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Confused about the word 'Eskimo'? It helps to look deeper.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published February 20, 2016

As the word 'Eskimo' gets ready to depart from writing and polite conversation, I've regretted having to say goodbye, so I called an old friend who hasn't liked the word for a long time.

While I was growing up in Turnagain, oblivious to race except for my parents' lessons to treat everyone the same, Dalee Sambo Dorough was growing up Inupiaq in Inlet View, enduring racist taunts at her elementary school, where she was the only Alaska Native.

We went on to the same high school (as did our daughters, who also became friends), but I left for college while Sambo Dorough was centrally involved in the biggest Native issues of the day, starting even before she graduated.

She was at the founding of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference with Eben Hopson in 1977, and, while running the ICC's Anchorage office during the 1980s, raised money for the Thomas Berger report that gathered rural reactions to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That historic report influenced changes in the way Alaska's Native corporations are structured. Along the way, Sambo Dorough also got a doctorate in law.

Today, Sambo Dorough is on unpaid leave from the University of Alaska Anchorage to travel the world, also unpaid, as chair and now as expert member of the United National Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

I asked if the word Eskimo is racist. She paused before saying, "I cringe at its use, but not to the extent that I would lash out and say, 'Don't use that term.'" She also doesn't like the word Bush as a reference to rural Alaska, which has largely disappeared without much note.

Sambo Dorough learned about first peoples choosing their own names for themselves as a young woman, when she first got involved in international indigenous issues. In Canada and Greenland, they were getting rid of names given by outsiders, including Eskimo, and returning to their own traditional names, such as Inuit.

"We see this happening across the globe, of indigenous peoples, indigenous communities, asserting themselves by use of their vocabulary, their names according to themselves, and I think it is … an expression of the right of self-determination," she said. "One of the elements of self-determination is self-identification."

That ends the discussion for me: Everyone deserves to choose his or her own name. But the language we share belongs to all of us, and losing words can make it difficult to communicate. Practically, we end up more separated when we lose words.

In this case, it's a problem because the meaning of Eskimo doesn't exactly match Inuit.

In Inupiaq, the word Inuit means people, so it works in northern Alaska as well as it does in Canada. But Yup'ik doesn't have the word Inuit, and those Southwest Alaska people are Eskimos, too, sharing cultural traits with the Inupiat and with other peoples along the coast to Prince William Sound. Calling them Inuit would be giving them an outsider's name.

Some Yup'ik speakers who don't like the word Eskimo ask simply to be called Yup'ik. But a professor of Yup'ik at the University of Alaska Fairbanks told ADN reporter Alex DeMarban that losing the word Eskimo is like losing the word pickle. You could still talk about dill and sweet varieties, but not pickles in general.

Losing words complicates speech. I recently encountered this problem while writing about the history of European sailors who came to Alaska to map its coast and report back what they found. That's a long way of saying they explored, but my editor (not at ADN) ruled out using the word 'explore' because, like the word 'discover,' it suggests that Alaska was empty, when in fact it had already been discovered and explored by its first people.

I think Vitus Bering did explore and discover Alaska from the point of view of Europeans, in the same way tourists explore and discover Alaska today from their own point of view (although I appreciate that they don't claim to own it, as he did). But I understand the editor's concern that we can't sit down and explain that concept to every potentially offended reader.

The most severe linguistic crisis surrounds words for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. A couple of years ago, before speaking on a radio show on gender issues, I asked a lesbian community leader to define the new initials being added to LGBT— some people are now using LGBTQIA — and couldn't get a clear explanation even from her. With some transgender people asking to be called the plural "they" rather than "he" or "she," the English major in me begins to feel desperate.

I doubt I'm the only well-meaning non-LGBTQIA person (if that's what I am) who simply steers clear of certain topics to avoid using the wrong word and offending someone.

We'll muddle through. Society is changing rapidly and our brains haven't all received all the new mental software patches. By the time we do, maybe advocates for groups will also realize there is a point of diminishing returns for renaming.

But with Eskimo it's a bit more complicated. The issue has lasted for decades. In Canada, Inuit replaced Eskimo almost 40 years ago. More than 20 years ago, Sambo Dorough called for getting rid of the word in the Anchorage Daily News. But about 10 years ago I was scolded by a North Slope elder for using Inuit. He said, "That's Canadian. In Alaska we're Eskimo."

I asked Sambo Donough about Alaska Native groups that haven't decided themselves what they should be called.

"This suggests something really important, Coolie," she said, using my long-discarded nickname from high school. "To me, this suggests the fact that indigenous communities in Alaska have not had the political and intellectual space to have that conversation. They haven't arrived at a consensus. … I think what we're seeing, especially amongst the younger generation, is individuals who want to answer that question, and are thinking about their identity as individuals and the collectivity that they are attached to, and in certain areas it is becoming clearer and has crystallized about who we are as Native people."

Cheers to that effort. We need a new synonym for Eskimo. In the meantime, please don't take offense.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. Reach him at

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