Eskimo is an English word of uncertain origin. Eskimos or Esquimaux is a term referring to aboriginal people who inhabit the circumpolar region, excluding Scandinavia and most of Russia, but including the easternnmost portions of Siberia.
Eskimo is widely thought to be an Algonquian word that means "eater of raw meat." However, linguists now believe the term is derived from an Ojibwa word meaning "to net snowshoes."
Some words in Algonquian languages do call Eskimos by names that mean "eaters of raw meat" or something that sounds similar. The Plains Ojibwe, for example, use the word �kipot (meaning "one who eats raw," from a�k-, "raw," and -po-, "to eat") to refer to Eskimos.
It is entirely possible that the Ojibwe have adopted words resembling "Eskimo" by borrowing them from the French, and the French word merely sounds like Ojibwe words that can be interpreted as "eaters of raw meat."
But in the period of the earliest known use of the word by the French, the Plains Ojibwe were not in contact with Europeans, nor did they have very much direct contact with the Inuit in pre-colonial times.
The Innu-aimun (Montagnais) language, a dialect of Cree which was known to French traders at the time of the earliest recorded use of esquimaux, does not have vocabulary fitting this etymological analysis. Since Cree people also traditionally consumed raw meat, a derogatory useage based on this etymology seems unlikely.
A variety of competing etymologies have been proposed over the years, but the most likely source is the Montagnais word meaning "snowshoe netter". The word assime�w means "she laces a snowshoe" in Montagnais.
Since Montagnais speakers refer to the neighbouring Mi'kmaq people using words that sound very much like eskimo, many researchers have concluded that this is the more likely origin of the word.
Which Alaskan Natives are Eskimos?
The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, representing a circumpolar population of 150,000 Inuit and Yupik people of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, defines Inuit in its charter as including "the Inupiat, Yupik of Alaska, Inuit, Inuvialuit of Canada, Kalaallit of Greenland, and the Yupik of Russia).
However, strictly speaking, Inuit refers only to the Inupiat of northern Alaska, the Inuit of Canada, and the Kalaallit of Greenland, but not to the Yupik peoples or languages of Alaska and Siberia.
This is because the Yupik languages are linguistically distinct from the Inupiaq and other Inuit languages, and the peoples are ethnically distinct as well. The word Inuit does not occur in the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia.
Is it acceptable to use the term "Eskimo" today?
In Alaska, Eskimo continues to be acceptable, and is the preferred term when speaking of Inupiaq and Yupik people collectively or to mean all Inuit and Yupik people of the world.
However, Inuit individuals may individually find this word an insult. The term Alaska Native is also used in Alaska and the rest of the United States, though this term is also inclusive of Aleut and Indian people of Alaska. This term has important legal usage as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
The term Eskimo has fallen out of favour in Canada and Greenland, where it is considered politically incorrect, (largely because of a belief, now usually thought to be incorrect but still popularly held, that the word came from an Algonquian word meaning "eater of raw flesh,") and the term Inuit, which means "people" or "the people" in most Inuit languages, has become more common.
However, the term Eskimo is still considered acceptable among Alaska Natives of Yupik and Inupiaq (Inuit) heritage, and is preferred over Inuit as a collective reference. To date, no replacement term for Eskimo inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people has achieved acceptance across the geographical area inhabited by the Inuit and Yupik peoples.
The term "Eskimo" is also used in some linguistic or ethnographic works to denote the larger branch of Eskimo-Aleut languages, the smaller branch being Aleut. In this usage, Inuit (together with Yupik, and possibly also Sireniki), are sub-branches of Eskimo.
There are two main groups of Eskimos: the Inuit of northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland, and the Yupik, comprising speakers of four distinct Yupik languages and originating in western Alaska, in southcentral Alaska along the Gulf of Alaska coast, and in the Russian Far East.
The Inuit and Yupik peoples are related to the Aleuts from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The Eskimo languages, together with the Aleut language, make up the Eskimo-Aleut language group.
In Eastern Canada, the language is often called Inuktitut, though other local designations are also used. The Inuit of Greenland refer to themselves as Greenlanders or, in their own language, Kalaallit, and to their language as Greenlandic or Kalaallisut.
Inuit languages comprise a dialect continuum, or dialect chain, that stretches from Unalaska and Norton Sound in Alaska, across northern Alaska and Canada, and east all the way to Greenland.
Speakers of two adjacent Inuit dialects would usually be able to understand one another, but speakers from dialects distant from each other on the dialect continuum would have difficulty understanding one another.
The four Yupik languages, including Aluutiq (Sugpiaq), Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Naukan (Naukanski), and Siberian Yupik are distinct languages with limited mutual intelligibility. While grammatical structures of Yupik and Inuit languages are similar, they have pronounced differences phonologically, and differences of vocabulary between Inuit and any of one of the Yupik languages is greater than between any two Yupik languages.
The Sireniki language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of the Eskimo language family, but other sources regard it as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.
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.