more than 4 million residents, would quadruple the size of the market and potentially create more business for everyone.

But this is Alaska where “business” itself is often something of a dirty word, and many think they are owed something for toughing it out in what was once widely called America’s “Last Frontier.”

 

 

 

14 replies »

  1. This quote sums up what the hubbub is all about “I hope you follow through on sending funds to the villages.” This is monetary appropriation, one group of people are attempting to appropriate money from another using racist blackmail nonsensical bullshit reasons to do so. If the salmon sisters were real Alaskans they’d charge less for their pocket dress and tell these clowns to pound sand. Unfortunately it’s obvious their target audience isn’t Alaskans, let alone Native Alaskan in the village, but woke liberals who will pay far too much for far too little.

  2. “…….wrote Warren Smith from the village of  Napaskiak, but now living in Japan…….”
    “……..posted Anna Clarkson from Point Hope, but now living in Anchorage………”
    “……..chimed in Rebecca Wells from Sutton, but now also living in Anchorage………”
    I think I see a couple of trends. Obviously, the first is the shitstorm you mentioned on social media that we’ve all become accustomed to whenever race is a perceived factor in anything. Then we see the trend of people “now living” in urban areas after fleeing or escaping the Bush, complete with the attitudes they brought out with them. There is no shortage of infiltration in the Alaska version of the urban-rural war, and it isn’t the urbanites infiltrating the Bush.

  3. Only a few will find the Sisters selling the clothing intrusive. Let it go. There are more important things to set our sites on. Like what size would fit my daughter.

  4. First of all this is what people, have to worry about? if your people are dying as the one poster put, why on earth would you be concerned about a dress in a catalog? If you live in Alaska you have much much bigger issues to worry about, if your Alaskan native and live in a village its even worse. Maybe focus on oh I don’t know the high crime rate? education? cost of living? Creating jobs from this alleged stolen culture? If I saw this dress I would never even remotely think to equate it to a Kuspik, I still cant. Yes lets heart down two WOMEN who built s a successful small business one of the few for some perceived and invented cultural transgression, grow the fuck up people.

  5. Clearly not a kuspuk.
    We are using each others inventions world wide. Why bring a racist tone ?
    So if a native starts an airplane buisness is it cultural theft ? If a native wears a watch is it cultural appropriation?
    Kuspuk anorak poncho slicker all have similar elements. It’s sounds like these grown ups are incredibly immature. How about we talk nice to each other and help each other along and stop backstabbing.

  6. Having lived in and visited dozens of villages, including Napaskiak (not Napasiak Craig), I can’t see even a remote similarity to a kuspuk. The politically correct and cancel culture groups demean themselves on a daily basis. Hopefully, these groups soon will pass…..

  7. Two things-
    1. I don’t see where they compared their garment to a kuspuk- if it was in their original ad promoting the garment that would be relevant.

    2. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is an intellectually bankrupt, racist and nonsensical phrase.

    • Uh huh!!!! 👍
      Just about anything coming out of a Democrats mouth these days is “bankrupt, racist, and nonsensical.” ALL OF IT!!!

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