Feature: Name game - 'Inuit' or 'Eskimo'?

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent
Subscribe | UPI Odd Newsletter

LOS ANGELES, June 20 (UPI) -- As you may have heard, the highly acclaimed new movie "The Fast Runner," which is slowly rolling out nationally, is the first major film made by the Inuit people.

Feel free to admit, however, that you're a little vague on who exactly are the Inuit. The answer, fortunately, is simple. They are a segment of one of the most legendary of all ethnic groups, a people almost universally admired for their ability to survive the harshest climate on Earth. In short, the Inuit are Eskimos.


Just don't call them that.

The official handbook of the 3-year-old Canadian Territory of Nunavut says, "A word of advice, please don't call Inuit here "Eskimos." They've always called themselves Inuit, or 'the people' in Inuktitut, their native tongue."

The confusion over "Eskimo" vs. "Inuit" illustrates the paradoxes that accompany the many attempts these days to change the names of ethnic groups.


According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "Many Americans today either avoid this term (Eskimo) or feel uneasy using it." For example, a Web site of the University of Wisconsin School of Education advises teachers, "There are no 'Eskimo' people."

That would come as a surprise, however, to thousands of Yup'ik-speaking Eskimos in Western Alaska who much prefer to be called "Eskimo" instead of "Inuit."

Why? They aren't Inuit.

Steven A. Jacobson, a professor at the Alaska Native Language Center (of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks), told United Press International, "Yup'ik speakers say, 'We're Yup'ik Eskimos; our relatives in northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland are Inuit Eskimos; they aren't Yup'ik, and we aren't Inuit, but we're all Eskimos.' Yup'ik speakers prefer to be called 'Yup'iks' ... and -- in contrast to Inuit in Canada -- don't mind the word 'Eskimo,' but they do not like to be called 'Inuit.'"

"Eskimo" remains the only word that describes all the physically and culturally quite homogenous groups that extend from the Siberian side of the Bering Strait to Greenland. The American Heritage Dictionary sums up, "While use of these terms ('Inuit' and 'Yup'ik') is often preferable when speaking of the appropriate linguistic group, none of them can be used of the Eskimoan peoples as a whole; the only inclusive term remains Eskimo."


In the 1970s, activists in Canada's Far North announced that "Eskimo" was insulting. They claimed it was originally an Algonquin Indian word for "eaters of raw meat."

Many linguists dispute this, arguing that early European explorers actually got "Eskimo" from a Micmac Indian word having to do with snowshoes. And even if the Algonquin theory is correct, the traditional Eskimo diet did indeed include a lot of raw meat. It's an excellent way to get enough vitamin C to avoid scurvy in the Arctic, where fruits and vegetables were almost completely unavailable.

A prominent example of ethnic name-changing involves the preferred term for Americans of African descent: first "Negro," then "black," and most recently, "African-American."

This trend spread to other groups. "Orientals" became "Asians" (even though there are hundreds of millions of people native to Asia -- such as Armenians and Arabs -- who are not included in the grouping for "Asians").

The Gypsies are now to be called "Roma," and the reindeer-herding Lapps of Northern Scandinavia are the "Saami." Similarly, some now claim the Iroquois Indians should be called the "Haudenosaunee" and the Cherokee the "Tsalagi" (which, like so many tribal names, means "the true people").

Most of these name-changing groups, however, lack the public relations firepower of African-Americans. When Jesse Jackson announced that he wanted "African-American" used instead of "black," the world took notice.


When less-prominent ethnic groups try name changes, however, ignorance is at least as likely to ensue as enlightenment. Entire library shelves of books become obsolete.

Millions of people permanently lose the thread. Unlike academic specialists, they have other, more personally important things to think about than the changing names of distant ethnic groups. Thus, they never make the mental connection that the mysterious new Inuit their children are studying in school are actually those Eskimos that they liked reading about when they were the same age, or that these new-fangled Roma aren't Romans or Romanians, but are actually the Gypsies who play that wonderful violin music.

In attempts to create a new name unburdened by old prejudices, the name game can end up dissipating the goodwill built up toward the old one.

Much of what little the 6 billion non-Eskimos know about Eskimos is what they learned in grade school: By being brave, hardy and clever, Eskimos could survive in a world of ice and snow. That's not much, but it's not bad, either.

It's generally assumed among up-to-date English-speakers that an ethnic group should be called by whatever it calls itself, not what outsiders call it.

Yet, practically no one outside of the Anglosphere worries about this principle at all. For example, Inuit Eskimos call French Canadians "Uiuinaat" or "Guiguinaat," from the French word "oui" for "yes." Anglophones are known as "Qallunaat."


Considering how hard it is for English-speakers to correctly pronounce words even from other European languages that share our basic alphabet, asking Americans to accurately transliterate words from radically different phonetic structures would appear close to hopeless.

It's become common, for instance, for Western journalists to refer to the "Qu'ran" instead of the traditional spelling of "Koran," but virtually no American understands what sound the apostrophe in "Qu'ran" stands for. Nor could many even produce that sound properly.

Beyond the pronunciation difficulties, outsiders' names are actually often more useful than insiders' names for themselves.

Outsiders can enjoy a broader perspective that lets them see the similarities among ethnic subdivisions. In contrast, insiders can be so obsessed with small differences between themselves and their kin that they can't see the forest for the trees. That's why insiders' names -- like "Inuit" -- sometimes discriminate against smaller groups, such as the Yup'ik Eskimos.

Tom Alton, the editor of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks' Alaska Native Language Center, pointed out, "The name 'Eskimo' is considered derogatory in some areas of the North but is still acceptable in Alaska, mainly because Alaska includes Yup'ik people who are closely related culturally and linguistically but are not Inuit. 'Eskimo' includes Yup'ik as well as Inuit."


Further, the word "Eskimo" is less ethnocentric than is "Inuit," which implicitly draws a distinction between "the people" (the Inuit) and all those non-Inuit. Ironically, the movement to change ethnic names to those used by the groups themselves frequently restores these kind of self-glorifying terms. For example, Comanche Indians are now supposed to called the "Numunuu," which means "the people."

The fashion of renaming the Bushmen of Southwestern Africa as the "San" exemplifies many of the problems with the name game. University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending, who has lived with the famous tongue-clicking hunter-gatherers said, "In the 1970s the name 'San' spread in Europe and America because it seemed to be politically correct, while 'Bushmen' sounded derogatory and sexist."

Unfortunately, the hunter-gatherers never actually had a collective name for themselves in any of their own languages. "San" was actually the insulting word that the herding Khoi people called the Bushmen. ("Khoi" is the term used by those who were labeled "Hottentots" by the Dutch. As you can probably guess by now, "Khoi" means "the real people.")

Harpending noted, "The problem was that in the Kalahari, 'San' has all the baggage that the 'N-word' has in America. Bushmen kids are graduating from school, reading the academic literature, and are outraged that we call them 'San.'"


"I knew very well," he said, "That one did not call someone a San to his face. I continued to use Bushman, and I was publicly corrected several times by the righteous. It quickly became a badge among Western academics: If you say 'San' and I say 'San,' then we signal each other that we are on the fashionable side, politically. It had nothing to do with respect. I think most politically correct talk follows these dynamics."

Latest Headlines