In the process of tweaking its brand for the first time in 25 years, Alaska Airlines learned more about what the Eskimo on the tail of its aircraft represents to Alaska Natives.
Since 1972, when the Eskimo first appeared on Alaska Airlines jets, people across the state have wondered who he might be, and whether the image was based on a specific person.
Some believe the logo was inspired by Chester Seveck or Oliver Amouak, both Alaska Natives. Seveck was a reindeer herder in Kotzebue, Alaska Airlines said, and Amouak was an Inupiat Eskimo. The company said others have been floated as possible sources of inspiration for the face, including Johnny Cash and Abraham Lincoln.
In the end, those attributions seem to come down to lore.
"While everyone has their own theory, we haven't found an official record indicating that it was based on any one person," said Halley Knigge, an Alaska Airlines spokeswoman. "And, more importantly, it was never intended to depict a specific person. Rather, it was chosen to represent the Arctic region and its people."
As part of updating its brand, the company talked to leaders and artists in Alaska Native communities about what the Eskimo face means to them.
Perry Eaton, an Alutiiq artist who is originally from Kodiak Island but now lives in Anchorage, said that some people insist they know the Eskimo's true identity.
"It's always been sort of a tongue-in-cheek conversation," Eaton said. "Nobody's gotten emotional over it, it's just sort of interesting. He's very iconic. Some folks are adamant that they know who it is."
That's especially true in remote villages where residents rely on planes not just for travel but to bring in essential goods.
Helvi Sandvik, president of NANA Development Corp. and also an Alaska Air Group board member, is originally from the village of Kiana, near Kotzebue. She remembers very well the feeling of connection to the Alaska Airlines jets and the Eskimo logo.
"When you're from a place like that, you get real attached to your air carrier," she laughed. "In Kotzebue, we all think he's Chester Seveck. He used to meet with the tourists, he and his wife, and frankly it looks like him."
In the past, possible plans to remove the Eskimo from the planes have been somewhat contentious. In 1987, the company was reviewing whether to replace the logo with something else, such as a mountain, and the Alaska Legislature in 1988 created a joint resolution officially in support of "the continued use of the 'Happy Face' logo."
The update of the company's brand unveiled Monday involved some slight changes to smooth and simplify the Eskimo's face, but it remained largely the same.
"To me, the Eskimo is the personification of who we are," said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air Group, in a company video.
Today, there's a separate conversation happening about the term "Eskimo" itself, and whether it's considered offensive. Many young Alaska Natives avoid using the word. It's generally considered offensive in Canada.
"I am actually honored that the ethnicity is honored in this way," said Eaton, "but there's pushback on that these days."
Some Alaska Natives also look fondly on the Alaska Airlines logo for what it represents while they are traveling outside of the state.
Reggie Joule is a former mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough and a former member of the Alaska State House of Representatives. He was born in Nome and now lives in Kotzebue.
"For a lot of us, the logo represents the resilience of Alaska's indigenous people to have lived in this area for as long as we did," he said. "It's kind of like a link between our past and present. It speaks volumes, I think, about the intrigue Alaska still has around the world."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing