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Obama signs measure to get rid of the word 'Eskimo' in federal laws

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: May 24, 2016
  • Published May 24, 2016

Changing attitudes toward the word "Eskimo" were recognized at the national level on Friday when President Barack Obama signed legislation that replaced that term with "Alaska Native" in federal laws.

The measure, HR 4238, ditches several terms that have fallen out of favor, or are considered offensive, from the wording of the Department of Energy Organization Act and the Local Public Works Capital Development and Investment Act of 1976.

President Obama dances with the traditional Yup’ik dance group at the Dillingham middle school in Dillingham on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The measure struck the terms Negro, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, Indians, Aleut and "Spanish speaking individual of Spanish descent" from those laws and replaced them with Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Native American and Alaska Native.

The change reflects the pushback against the word Eskimo in Alaska in recent years — plus the fact that the term doesn't encompass all the many different groups of indigenous people here. Especially among younger Alaska Natives, people have been shifting away from the term.

"When we were labeled Eskimos, that labeled us as less than human to white Americans," said Ronald H. Brower Sr., an instructor at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He refers to himself as an Inuk — which most people call Inupiaq — and grew up in Barrow. "It is my hope that this change will bring a more positive relationship between the U.S. government and the aboriginal people in the U.S., especially with Inuk and Athabascans."

In Canada, the word Eskimo is largely seen as derogatory. But in Alaska, it continues to be widely used — the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, for example — but has been the subject of increasing debate in recent decades. 

"I think this is a great move and I laud President Obama's recommendations," said Maria Shaa Tlaa Williams, director of the Alaska Native Studies program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is Tlingit. "Eskimo is an older colonial term. Many of the European arrivals used pejorative terms that were often not the self-designative terms that local Indigenous people used, and were not accurate."

The state's largest Native organization, the Alaska Federation of Natives, declined to comment on the change. The AFN's logo on its website features "Eskimo," "Indian" and "Aleut" in three connected rings.

Commonly used in Alaska to refer to Inuit and Yupik people around the world, Eskimo is "considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean 'eater of raw meat,'" according to UAF's Alaska Native Language Center. Linguists now believe, however, that the term comes from an Ojibwa word meaning "to net snowshoes."

Lawrence Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, said that Eskimo is gradually falling out of favor in Alaska. He added that it's important to remember that the term doesn't encompass all Alaska Native groups.

"More and more, Native American racial groups want to be called by a name in their own language and not a name given by outsiders," he said. "Some people don't object to this at all, and some people do. When enough voices are raised, the government is responsive."

Rep. Grace Meng, D-NY, sponsored the bill, with a focus on replacing the term "Oriental" with Asian American.

"The term 'Oriental' has no place in federal law and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good," Meng said in a statement on her website. "No longer will any law of the United States refer to Asian Americans in such an offensive way, and I applaud and thank President Obama for signing my bill to get rid of this antiquated term."

Jordan Goldes, Meng's press secretary, said in an email that these two acts were the focus of HR 4238 "because they included the last two places of federal law where the term 'Oriental' was still used to refer to a person." Goldes was unaware of other legislation with respect to the term "Eskimo."

The measure passed the U.S. House and Senate unanimously before heading to Obama's desk.

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