The word Eskimo is an offensive term that has been used historically to describe the Inuit throughout their homeland, Inuit Nunangat, in the arctic regions of Alaska, Greenland and Canada, as well as the Yupik of Alaska and northeastern Russia, and the Inupiat of Alaska. Considered derogatory in Canada, the term was once used extensively in popular culture and by researchers, writers and the general public throughout the world. ( See also Arctic Indigenous Peoples and Inuit.)
Origin of the Term
The origin of the word Eskimo is a matter of some contention, but it is generally understood to be of Algonquian origin, Innu-aimun (Montagnais) more specifically. It was long thought to mean “eaters of raw meat.” Algonquian language speakers (including dialects of Cree, Innu-aimun and Ojibwe) have used words to describe the Inuit that would substantiate this definition, including ashkipok (Eastern Ojibwe), eshkipot (Ojibwe), askamiciw (Cree), kachikushu (North Shore Montagnais). (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.)
However, scholars like Ives Goddard have argued that those forms only support an Ojibwe root, rather than the understood Innu-aimun origin. This theory points to the origin of the word as the Innu-aimun awassimew/ayassimew, which means roughly “one who laces snowshoes.” It is possible that this term was used generally by the Innu to describe the Mi’kmaq, and was later transferred to Inuit upon contact between the two groups. As the word came into use in Ojibwe, its original meaning may have become blurred, as the ashk- prefix can also mean raw or fresh in Ojibwe. French explorers and settlers translated the word toesquimaux, the Danish spelling.
Pejorative and Continued Use
Regardless of the true origin of the name, many people used the term Eskimo to denote Inuit. This use was a catalyst for change in the 1970s. In 1977, Inuit met in Barrow, Alaska, for the first Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Delegates from the United States, Canada and Greenland formed the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). The ICC Charter, signed in 1980, defined the Inuit as “Indigenous members of the Inuit homeland recognized by Inuit as being members of their people and shall include the Inupiat, Yupik (Alaska), Inuit, Inuvialuit (Canada), Kalaallit (Greenland) and Yupik (Russia).” In defining Inuit as such, they rejected the use of the term Eskimo.
Inuit is the standard endonym (a name a group uses to describe itself) for Inuit. The use of Eskimo, an exonym (a name given to a group of people by another group), perpetuates harmful stereotypes of the Inuit as remote and politically insignificant, while also romanticizing the Arctic. The reason for this persistence may be benign ignorance, or indifference to the implied cultural superiority and disrespect exhibited by its use.
Eskimo is still used by linguists to denote the Eskimo-Aleut language group, and to describe the speakers of the Eskimo branch of the group as a whole. Eskimo-Aleut includes Inuktitut and its dialects, as well as Aleut, the language spoken by the Aleut people of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and northeastern Russia.
The “Eskimo Pie,” an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate, exploded in popularity in the United States in 1922, the same year the groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North was released. The frozen treat is still sold in the United States. Amid backlash, it was announced in 2020 that the product’s name would be changed.
“Eskimos” or “Eskimo Lollies” are coloured marshmallow candies sold in New Zealand. The candies attracted international attention in 2009 when Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons, an Inuit tourist in New Zealand, criticized the use of the word to domestic and international media. The candy is undergoing a branding and name change as of 2020.
In Canada, prior to being renamed the Edmonton Elks in 2021, one of the Canadian Football League teams in Alberta was called the Edmonton Eskimos. The Edmonton Eskimos name was used since their founding in 1949, though the name had been used by Edmonton-area teams since the early 20th century. The team has received criticism for the name, especially because Inuit are not indigenous to the Edmonton area. After a public relations team was hired in 2018 to research public opinion about the name, the team announced that it would drop the “Eskimo” name.
Popularized by Nanook of the North, an “Eskimo kiss” (known in Inuktitut as akunik ) is a type of greeting in which two parties slowly rub their noses together. However, the popularized “Eskimo kiss” cannot be accurately described as akunik, which involves softly pressing one’s nose to the cheek of another and slowly breathing in the receiver’s scent. This nuzzle greeting is most often done to babies or small children.