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New Salmon Sisters dress called out for 'cultural appropriation'

Blueberry dress.jpg
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The Salmon Sisters 'Blueberry Dress' is one of two new designs from the brand that is receiving criticism.

The Homer-based company Salmon Sisters launched a line of apparel last month that's getting a lot of attention. Hundreds of comments on social media have called their new clothing design “cultural appropriation.”

Salmon Sisters is a small company founded in 2012 by sisters Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton. They have two retail stores in Homer and sell their products internationally on their website. They pride themselves on being conscientious. The brand’s all-woman team sells boxes of Alaska wild halibut, sablefish, Pacific cod and salmon. They also manage a clothing line marketed to women with designs inspired by coastal Alaska.

Recently, the sisters partnered with a Montana-based company, Youer, to produce a hooded, form-fitting tunic, sided with blueberry-patterned panels and retailing for about $170.

Their ads show a thin, light-skinned model in an idyllic coastal setting, picking berries. The dress is a play on a design Youer has been making for almost ten years. They refer to it as the “Seaworthy” and “Blueberry Dress.”

But others, like Jacquii Lambert, call the dress by a different name.

“A lot of people know these dresses as ‘qaspeq,’” she said. “That's the most used word. That's a Yup’ik word. But back in our area, we say atikłuk.”

Lambert is Iñupiaq and goes by the handle ‘Jacquiiwithacue’ on social media.

She sees the Salmon Sisters’ dress as part of a larger pattern of cultural appropriation.

“We've made all these inventions that in the past have always been recreated and now they're common items like the ulu or the kayak, or even sunglasses,” Lambert said. “The biggest thing is that they are stealing from us. They are stealing income from creators that literally live off of making these atikłuks.”

Lambert took issue with how much she said the dress looks like a qaspeq or atikłuka hooded overshirt with a large front pocket commonly worn among Alaska Native people. Hundreds of commenters criticized the Salmon Sisters for claiming it as their original design.

Lambert said she wishes the Salmon Sisters used their platform to work with Alaska Native seamstresses who are currently creating these garments, and many other commenters agreed. She was also upset at the Salmon Sisters’ immediate response to that criticism.

Comments accusing the Sisters of cultural appropriation or pointing to similarities between their design and modern qaspeqs were immediately deleted — which the Salmon Sisters later said was because their small staff was initially overwhelmed.

“Our intention was never to silence anyone’s voice,” Salmon Sisters said in a social media post. “We are trying to restore these posts and will leave all posts where your feedback lives on Instagram.”

But most of the comments received a lengthy cut-and-paste response.

The Salmon Sisters declined a radio interview, but responded to the request with a revised version of that original response.

“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,” they said in a statement.

They also issued an apology.

“We hope our sincerity is felt when we say we would never try to represent a traditional kuspuk without partnering with an Indigenous Alaskan artist and without celebrating its cultural significance,” they said.

Danielle Rock lives in Point Hope — a small community in the North Slope Borough — and is owner of Coastal Rock Design. She’s Iñupiaq. She sells atikłuks and parkys. It’s been her main source of income for the last seven years. She was upset when she first viewed the Salmon Sisters’ design.

“It's kind of like a slap in the face,” she said. “It's just like, if you look at it, it looks like our traditional regalia.”

Nicolette Corbett works out of Soldotna, and is originally from Bethel. She’s a registered nurse and the owner of Sew Yup’ik. She enjoys sewing qaspeqs and teaching classes on the traditional garment. She said there are several names and styles for qaspeqs among Alaska Native and Circumpolar Indigenous Nations.

“Atikłuks or uġiłiqaaq are the words for the Iñupiaq way. Me’tsegh Hoolaanh’s or Be’tsegh Hoolaanh’s, those are the Athabaskan terms,” she said.

In Yup’ik culture, qaspeqs were traditionally created from animal furs, fish skins and seal guts, according to Corbett. She said different regions and families have distinct patterns and styles.

For her, sewing qaspeqs is like therapy and said that wearing and creating them connects her to her Yup’ik culture.

“Especially when I'm out berry picking and I'm wearing the qaspeq that my grandmothers have created,” Corbett said. “I feel even more connected to my grandmothers in those moments while I'm out gathering.”

Corbett said she's not sure the dress looks like the qaspeqs her grandmothers made and that “it would be interesting to have an Elder’s perspective on this.”

In the days following the dress’s release, the Salmon Sisters changed the language on their product page saying, “These dresses are meant to be multi-functional, versatile garments to dress up or down, wear outside, or put to work. In these ways, they share similarities with the Alaska Native kuspuks (or "qaspeq" in Yupik, "atikluk" in Inupiaq).”

They also posted resources for customers to learn more about qaspeqs and atikłuks, with links to work by Alaska Native artists. They have pledged to donate proceeds from their Seaworthy and Blueberry Dresses to SeaShare, an organization working to feed villages along the lower Yukon River, where salmon runs are crashing.

Maija Katak Lukin is the former mayor of Kotzebue and now works in Wasilla for the National Parks Service. She’s Iñupiaq. Her initial post criticizing Salmon Sisters’ design went viral.

She said it is important to put these conversations in a cultural and historic context.

“People don't understand what happened to Alaskans,” Lukin said. “Our parents and grandparents were taken to boarding school and punished for speaking our language and punished for wearing our traditional attire, which included qaspeqs and atikłuks.”

Lukin said the Salmon Sisters design was “absolutely cultural appropriation,” but she was sympathetic to the Sisters, who she said made the mistake in such a public way. She believes that it’s important for both Indigenous people and non-Native allies to vocalize issues when they encounter them.

“The best thing that we can do is educate people,” she said. “And people need to speak up for what's right. And what's right is understanding First Alaskans.”

When pressed for further comment for this story the Salmon Sisters responded saying: “This is an opportunity for Salmon Sisters to respectfully listen and learn from Alaska's Indigenous voices.”

This story is from KBBI, our partner station in Homer.

Originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, Desiree has called Alaska ‘home’ for almost two decades. Her involvement in radio began over 10 years, first as a volunteer DJ at KBBI, later as a host and producer, and now in her current role as a reporter. Her passions include stories relating to agriculture, food systems and rural issues. In her spare time, she can often be found riding her bicycle, creating art from handmade paper, or working in the garden.