I answered a letter a while ago, from someone at a museum in Alaska. They
wanted to know why Inuit (which I am of) dislike being called "Eskimos."
After all, many Alaskans don't mind being called Eskimos, and even seem to
dislike the term "Inuit" when southerners apply it them, however
I am not surprised by the confusion. The ascendancy of Inuit culture,
through good reportage and the establishment of Nuvavut, has conditioned
southern folks to say "Inuit" instead of "Eskimo."
Southerners have complied beautifully, but at last they are running up
against peoples, related to Inuit, who insist that they are Eskimos. The
confusion derives from this sticky fact: Inuit are not Eskimos, and Eskimos
are not Inuit.
In simple terms: The first Mongolic peoples of North America (linked by
genetic heritage to the Mongols of Asia) settle in Alaska as early as 8,000
years ago. Paleo-anthropologists like to call them the "Arctic Small Tool
Tradition," which, frankly, is fine by me.
Millennia creak by. Some of these people move east across North America in
waves. The first such Mongolic wave (I dislike the term "Mongoloid")
finishes settling as far as Greenland about 4,000 years ago. Once they
settle, they are dubbed the "pre-Dorset" culture, later developing into the
more advanced "Dorset" culture. These are a Mongolic people from Alaska, but
they live in an incredibly cold world without dog-sleds and most of the
technologies Inuit are used to. Their rectangular encampments are bordered
by short walls of flat stone. They are obsessed with art, particularly
images of human faces, which they leave everywhere around the Arctic.
Then the Earth warms up a bit. Between the period of Europe's late dark ages
to its early middle ages, about 800-1200 A.D., a new Mongolic people dubbed
"Thule" sweep eastward from Alaska. They are tool-obsessed people (over 40
items in a seal-hunting kit alone), mainly following whales and walrus along
newly-opened channels in the ice. These are the inventive souls who bring
such innovations as dog-sleds, soapstone lamps, float bladders, igluvigak
("igloo") building, waterproof stitching, and toggling harpoons with them.
By the time they have completely occupied the area from the eastern edge of
Alaska to Greenland, around 700 years ago, the Earth cools again. It is time
to curb the nomadism.
They supplant the Dorset, and become Inuit.
Now, I have read too many interpretations of "Inuit" as meaning, "Humans" or
"The People," probably under the (incorrect) assumption that this is every
culture's name for itself.
However, having been a translator for 30 years, I can guarantee you that
"Inuit" is a specific term. It precisely means, "The Living Ones Who Are
Here." It denotes a sense of place, of having arrived, a memory that Inuit
knew they had kin somewhere else. It also betrays the fact that Inuit once
knew they were not the original peoples of their lands. Interestingly, in
this way does language act as a code to preserve heritage.
The Alaskan Eskimos are descended from the Mongolic peoples that continued
to develop into diverse western cultures. As such, they have their own
preferred words for themselves, such as, "Yup'ik" and "Aleut" and
"Nunamiut." Nevertheless, none of us has completely left our heritage
behind, and I still get a kick out of it when I understand the speech of
people from Alaska, or even the Chukchi Peninsula.
There was only one culture in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland before
Inuit. These, Inuit refer to as the "Tunit." These are Dorset. Inuit
remember them well in their oral traditions. The Tunit were small, very
strong, incredibly shy. It is said that Tunit taught Inuit about their
lands, that they built the first inuksuit ("images of men," man-like stone
structures) to herd caribou along predictable paths for hunting.
Paradoxically, they were thought of as poor craftsmen.
Unfortunately, the Tunit are now extinct. Inuit, therefore, have the luxury
of using "Inuit" in a wide context, since they are the only ones remaining.
But even this can get politically tricky, since there are a couple of
peoples adjacent to them - "Inuvialuit," for example - who do not always
approve of being called Inuit. But, generally, one can get away with using
"Inuit" as a kind of umbrella term for eastern Mongolic peoples.
The umbrella term for the far west, Alaska, is "Eskimo." Alaskans do not
seem to mind its usage these days, simply because it provides a handy
general term. And there may be another reason not to mind it, as well. The
old thinking was that it derived from Cree, derogatorily meaning, "Eaters of
Raw Meat." It was thought that it was overheard by French missionaries,
distorted to "Esquimaux" or "Esquimau," then Anglicized to "Eskimo."
amazing how widespread this belief has become, so that it is cited by all
but the most informed sources. Yet, while remaining a bit of a mystery, the
missionary-origin of "Eskimo" is pretty much discounted today, since there
is some compelling evidence that the word was existent in pre-colonial
times. Some researchers have made a good case for it coming from Montagnais
vocabulary, literally meaning, "snowshoe net-weaver," but culturally being a
term that indicates any craftsman of great skill. It seems to me that this
makes more sense and, if true, would mean that the word is not derogatory
Inuit, however, can never be Eskimos. Existent in the west or not, preferred
by Alaskans or not, it was simply never part of their vocabulary. Inuit,
after all, have their own name for themselves: Inuit. Today, "Eskimo" only
reminds Inuit of the days when missionaries kidnapped them, dumped flea
powder all over them, and assigned "Eskimo numbers" to them, instead of
bothering to note the proper name for the culture or the individuals within
It all really boils down to choice, the right to accept or reject specific
labels at will, the right to be known as one wishes to be. And is that not
what liberty is all about?
Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)
Are Eskimos and Inuit the same people?
I answered a letter a while ago, from someone at a museum in Alaska. They wanted to know why Inuit (which I am of) dislike being called "Eskimos." After all, many Alaskans don't mind being called Eskimos, and even seem to dislike the term "Inuit" when southerners apply it them, however well-intentioned. I am not surprised by the confusion.
Alaskan Native Cultures
There are three types of Alaskan Natives with different cultural and linquistic history. They are Indian, Eskimo and Aleut. These are further defined by eleven distinct cultures.
Eskimo / Esquimaux
Eskimo is the term used when speaking of Inupiaq and Yupik people collectively or to mean all Inuit and Yupik people of the world.