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We Build Alaska

The troll caught Salmon Sisters: A cautionary tale of social media disaster

For those of you not on “Alaska Twitter:” congratulations on preserving your scarce time and mental health. For those of you who are: my god. Fresh on the heels of driving Libby Bakalar off of the platform on charges of improper allyship (Bakalar had said she would support Alaska Native candidates, thereby, in the language of Alaska Twitter, positioning herself as a White Savior), our homegrown social-justice-oriented keyboard militia found a new target: the small Alaska-based company Salmon Sisters.

It was all–at least on its face–about a dress. The Salmon Sisters debuted their “Blueberry Dress” on social media on or around August 19, describing it as one in a collection of “flattering, do-everything duds” that could “take you from the trail to town in style.” It was followed shortly thereafter by a sage-green “Seaworthy Dress.”

There are many ways to describe this type of garment: hoodie dress, hooded sweater dress, tunic-length athletic dress. Etc. But last week, Alaska Twitter found another name: kuspuk. Kuspuks (also spelled qaspeq in Central Yupik, or called atikłuk in Inupiaq) are traditionally loose, tunic-length articles of clothing layered over insulation in cold climates. They are worn throughout the state and are an iconic part of Alaska indigenous culture.

See below. These are kuspuks.

The message from Alaska Twitter was swift, simple, and damning: the Salmon Sisters, who are white (or at least white-passing) had culturally appropriated–that is, stolen–their dress design from the kuspuk and were thereby taking credit for and profiting off of indigenous intellectual property. One now-deleted Twitter post, by a Colorado-based Yup’ik tarot card reader named Rebecca, accused the Salmon Sisters of cultural appropriation and comment moderation, and called for a boycott. The post exploded.

Within days, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook were aflame with furious accusations against the Salmon Sisters. Hundreds, and then thousands, of comments poured in across social media excoriating the Salmon Sisters for blatant and appalling cultural theft. On Instagram, users were relentless: “Hey culture vulture sisters,” “LOL it’s literally a gentrified kuspuk,” “Appropriation at its finest,” “That’s a kuspuk,” “I can’t believe the power of your white minds!,” “This design is clearly a qaspek,” “We won’t be buying your brand again,” “Goddamn white women don’t ever know their place,” “Y’all are fucking disgusting to keep colonizing and stealing money,” “Fuck you settlers,” “Where’s the credit for the Native women who came up with this design,” “fuck the Salmon Sisters and their copy trash ass clothes.”

And on, and on, and on, and on… and on. At this point, the social media mobbing was in full Saturday-night swing.

A few bewildered commenters came to the Salmon Sisters’ defense, noting that their dress looked like many on the American market and shared only superficial resemblance with the much looser-fitted traditional kuspuk. These comments, however, were few and quickly lost in the flood.

Now here’s where it gets funny: there was pretty much ironclad proof that Salmon Sisters hadn’t appropriated their dress design from the kuspuk. In fact, the Salmon Sisters hadn’t designed the dress at all. The garment in question was the creation of Montana-based clothing maker Youer, which had been ucontroversially making and selling it as the “Treasure Dress” in the Lower 48 for nearly a decade.

Treasure Dress aside, Youer’s design isn’t even particularly unique in the world of modestly upscale womens apparel. Below are offerings from Melanzana, Title Nine, Ulla Popken, Toad & Co, Gear Frost, and Patagonia, among others. Are these kuspuks?

Heck, let’s go beyond the world of modestly upscale womens clothing to… the actual world. As it turns out, tunic-length pullovers with pockets and hoods are incredibly, incredibly, incredibly common everywhere. They’re made in every continent and for every climate. They’re made out of cotton, wool, hemp, polyester, and everything in between. They take the form of wool sweaters in Peru, dashikis in Africa, and floral tunics for children in France. In the Middle East, they are designed to be worn over hijabs. The hoodie dress has precursors across many cultures and long ago crossed every national, linguistic, racial, and class border. Like electronic music or the common cold, tunic-length garments with pockets and hoods are utterly endemic to humanity.

Some critics specifically cited the repeating fabric pattern on the sides of the Salmon Sisters X Youer dress as evidence that the design was stolen from the kuspuk. Well, this is gonna be awkward, but let’s come out with it: key elements associated with kuspuks today, such as cloth fabrics with repeating patterns and zig-zagging rickrack edge trim, aren’t Alaskan at all. They are mass-produced Western market products and did not exist here prior to their introduction by Western traders. Previously, kuspuks were made out of animal products like skin or fur. It would be needlessly combative to say that kuspuk makers appropriated Western materials, maybe, but the truth is that today’s kuspuk is a cultural remix of practical Indigenous design and Western materials. Repeating floral or other patterns are extremely common in Western clothing and have been for centuries.

The claim that the Salmon Sisters “appropriated” the use of patterned fabrics is historically ignorant… and arguably exactly backwards. It’d be a bit like saying that French bakers can no longer make sandwiches because baguettes were incorporated into bánh mì in Vietnam.

So let’s get back to the outraged online mob. What did they do when they found out that the dress in question had been in production for nearly a decade in a different state? Did they take a step back, acknowledge that they had just maybe jumped the gun, and use this whole thing as an opportunity for conversation and growth? Hell no. That would derail the dopamine-fueled outrage train, and the train was still running full steam.

A few members of the mob actually attempted to attack Youer (the Montana-based maker of the dress) for cultural appropriation. On Instagram, Youer pushed back politely but firmly, stating flatly that the design had been “in no way” inspired by the kuspuk and that the Youer designers hadn’t even known what a kuspuk was prior to the brouhaha.

If Youer, Melanzana, and the other companies making similar dresses really had appropriated the kuspuk, you’d think that the mob might shift its focus to these bigger corporate targets. We’d have a true appropriative scandal on our hands! But one senses that the mob knew its limits. Youer’s blunt refusal to accept the charge of appropriation left little room for discussion. Instead, the mob turned their focus back on Salmon Sisters: a local company small and vulnerable enough that continuing pressure might be able to cause lasting damage to the brand or coerce it to give in to a series of demands.

As to the demands, the mob had three: First, that Salmon Sisters issue a public confession that they had stolen their design from the kuspuk. Second, that Salmon Sisters stop selling the product. Third, money. The mob appeared unified in the belief that Salmon Sisters surrender the profits from sales.

This was a perilous moment for the Salmon Sisters. As far as this little animal can tell, the Salmon Sisters is really a lifestyle brand, not a manufacturer. Their business model seems to be largely based on “collaborations” in which the Sisters lend their branding and cred to products made by other companies, acting as a chic middleman (or, chic middlewomen?). Which is to say that their brand is their product, and their image as socially conscious Alaska fisherwomen was taking damage from a relentless online mob howling that not only were the Salmon Sisters not very cool, they were in fact appropriative, borderline-if-not-explicitly-racist “culture vultures.”

At least one person attacking the Salmon Sisters even suggested, absurdly, that the Sisters were participating in genocide. Actual genocide. Ridiculous or not, genocide is not a word that lifestyle brands want to be associated with.

And so Salmon Sisters bent the knee. As far as they could, anyway.

In August 22 posts on Instagram and Facebook, the Salmon Sisters issued a tortured half-apology, writing that they were “sorry for failing to recognize that our recent dress release appeared to be influenced or inspired by the Indigenous kuspuk design without appropriate credit.” (Note: generally speaking, what is the appropriate “credit” for the appearance but non-existence of influence? It’s only the first sentence, and we’ve fully entered the linguistic Twilight Zone of PR-speak at this point.)

The Salmon Sisters thanked members of the online mob that had carpet-bombed their social media with racial animus and false claims for “voicing your rightful concerns” and “helping us see our mistake.” The post pledged that all proceeds from the dress would go to feed families on Alaska’s Y/K Delta.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Salmon Sisters (@aksalmonsisters)

Despite some pushback, the coerced apology and monetary offering worked, at least from a short-term PR perspective. Some members of the mob grumbled, pointing out the mealy-mouthed language. But many voiced approval of the Salmon Sisters’ awkward and costly self-abasement.

It’s worth highlighting here that the Salmon Sisters actually thanked the mob for bullying them over a false claim–thereby giving a community of online bullies tacit encouragement to continue the behavior, both against themselves and others, in the future. Self-abasement in the face of a mob might provide temporary relief but it also gives permission for–in fact, requests–future harassment.

It’s hard to know what will happen to the Salmon Sisters brand long-term (lifestyle brands come and go like the Aleutian wind), but this incident shows the damage that can result when a social media mob gathers to attack and coerce a local small business. If a business can be successfully extorted for selling basic hoodie dresses, then the Alaska Twitter mob might reasonably conclude that they will be rewarded if they attack anyone for basically anything. Yesterday, it was Salmon Sisters. Tomorrow: who knows?

Interestingly, those who targeted the Salmon Sisters often talked about respect. But it’s not clear that respect is what they actually wanted. Yes, respect means hearing people out and carefully considering what they have to say (something the Salmon Sisters clearly did). But it also means the ability to respectfully disagree. In this case, the mob was wrong and, unlike Youer, the Salmon Sisters appear to have been too beaten down or frightened to stand up for themselves. Conversations about race, history, and culture can be incredibly valuable. But that’s not what this was.

More than respect, the mob wanted humiliation and submission. And that, to a point, is what they got.

Oh, and money. The mob wanted money, and they got that too.

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1 year ago

I feel awful for the Salmon Sisters. Their dress is cute and obviously had nothing to do with kuspuks. The people who attacked them are ignorant and angry, and it is clear that many of them hold serious racial hate in their hearts. I cannot imagine what it would have felt like to be attacked in this way. I don’t know Emma or Claire, but from what I can tell they are lovely people who have built a very successful Alaska brand. I hope they understand that most people can see right through the anger lobbed at them. Unlike the… Read more »

Maureen Suttman
1 year ago
Reply to  Salmon

You don’t know the folks who complained likely as well. Further Some would say YOU are ignorant, like you did them.

It was a miscommunication. All kinds of folks are learning lots because of it.

I support women business in AK. I also frown when in a state so flush with Native culture, a non native business missed that their blueberry dress might rattle folks regarding kuspiks.

1 year ago

Where are the apologies from all of the angry people who accused the Salmon Sisters of stealing the kuspuk? They were totally wrong. And this wasn’t a “miscommunication” it was an attempt to rally a big mob to destroy a woman-owned business that did NOTHING wrong.

And non-native people pick blueberries. Picking berries is something that pretty much all humans have done since the beginning of time. There is no need for racial gatekeeping of berry picking. Good lord.

Theresa O'Malley
1 year ago

I too am appalled at this. attacking a woman-owned alaska small business for making a thermal hoodie is ridiculous. whether you like their merch or not the Salmon Sisters are running an impressive operation. shame on the small-minded people who had nothing better to do than to try to tear these young women down.

1 year ago

Would it have been less bad if the Twitter mob had attacked a male-owned buiness? That’s the problem here. The Salmon Sisters are all about their identity when it sells hoodies but this kind of thing is the price you pay. Go woke go broke.

1 year ago
Reply to  Dave

I understand why you’re getting the negatives: you invalidated your sensible initial comment and made yourself a target by implying that all “wokeness” is bad. Should’ve stopped after the first sentence, in which case you’d have been speaking up for Truth and Justice; and lots of people would have agreed with you, or at least nodded their heads and been willing to proceed. Instead of which you branded yourself as someone who at least appears to think that all social consciousness is stupid, ignorant, ill-informed.

1 year ago

I had a similar hoodie from Old Navy a million years ago. It even had a fuzzy edge to the hood. Looked a LOT like this. I loved it and wore it until it started falling apart. Not once did I, as a lifelong Alaskan, ever think that Old Navy was committing any kind of cultural anything. But heaven forbid you defend anything that is called out for anything these days because then you’re a white devil. 🙄

Jeff Landwhale
1 year ago
Reply to  AKMom

color me surprised that someone who wears off-the-rack Old Navy doesn’t think about the cultural components of their purchases

Marlin Savage
1 year ago

Having lived in several villages on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and visited several others, I personally see no similarities between the Salmon Sisters pictured outfit and a kuspuk. Rather sad that they capitulated to the bullies….

1 year ago

I think this story is missing how the duo marketed the dress:
“After they pitched the dress online as their take on the Alaska Native kuspuk worn by many in-state” That said….so called cultural appropriation is what has made our country great, Should we boycott blueberry bagels next?

1 year ago
Reply to  Floridawoman

Craig Medred wrote that line you have in quotes. But there aren’t any current posts or screenshots backing that claim up, and none of the hundreds of comments I read made any reference to the Salmon Sisters having made the comparison themselves. The Salmon Sisters’ apology said nothing about having made the comparison either. Possible that Medred got this wrong, but even if the Salmon Sisters had said that (which would be weird since they didn’t design the dress)… it still doesn’t make the dress a kuspuk.

1 year ago
Reply to  Spenaardvark

They did market the dress…. I fully agree it does not make the dress a kuspuk-but if they referred to it as a kuspuk its still relevant information-ask the Salmon sisters? If the dress was a “kuspuk” I still don’t get the issue of selling it. Are you saying it would be wrong to sell a kuspuk based designed clothing item? A blueberry bagel is both not a bagel and perhaps a bagel geometry, but its only offensive because of the lack of crisp thin outter crusty shell and its soggy doughy nature. Well and the blueberries make it more… Read more »

1 year ago
AK Panhandle
1 year ago

Sometimes the path of least resistance is the right choice. One doesn’t need to join every fight to which they are invited. When you know who you are, and can approach issues with reasoning skills, you don’t throw away your soul by stepping out from in front of a moving train. Nothing else to see here. Carry on SS.

S. Miers
1 year ago

It is striking how incredibly racist many of the attacks on the Salmon Sisters are. Bizarre that these people online claim to be working for social justice but spew racist garbage from their own accounts. Who is teaching these folks that this is acceptable in 2022? Needless and disgusting.

Gary N.B.
1 year ago

all else aside i just want to recognize that the title of this story is a really incredible pun. it made me laugh out loud. good work landmine

Maureen Suttman
1 year ago

Marketing it a “blueberry dress” in a state know for a similar indigenous garment frequently, frequently, frequently used for berry picking was the problem possibly.

D Johnson
1 year ago

overanalyzing it just maybe? Blueberry picking is performed by all walks of life in Alaska and isn’t appropriating at all. The kuspuk is also worn for more things than just “berry picking”. They were them for ceremony and even casual wear. Lets make this molehill a mountain because you need something else to be angry about.

1 year ago
Reply to  D Johnson

I think Maureen was just pointing out what may have triggered the internet mob. I don’t think she was necessarily agreeing with it.

1 year ago
Reply to  Mary

The only things that “triggered” the Internet mob were immaturity and possibly lack of gainful employment; too much time on their hands.

D Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary

Let’s let Maureen speak for themselves. They have already come in and said someone else may be ignorant. Using the term “Blueberry Dress” wasn’t what the mob was angry about. Screenshots were shown in the article talking about “the design”. This literally boils down to someone just finding a reason to be angry and looking for people to be angry with them.

1 year ago

Are you serious? Blueberries grow in the wild all across North America. The most famous story most of us know about blueberries takes place in Maine, “Blueberries for Sal”. Georgia grows 92,000,000 pounds of blueberries a year. No one owns the right to fruit that grows from coast to coast across North America. No one owns the right to put pictures of fruit on a dress. The dresses don’t look the same, and the creator in Montana said that they did not take design inspiration from Alaskan native culture. Pleasedirect your misplaced outrage elsewhere and stop attacking small businesses people… Read more »

1 year ago

And the politics of the overwhelming majority of those attacking the salmon Sisters?
Yes, of course we recognize these woke nuts for who they are..

1 year ago

I wrote this elsewhere, but people forget fashion can be convergent. I think cultural appropriate exists in some forms and can be harmful, but this is abso-fucking-lutely not it. You are high if you think their garment resembles a kuspuk. Disappointed that some of the native community would jump in on this mob too.

1 year ago
Reply to  Ari

“Kuspuk” is just an Alaska Native word for a loose tunic, an item that has been worn for millennia by nearly all cultures. It is beyond silly to think that your culture “owns” tunics just because they happen to have been one of the many that wear them. This is like claiming that your culture “owns” pottery or “owns” percussion music. Pure self-centered ignorance.

I too wish the Salmon Sisters had not caved to this stupidity.

1 year ago

Title really should have been “Trolling For Salmon Sisters”. I feel like obvious puns are a necessity in journalism.

1 year ago
Reply to  Ross

“Troll caught” is a way to catch salmon (as in “troll caught king salmon”) and is also a reference to internet trolls so the pun is there.

1 year ago

Hmmm, they wanted “respect” but the mob sure wasn’t respectful to them. Pretty sad. Makes me want to go buy some salmon sister’s items for gifts.

Dolly Var Dan
1 year ago

I am disappointed that the Salmon Sisters caved. At the end of the day, how can you feel good debasing yourself like this?? It is so embarrassing. I hope the Salmon Sisters take this as a learning experience and refuse to cave to the next manufactured outrage. And you bet there WILL be another one. Your company is named after an animal with a spine, do your namesake proud!

1 year ago

I heard about this on the radio so thank you for posting the pictures. My reaction is that the salmon sister dress is ridicuously unattractive and non-functional. That’s, I guess my measure for whether it’s a kuspuk or not. I mean the bug bites I get standing in my front yard this time of year…I can’t imagine wearing that long sleeved miniskirt to go somewhere even buggier to pick berries.

1 year ago

Gotta love how this whole personal attack on the Salmon Sisters (calling them “settlers” and “settler sisters” and the like) was started by a Yupik woman currently living as a “settler” in Littleton, Colorado. These folks have no sense of humor or irony. Humans migrate, move, mingle, etc. and have since the dawn of time. If you want to attack the Salmon Sisters for their actions, while alright. But attacking them for just existing somewhere as a people of a certain race is truly ugly and says so much about the social media “mob” in this story.

1 year ago

Shows the power of online shaming. The garment bears scant resemblance to a kuspuk.

1 year ago

This is just a microcosm into the horrific things that happen in online bullying, because that is exactly what it is, every minute of every day. Sure it was pointed at a female owned AK business (whose designs I personally love), but it’s so wrong. People just use these platforms to be mean and show the worst nasty parts of themselves. These social justice warriors (and I use this term in sarcasm) are like a collective bee swarm of a machine gun who point themselves at targets with little to no knowledge. Between cultural appropriation targets and the me too… Read more »

Sockeye Setnetter
1 year ago

I’ve had one of these dresses for several years (bought from Youer previously known as Kind) and I never once thought I was wearing a kuspuk. I was trying to understand both sides while sifting through the comments but I wasn’t making the connection. The Youer company is a wonderful small business to support and there are many non salmon sisters designs from which to choose.

Camai B
1 year ago

I also feel sorry for the Salmon Sisters. In this community and culture we Alaskans live in, it is hard not to live freely. Some words, terms and other generally accepted norms in our community are hard to avoid. I’m sure that the Salmon Sisters weren’t trying to hurt feelings or step into some tribally misplaced maelstrom and I for one am tired of the chest beating over it. You native sisters should calm the heck down, plaster on your fake eyelashes and Columbia all weather gear and stop being so darned touchy.