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cultural stereotypes and poster animals

February 26, 2014

Inuit respond to a southern zoo’s attempt to (mis)appropriate Inuit language & culture and market Nature as a cute, controllable commodity.

The Toronto zoo held a naming contest for this polar bear cub. But they didn’t go to speakers of Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun or Greenlandic Kalaallit Nunaat when they chose an “Inuit” option.

Name the polar bear cub 'Mamaqtuq' - 'Tastes Delicious'


From Nunatsiaq News :

Searik … zoo officials say, is Inuit for “beautiful” — a fitting name for an Arctic creature that has captured a southern audience.

But something sounded off to Piita Irniq when he heard the name Searik. A former Commissioner of Nunavut, who also served as the Government of Nunavut’s deputy minister of culture and language, posted the Toronto Zoo’s naming contest to his Facebook page this week, asking Inuit friends where this word came from.

The response? It’s not a word – not in Inuktitut, anyway.

An Inuit-initiated petition proposes the contest be dropped and the cub be named ‘Mamaqtuq’ – ‘Tastes Delicious.’ Here is the petition text:

Recently the Toronto Zoo issued an apology for a naming ‘mishap’ where after extensive ‘research’ they proposed ‘searik’ which means “beautiful in Inuit” as a potential name for their new polar bear cub. After public outcry, the Zoo learned that this name was not “Inuit” – or more proprely Inuktitut – for anything but only after another ridiculous experience of the north being used to promote southern enterprises (promote TO zoo) while being completely misrepresented.

We believe that as a token of furthering understanding of Inuit culture, the Toronto Zoo should forego any further naming competitions – and the risk of any further misinterpretation – and name the polar bear cub Mamaqtuq, meaning delicious. This would be a step in the right direction to “reach out and make this right” as the senior director of marketing and communications stated after the naming controversy. Polar Bears are very beautiful animals, but lets not forget that they are also a wonderful source of food for many Inuit communities. We feel that in the spirit of education, which is one of the main purposes of zoos, the name Mamaqtuq would more properly inform audiences of how northern communities who interact with bears most, and know bears best perceive them – as food. We thank the Toronto Zoo for understanding that buildling relationships with communities can test one’s values and we hope that with this new name that the many people that go see the bears can come away with a deeper understanding of the beautiful relationship that northern communities have with polar bears.

We also hope that in the future southern enterprises will engage in a tad more community consultation before engaging in name contests that serve to promote and by extention profit off of Inuit culture and language…there definitely is an element of that going on here too.

You may disagree, you may think this is ridiculous, you may google Inuit culture and say that wikiAnswers says that all this is wrong…tukisiliqpalliajutiqqai

The zoo has apologised and removed the definition from the Searik option. Misunderstanding remains about natural human-bear relationships and about language and meaning.

Canada’s national identity has been formed from natural images and stereotypes. It’s time we got beyond them. When we blunder, may we always be met with such good-humoured clarity.

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