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'I am not an Eskimo': One woman's effort to retire 'Eskimo' from official use

  • Author: Shady Oliver
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published February 20, 2016

A word is not a simple thing to one woman from Kotzebue who has started a campaign to encourage the Bureau of Indian Affairs to remove the term "Eskimo" from its official paperwork.

Blossom Twitchell, who now lives in Sitka, is Inupiaq and thinks it's not appropriate that she should have to check the box marked "ESK" to identify herself on documentation.

"It goes back to the colonialist idea that people came and told us who we were and didn't bother to ask us who we were and I think it goes to the root of the issue that the United States government from day one has always dealt with indigenous people as someone that has to be dealt with, rather than as a partnership," said Twitchell.

She's felt this way for a long time but the straw that broke the camel's back was Alaska Airlines' recent rebranding campaign that included a segment titled "Meet our Eskimo," referring to the face on the tail of Alaska Airlines' planes.

"We're coming to a point where we're getting tired of being generalized and it's important to own up to our cultural ties because we're losing our languages and our identity and it's a great time to anchor ourselves in the truth," she said.

Following a backlash on social media from many Alaskans, the airline retracted the word "our," changing the line to "Meet the Eskimo."

"When Alaska Airlines unveiled our refreshed brand earlier, a reference we used offended many in the Alaska Native community, and likely others," said Brad Tilden, Alaska Air Group CEO. "We apologize and take full responsibility for this insensitive reference."

For Twitchell, though, while this was a good teaching moment, perhaps the focus was not in the right place.

"I had a moment where I thought, is the word 'our' the word we should get angry about?" she said. "I've had a problem with the word 'Eskimo' for a while. I understand everyone had a right to be upset and I think that was a great point to really start the discussion and highlight the whole situation. That being said, you can't be mad at Alaska Airlines for using it if the federal government uses the word 'Eskimo,' because they're endorsing the usage. By not saying anything, we're also allowing that."

She created a petition called "I am not an Eskimo." To date, it's received more than 800 signatures and has been shared widely on Twitter and Facebook by users both within Alaska and Outside.

However, the response has not been entirely positive.

"When it first started out, I received hate mail on Facebook with people saying, 'There's bigger things that you could be worrying about.' Surprisingly, it was from Alaska Native people — from indigenous people," she said. "I questioned my own actions when I started this because I got so much flak about it. I think we have the capability of worrying about the other things too but it doesn't make it bad that we're also demanding a word change."

In social media conversations around the petition, there have been mixed reactions from commenters. Many support the use of the precise terms laid out in the petition statement, including Inupiat, Sugpiaq, Yup'ik, Cup'ig, Siberian Yupik and Koniag Alutiiq.

Others say the word is too much a part of common parlance to change at this point. It's not offensive, just "what we say" in reference to activities like "Eskimo dancing," among others.

Twitchell calls it a "gray word" with an ambiguous meaning.

"It's a word that is easy and I think the whole world identifies with the word 'Eskimo.' It's that fantasy that they've created — that faraway land and people who live in ice and snow and it automatically gives you that picture," she said.

She's found herself defaulting to the term in the past when saying "Inupiat" is returned with blank stares. When she changes that to "Eskimo," the light bulb goes on, she said. But, rather than be dissuaded by the stares, she thinks it's an opportune moment to give culture and tradition some recognition.

"That's a great time for education and letting people know Alaska, like the land, is diverse. The people are diverse," she said. Her response to those who prefer to identify themselves as Eskimo? That's fine — it's individual prerogative, but the government doesn't have the right to do it, she said.

"If you're so attached to the word, think about why you are and it will probably be a long list of amazing cultural ties that have nothing to do with the word 'Eskimo' and has everything to do with the fact that you're Inupiat or Yup'ik or Sugpiaq or Cup'ig," said Twitchell.

With regard to the future of the petition, Twitchell said she's contacted the BIA, which directed her to her state representatives. She's already contacted the offices of Sen. Lisa Murkowski and plans to do the same with Rep. Don Young. The senator couldn't be reached for comment for this story by deadline.

She never expected the petition to gain this much traction but said she hopes it will, if nothing else, spark conversations that have been a long time coming.

"Even though it's a small change, in and of itself it's a big change because it's giving us a voice to say who we are," she said.

"We do have social issues and economic issues but I think they all tie in to this. We have to identify truly who we are and, culturally, we're not Eskimo."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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