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What's in a name? Indigenous people find meaning in what they are called

  • Author: David Hulen
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published March 7, 1994

This story was originally published on March 7, 1994.

For much of the past year, members of the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico have been absorbed in a controversy that has deeply divided the 160,000-member tribe. The issue: What's their name? On one side are people pushing to change it from Navajo to Dine'. Navajo, they argue, isn't their word. It came from Spaniards. Dine' (pronounced da- NEH) is from their own language. It means "the people."

Supporters of the switch argue that the issue goes to the heart of tribal sovereignty and identity. Others are skeptical. The world knows them as Navajo and there are more important issues to worry about, they argue.

Similar debates have raged in Canada, where the word Eskimo -- an Indian term seen as derogatory by many people in that country -- has largely disappeared. It's been replaced by the Arctic aboriginal word, Inuit. Canadian Athabaskans have become the Dene Nation.

Here in Alaska, there has been little public debate about these sorts of issues. But to some Alaska Natives, the Navajo and Canadian debates have a familiar ring. Similar arguments have been quietly knocking around throughout the state for decades.

Who, for example, are the indigenous people on the North Slope and in northwest Alaska? Are they Eskimos? Are they Inuit? Aren't they Inupiat? Or is it Inupiaq? What about the Yup'ik people of the western Alaska coast? Are they Inuit too?

Do Alaska Natives think the word Eskimo is derogatory?

And what about the Athabaskans, who populate dozens of villages in the Interior? Like the Navajo, their linguistic cousins, the Athabaskans got their name from someone else, in this case an American scholar in the 1800s. Why hasn't Dene, or a variation of it, caught on here?

To some Alaskans, all this can seem like linguistic nitpicking. After all, while people in the Lower 48 get into a furious debates over sports team names such as the Redskins and Braves, Alaska has a village -- Aniak -- where the high school sports teams have long been called the Halfbreeds. (A headline in the sports section of the Bethel newspaper two years ago reported: "Halfbreeds stomp Fighting Yup'iks"). Alaskans have never been known for their political correctness.

But as the tribal sovereignty movement has grown in Alaska in recent years, it's clear that the question of identity has taken on new importance to many people. Sovereignty is largely a battle over increasing local control in Native communities, and to some people, having control over their name is fundamental -- especially when the name they've been using isn't their own.

"Indigenous people all over the world have been going back to the traditional names, " said Dalee Sambo, a longtime Alaska tribal-rights activist. An Inupiaq, Sambo is executive director of the Alaska Intertribal Council and teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"I think it really helps generate an understanding of the distinct nature of our people, " she said. "People throw around the term 'Native American' like we were a monolithic pile of people. We're not. These different names help show that."

Like in Canada, the word Eskimo rubs some Alaska Natives the wrong way, mainly because it's a name given them by someone else -- originally Indians in Canada.

"How do people feel about the word 'Eskimo'?" said Cecilia Martz, a teacher at the University of Alaska campus in Bethel and who grew up in the Yup'ik village of Chevak.

"To me, for myself, I prefer being called by the correct name for ourselves, Yup'ik."

Yup'ik means "real person."

"I don't particularly care for the word 'Eskimo', " Martz said. "It's a foreign word, it's not our word. Look at it from your own standpoint. How would you like to be called European?"

The term Eskimo has been used by outsiders since the 1600s to describe the people inhabiting coastal areas stretching across the circumpolar North from Greenland across the Canadian Arctic to the North Slope, down to Bristol Bay and across much of Siberia.

The word came from Indians in central Canada to describe people to the north, and was first picked up by French-speaking explorers. They needed a term to describe these northern people, whose culture, language and physiology was clearly different from the Indians to the south.

By the 1970s, though, the word Eskimo had become a big deal in Canada. Native political activists, pressing for increasing aboriginal rights, rejected it. They demanded to be known as the Inuit, which means "the people" in dialects across northern Canada and Alaska. Today, Eskimo has been dropped from use throughout much of Canada, and is rarely used by government agencies, academics and the media.

Whether the word Eskimo was actually derogatory has been debated. Most dictionaries and many reference books say it originated with the Algonquian Indians and means "raw-meat eaters." People who object to the word sometimes cite this that it portrays these people as uncivilized or inferior to whites or Indians.

The problem, according to some scholars, is that the word doesn't really mean that. The word originated with the Montagnais Indians and actually means "snowshoe netter, " according to a lengthy article in the "Handbook of North American Indians" by the Smithsonian Institution.

In any case, people in Alaska villages use the word Eskimo all the time. A Native-owned company in Barrow is called Eskimos Inc. Both the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Eskimo Walrus Commission set hunting quotas and help manage wildlife. People, especially older Natives, say things like, "She's going Eskimo dancing, " or "They're talking Eskimo."

"I don't think that word has ever been too controversial up here, " said Fannie Akpuk, director of the Inupiaq language program at Barrow's Arctic Sivunmun Ilisagvik College. "I've never really understood what it meant because it's not in our language, people use it (when using English). It's what they grew up speaking in English."

Michael Krauss, a linguist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and director of the Alaska Native Language Center, said he's seen Natives from Canada berate Alaska Natives over the issue.

"The problem is, they don't understand the difficulty that some people here in Alaska have using 'Inuit,' " Krauss said.

The problem has to do with the fact that Eskimos in Alaska fall into two broad language and cultural groups: Inupiaq and Yup'ik. Both words mean "a real person." The plurals are Yupiit and Inupiat. The real people.

Inuit means the same thing in Inupiaq as it does in Canada "the people." But the word doesn't exist in Yup'ik, the most widely spoken Eskimo language in Alaska. Inuit is as foreign a term in Bethel as Eskimo. The Yup'ik word for person is "yuk" as in the now-defunct Bethel radio talk show, "Yuk to Yuk."

The only time you hear people talking about Inuit in western Alaska is when they're speaking of Canadians. The term is used sparingly on the North Slope and northwest Alaska as well, although outsiders sometimes describe people from Barrow as Inuit.

Athabaskan hasn't been an issue in Alaska, but it's a big deal in Canada. The word has become practically taboo, replaced by Dene -- again, the word for "people."

Like Eskimo, "Athabaskan" came not from the Athabaskans themselves, but their neighbors the Cree Indians in Canada. It originally didn't mean people. It was a description of an expanse of reed-like grasses in the country inhabited by the Athabaskans; there was a Lake Athabaska.

According to a 1987 article by Krauss, the UAF linguist, it was first applied to people in the 1820s by an American Albert Gallatin, a diplomat and banker who served as Thomas Jefferson's treasury secretary. Gallatin was interested in Indians and compiled a book on the tribes of the West. After reading reports from explorers over the previous 50 years, he realized there was a related group of tribes and languages in western Canada.

Gallatin called them the Athabaskans.

One reason the name has stuck in Alaska is that the eight different Athabaskan dialects here are so different that it's hard to come up with common words for all of them. For example, the word for "people" in the village of Minto is Dena. In Venetie, it's Dinjii. In Tanana, Denaa. At Hughes and Huslia, it's Dina. None of the Alaska Native languages were written, and all such spellings have been developed by linguists to reflect Native pronunciations.

Several Native tribe or language names in Alaska came from outsiders.

Ingalik, for example, has long been the name of people and the language of a string of Athabaskan villages on the Lower Yukon River, including Holy Cross, Shageluk and Anvik. At least that's the name in anthropology texts.

Ingalik is actually a Yup'ik word. It means "having many nits, " or lice eggs. Russian explorers picked up the word from Yup'ik speakers -- the enemies of the Indians -- upriver as they made their way up the Yukon, and Ingalik eventually worked its way into academic writings. UAF's Alaska Native Language Center changed its language map a few years ago to use the local description, Deg Hit'an, meaning "people from here."

Or take Gwich'in. The word is used today to describe the people and Athabaskan dialect in the Yukon Flats and other areas of the northeast Interior and northwest Yukon Territory. The word came from a 19th-century misunderstanding. Indians in the region traditionally referred to themselves by using a specific place name followed by the suffix gwich'in, which means "people of" or "dwellers at." It means little by itself.

English speakers began picking up on the word and started writing it as Kutchin. Today, Natives in the region routinely use the word to describe themselves. They pronounce it Gwich'in.

Aleut wasn't an Alaska word. Russians explorers brought that word and used it to describe all the Natives they came into contact with from the Aleutian Islands to the Alaska Peninsula to Kodiak and Prince William Sound.

No one is sure where the word came from.

A danger in using Native words is that it's easy to misuse them. The singular form of Inuit, for example, is Inuk. But that's rarely used by outsiders. Some people are leery of using direct translations.

"I'm not going to try to give Native names to all the Native languages, or I'd be giving names that no one could say, " Krauss said. "Take Kenaitze (Athabaskans from the Kenai Peninsula). It's a Russian word, but nobody minds that. But if you tried to recover the original Athabaskan word, no one could pronounce it."

Still, as Native languages have slipped away in many parts of the state, interest has grown in adopting traditional Native words in everyday language.

"To me, the use of words like that really is a reflection of who you are, " said Willie Hensley, a Native political leader and former state senator originally from Kotzebue who now lives in Anchorage.

"I don't think people get real upset by words like Eskimo.

"But I wonder sometimes why, in my hometown, we didn't name our own streets in our language instead of having names like 'Tundra Way.' It's just something you could do that's a connection to your roots. I think Native people all over are a lot more tuned in to that sort of thing these days.

"Even in Hawaii, I've noticed they have names on the street signs with 15 letters in them and visitors are expected to learn them. I think that's great."

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