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Is it time for Alaskans to stop using the word 'Eskimo'?

  • Author: Charles Enoch
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published February 9, 2016

After Alaska Airlines unveiled a new look for its airplanes and website, many Alaska Natives took offense to a phrase in its new marketing campaign, which sparked a controversy and a new round of conversations about what the word "Eskimo" means to Alaska Natives, KYUK Public Media reports.

The Alaska Airlines website prominently featured the familiar face of a smiling Alaska Native elder and also included the phrase "Meet our Eskimo," which was quickly changed to "Meet the Eskimo." But some Alaska Natives say that didn't go far enough.

"I would rather be called 'Inupiaq' because that's what I am, and my children are Yup'ik," said Blossom Twitchell from Kotzebue.

"I want them to be able to connect to their culture and people won't group us in as little people that live in igloos and give little Eskimo kisses all the time; we are so much more than that. We have culture and traditions that have been passed down for generations and I don't believe the word Eskimo does our heritage justice," Twitchell said.

After the Alaska Airlines redesign incident, Twitchell decided to take it a step further by starting a petition asking the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stop identifying people's ethnicity as "Eskimo" in federal paperwork. By Tuesday morning, the petition had more than 200 supporters.

As with the familiar face on the tail of the Alaska Airlines planes, no one seems to have a definitive answer on where the word "Eskimo" came from. An article by University of Alaska Fairbanks linguist Lawrence Kaplan said the word was long thought to mean "eater of raw meat" but linguists now think it came from an Ojibwa word meaning "netter of snowshoes."

The word isn't used much in Canada as it's considered offensive by many Inuit in the country. But Alaska Natives say they have been using the word for a while.

"In my first memories we used Eskimo when referring to ourselves or each other. Then along the way we started using the word Yup'ik to describe ourselves," said Nels Alexie, a Yup'ik elder from Bethel.

Alexie is like many Yup'iks interviewed for this story who are accustomed to the term and have no firm position about whether it's appropriate.

Other Yup'ik elders, however, don't like the term.

"If we stop using the names other people give us, they will understand," said Theresa John, an associate professor for indigenous studies at UAF. "Our ancestors were proud to be Yup'ik and were strengthened by their way of life. They wanted us, their descendants, to keep our tradition alive, not to act like it's not there but to understand it and to live it."

John also added that the word "Eskimo" isn't part of the Yup'ik language, or originally any Native language in Alaska.

Tiffany Zulkosky from Anchorage, a former mayor of Bethel, sent a letter to Alaska Airlines expressing her disappointment about their website statements and invited the company to participate in the Racial Equity Summit sponsored by the First Alaskans Institute.

Airline CEO Brad Tilden released a statement apologizing for the "insensitive reference." The airline ultimately changed its website greeting, completely removing the word "Eskimo," and stated it is looking forward to working with the Alaska Native community to ensure its actions reflect its respect for all Alaska Natives and Alaskans alike.

This piece was originally published by KYUK Public Media and is republished by permission.

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