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As 'Redskins' controversy ramps up, 'Eskimo' is reconsidered

Alex DeMarban

A battle brewing in Canada over changing the name of the Edmonton Eskimos football team -- a spinoff from the recent debate over the name of the NFL's Washington Redskins -- seems not to have reached across the border to Alaska, where the term Eskimo is still widely accepted by Alaska Natives and remains a point of pride for some.

But language experts and others say they've seen a shift in attitudes, particularly among young Alaska Natives who these days often avoid using the potentially offensive term and are more likely to call themselves Yupik or Inupiat -- the groups in Alaska that fall under the Eskimo label.

Still, it's hard to see the word falling out of use in Alaska, in part because it remains a common definition for a broad group of people, said Oscar Alexie, an assistant professor of Yup'ik with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Native Language Center.

"It would be almost like telling me to quit using the word pickle," he said. "You have sweet pickles, dill pickles, you have every kind of pickle. But if I had to quit using the word pickle, what would I use?"

Alexie, a Yup'ik from Bethel in Southwest Alaska, said he's called himself Eskimo since he was a kid. It wasn't until he was a grown man on a trip to Canada in the 1980s that he learned Inuit in that country didn't like to be called Eskimo.

One definition of Eskimo is "eaters of raw meat." The Inuit he met in Canada were offended they'd been given that name by non-indigenous people. But Alexie was puzzled by the concern.

"Yeah, we eat raw meat, we like to qassaq," said Alexie with a so-what voice, describing his thoughts at the time and using the Yup'ik word for raw meat. "I didn't think anything of it. People asked me what nationality are you, and I used the term 'Eskimo.' "

Alexie said people still "qassaq" -- it's roughly pronounced "kus-suck" -- but today they usually do so once the meat has been frozen, he said. He plans to eat raw salmon he recently landed at his family's subsistence fishing camp down the Kuskokwim River -- after it's been frozen. Freezing it will kill worms it might contain, he said.

He's been following the debate over the NFL team. It recently ratcheted up after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team's registered trademark, calling the name and logo "disparaging" to Native Americans.

The decision has led to renewed calls to do away with other controversial team names, including the Edmonton Eskimos in Canada. Alexie said he empathizes with those who don't like the term.

"It widens my perception when I begin to think of my fellow Eskimos up north," he said, referring to the debate in Canada. "I can see why they're hurt by that. Way down south, we're a different kind of Eskimo. It doesn't have that negative feeling to it."

It's a prominent word in Alaska. There's the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, run by Native whalers, a group that divides bowhead whale quotas among numerous villages, most above the Arctic Circle.

Native hunters formed the Alaska Eskimo Walrus Commission in Nome to help protect walrus and the walrus hunting that's an important part of the lifestyle and diet in many villages.

Heck, there's even Alaska Airlines, proclaiming on its website that the Eskimo painted on the tail of its aircraft -- an Alaska Native wearing a fur parka -- symbolizes the company's Alaska roots.

But Allison Warden, a young Inupiaq performer with family in Barrow and Kaktovik, said she's looking forward to the day when the word Eskimo has disappeared from people's vocabularies.

It was a name given by Outsiders, and she takes every opportunity she can to discourage people from using it. Her show, "Calling All Polar Bears," even includes a skit about how people with roots in northern Alaska prefer to call themselves Inupiaq over Eskimo. She'll be featured in an upcoming issue of the Alaska Airlines in-flight magazine, and she encouraged the fact-checker not to use the word Eskimo.

The world has become more educated about Arctic issues in recent years, she said. There's increased cultural sensitivity, and people are increasingly familiar with the term Inuit -- used to describe the Inuit of Canada, the Kalaallit of Greenland and the Inupiat. And they realize the word Eskimo conjures up misconceptions, including of people living in igloos.

"The attention of the world is really shifting toward the Arctic, so a lot more people, no matter where they're from, realize that for the indigenous people of the Arctic, the broad term connecting us all together is Inuit," she said.

Plus, being known as raw-meat eaters is insulting -- and demeaning for young people growing up, said Warden. Sure, Inupiat like to eat raw, frozen meat, including from whales and caribou, but being known for that is odd, she said.

"If anything, I wish they would have called us 'the happy people floating into the air on the blanket toss.' It's just a weird way to describe a people. And as a young teenager it's not good for your self-esteem."

She added: "We are Inupiaq, the real people. That is what our name means."

Lawrence Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said some believe Eskimo has a different meaning than raw-meat eater: "People who make nettings for snowshoes," he said, using an Ojibwa definition.

Whatever it truly means, he's finding that young Alaska Natives increasingly don't like it.

"It's nowhere near as unpopular as it is in Canada," he said, but indigenous people are more specific about who they are, a trend that has spread across Native America, he said. "It's that people would rather have their own name."

Still, Eskimo remains a "valuable cover term" that has "worked in the past and seems to continue to work," he said. Inuit is more limited and does not cover the Yup'ik from Southwest Alaska.

Even young people who like the term Eskimo are careful about how they identity themselves.

John Chase, 39 and a Kotzebue resident, writes the Eskimo Power blog featuring occasionally graphic photos of hunted seals and other animals.

He also co-founded a company that once sold T-shirts boasting catchy phrases like "Hot Eskimo Sex" and "Eskimos for Jesus." He says he's proud to think of himself as an Eskimo hunter, even if it produces thoughts of raw-meat eaters.

"I embrace the idea of the wild savage man living from the land, shooting animals and eating them," he said.

Sometimes he'll buy some frozen Banquet chicken from the store if he wants a break from wild meat but that's unusual.

"In my household we're always eating caribou, fish, birds, seal oil," he said.

He thinks the word Eskimo is in Alaska to stay. But he's also careful about how he describes himself.

"If someone calls me Eskimo, I'd agree with them," he said. "But I'd say, 'I'm Yup'ik Eskimo.' There's a sense of pride in telling others about your cultural identity, and that's what young people are tuning into when they want to be called Yupik or Inupiaq."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that John Chase currently sells T-shirts. The shirts are no longer available.

 


By ALEX DEMARBAN
alex@alaskadispatch.com