Eskimo Culture

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Eskimos are indigenous peoples who have traditionally inhabited the circumpolar region from eastern Siberia (Russia), across Alaska (United States), Canada, and Greenland. There are two main groups that are referred to as Eskimo: Yupik and Inuit. A third group, the Aleut, is related.

Eskimo culture map

The Yupik language dialects and cultures in Alaska and eastern Siberia have evolved in place beginning with the original (pre-Dorset) Eskimo culture that developed in Alaska. Approximately 4,000 years ago the Unangam (also known as Aleut) culture became distinctly separate, and evolved into a non-Eskimo culture.

Approximately 1,500-2,000 years ago, apparently in Northwestern Alaska, two other distinct variations appeared. The Inuit language branch became distinct and in only several hundred years spread across northern Alaska, Canada and into Greenland. At about the same time, the technology of the Thule people developed in northwestern Alaska and very quickly spread over the entire area occupied by Eskimo people, though it was not necessarily adopted by all of them.

The earliest known Eskimo cultures (pre-Dorset) date to 5,000 years ago. They appear to have evolved in Alaska from people using the Arctic small tool tradition who probably had migrated to Alaska from Siberia at least 2,000 to 3,000 years earlier, though they might have been in Alaska as far back as 10,000 to 12,000 years or more. There are similar artifacts found in Siberia going back perhaps 18,000 years.

Today, the two main groups of Eskimos are the Inuit of northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland, and the Yupik of Central Alaska.

The Yupik comprises speakers of four distinct Yupik languages originated from the western Alaska, in South Central Alaska along the Gulf of Alaska coast, and the Russian Far East.

In Alaska, the term Eskimo is commonly used, because it includes both Yupik and Inupiat, while Inuit is not accepted as a collective term or even specifically used for Inupiat. No universal term other than Eskimo, inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people, exists for the Inuit and Yupik peoples.

In Canada and Greenland, the term Eskimo has fallen out of favor, as it is sometimes considered pejorative and has been replaced by the term Inuit.

The Canadian Constitution Act of 1982, sections 25 and 35, recognized the Inuit as a distinctive group of aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Two principal competing etymologies have been proposed for the name “Eskimo”, both from the Innu-aimun (Montagnais) language. The most commonly accepted today appears to be the proposal of Ives Goddard at the Smithsonian Institution, who derives it from the Montagnais word meaning “snowshoe-netter”.

Jose Mailhot, a Quebec anthropologist who speaks Montagnais, however, published a paper in 1978 which suggested that the meaning is “people who speak a different language”.

The primary reason that Eskimo is considered derogatory is the arguable but widespread perception that in Algonkian languages it means “eaters of raw meat.” One Cree speaker suggested the original word that became corrupted to Eskimo might indeed have been askamiciw (which means “he eats it raw”), and the Inuit are referred to in some Cree texts as askipiw (which means “eats something raw”). The majority of academic linguists do not agree. Nevertheless, it is commonly felt in Canada and Greenland that the term Eskimo is pejorative.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference meeting in Barrow, Alaska, officially adopted “Inuit” as a designation for all Eskimos, regardless of their local usages, in 1977. However, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, as it is known today, uses both “Inuit” and “Eskimo” in its official documents.

In Canada and Greenland the term Eskimo is widely held to be pejorative and has fallen out of favor, largely supplanted by the term Inuit.

However, while Inuit describes all of the Eskimo peoples in Canada and Greenland, that is not true in Alaska and Siberia. In Alaska the term Eskimo is commonly used, because it includes both Yupik and Inupiat, while Inuit is not accepted as a collective term or even specifically used for Inupiat (who technically are Inuit). No universal term other than Eskimo, inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people, exists for the Inuit and Yupik peoples.

In 1977, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference meeting in Barrow, Alaska, officially adopted Inuit as a designation for all circumpolar native peoples, regardless of their local view on an appropriate term. As a result the Canadian government usage has replaced the (locally) defunct term Eskimo with Inuit (Inuk in singular). The preferred term in Canada’s Central Arctic is Inuinnaq, and in the eastern Canadian Arctic Inuit. 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.

Because of the linguistic, ethnic, and cultural differences between Yupik and Inuit peoples there is uncertainty as to the acceptance of any term encompassing all Yupik and Inuit people. There has been some movement to use Inuit, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council, representing a circumpolar population of 150,000 Inuit and Yupik people of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, in its charter defines Inuit for use within the ICC as including “the Inupiat, Yupik (Alaska), Inuit, Inuvialuit (Canada), Kalaallit (Greenland) and Yupik (Russia).” However, even the Inuit people in Alaska refer to themselves as Inupiat (the language is Inupiaq) and do not typically use the term Inuit. Thus, in Alaska, Eskimo is in common usage, and is the preferred term when speaking collectively of all Inupiat and Yupik people, or of all Inuit and Yupik people throughout the world.

Alaskans also use the term Alaska Native, which is inclusive of all Eskimo, Aleut and Indian people of Alaska, and is exclusive of Inuit or Yupik people originating outside the state.

The term Alaska Native has important legal usage in Alaska and the rest of the United States as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

The term “Eskimo” is also used worldwide in linguistic or ethnographic works to denote the larger branch of Eskimo-Aleut languages, the smaller branch being Aleut.

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