The word Eskimo is an offensive term that has been used historically to describe the Inuit throughout their homeland, Inuit Nunangat, in the arctic regions of Alaska, Greenland and Canada, as well as the Yupik of Alaska and northeastern Russia, and the Inupiat of Alaska. Now considered derogatory in Canada, the term was used extensively in popular culture and by researchers, writers and the general public throughout the world. The word was popularly understood to mean “eaters of raw meat,” but is now thought to have originated from an Innu-aimun (Montagnais) word meaning “one who laces snowshoes.”
The origin of the word Eskimo is a matter of some contention, but it is generally understood to be of Algonquian origin, Innu-aimun (Montagnais) more specifically. It was long thought to mean “eaters of raw meat.” Algonquian language speakers (including dialects of Cree, Innu-aimun and Ojibwa) have used words to describe the Inuit that would substantiate this definition, including ashkipok (Eastern Ojibwa), eshkipot (Ojibwa), askamiciw (Cree), kachikushu (North Shore Montagnais).
However, scholars like Ives Goddard have argued that those forms only support an Ojibwa root, rather than the understood Innu-aimun origin. This theory points to the origin of the word as the Innu-aimun awassimew/ayassimew, which means roughly “one who laces snowshoes.” It is possible that this term was used generally by the Innu to describe the Mi’kmaq, and was later transferred to Inuit upon contact between the two groups. As the word came into use in Ojibwa, its original meaning may have become blurred, as the ashk- prefix can also mean raw or fresh in Ojibwa. French explorers and settlers translated the word to esquimaux, the Danish spelling of which has persisted in English use.
Pejorative and Continued Use
Regardless of the true origin of the name, many people used the term Eskimo to denote Inuit and understood it to mean “eaters of raw meat.” This use was a catalyst for change in the 1970s. In 1977, Inuit met in Barrow, Alaska, for the first Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Delegates from the United States, Canada and Greenland formed the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). The ICC Charter, signed in 1980, defined the Inuit as “indigenous members of the Inuit homeland recognized by Inuit as being members of their people and shall include the Inupiat, Yupik (Alaska), Inuit, Inuvialuit (Canada), Kalaallit (Greenland) and Yupik (Russia).” In defining Inuit as such, they rejected the use of the term Eskimo.
While Inuit is the standard endonym (a name a group uses to describe itself) for Inuit, many non-Inuit continue to use the term Eskimo. The use of this exonym (a name given to a group of people by another group) perpetuates harmful stereotypes of the Inuit as remote and politically insignificant, while also romanticizing the Arctic. The reason for this persistence may be benign ignorance, or indifference to the implied cultural superiority and disrespect exhibited by its use.
Eskimo is still used by linguists to denote the Eskimo-Aleut language group, and to describe the speakers of the Eskimo branch of the group as a whole. Eskimo-Aleut includes Inuktitut and its dialects, as well as Aleut, the language spoken by the Aleut people of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and northeastern Russia. Some Inuit political organizations, particularly in Alaska, retain Eskimo in their names.
The “Eskimo Pie,” an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate, exploded in popularity in the United States in 1922, the same year the groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North was released. The frozen treat is still sold in the United States by Nestlé. “Eskimos” or “Eskimo Lollies” are coloured marshmallow candies sold in New Zealand by Cadbury/Pascall. The candies attracted international attention in 2009 when Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons, an Inuit tourist in New Zealand, criticized the use of the word to domestic and international media. Cadbury/Pascall still produces the candies, which are formed into the shape of an Inuk in a hooded parka.
In Canada, the Edmonton Eskimos, a professional football team in the Canadian Football League, have used the name since their founding in 1949, though the name had been used by Edmonton-area teams since the early 20th century. The team has received criticism for the name, especially because Inuit are not indigenous to the Edmonton area.
Popularized by Nanook of the North, an “Eskimo kiss” (known in Inuktitut as a kunik) is a type of greeting in which two parties slowly rub their noses together. However, the popularized “Eskimo kiss” cannot be accurately described as a kunik, which involves softly pressing one’s nose to the cheek of another and slowly breathing in the receiver’s scent. This nuzzle greeting is most often done to babies or small children.