Inuit vs. Eskimo

You will notice that I use the term Eskimo in this blog. No, it’s not because I’m an insensitive jerk who prefers to use derogatory terms for people. It is because in Alaska, where I grew up and where the languages that fascinate me reside, Inuit is not preferred over Eskimo.

In Canada, the term Inuit is preferred over Eskimo, which is considered offensive. What many people do not know is that using the term Inuit as a blanket term for all arctic people in Alaska is offensive – the opposite of the situation in Canada. Why? Because there are two main groups of arctic people in Alaska, the Yupik and the Iñupiat. The Yupik peoples are Eskimo but not Inuit. Quite understandably, they don’t like being called Inuit because they aren’t Inuit (and the word doesn’t even exist in Yupik languages). This means that it’s better to call arctic Alaskans Eskimos, not Inuit – or better yet, call them Yupik if they are Yupik, Iñupiat if they are Iñupiat, Cup’ik if they are Cup’ik, and so on.

So, to sum it up:

  • Canada: Inuit
  • United States (i.e., Alaska): Eskimo, which includes Yupik and Inuit peoples
  • Greenland: Kalaallit (Inuit may be acceptable as well, but I simply don’t know)
  • Russia: Eskimo (albeit in Russian, Эскимо). Mostly Yupik peoples, with the exception of Inuit on Big Diomede. Sirenikski may be separate from both Yupik and Inuit (hat tip to Anthony Woodbury).

Also, the name of the language family encompassing their languages is Eskimo-Aleut. Within Eskimo, there’s a division between Yupik and Inuit languages, much like the division between the cultural groups. Replacing Eskimo-Aleut with *Inuit-Aleut would be incorrect.

Note: contrary to popular belief, there are also non-Eskimo indigenous peoples in Alaska: the Aleut (Unangan) as well as many different Native American groups. I’ve seen at least one popular American movie set in Southeast Alaska that called the local indigenous people Inuit – a gross error, because the peoples of that region are neither Iñupiat nor Yupik.

27 Comments

  1. buzzmc said,

    Very interesting. I imagine if you go up to Alaska, for example, you can just play it safe by calling people by their proper name (ie. Mr. John). I wonder if there is a good “dummies” book for Alaska or the frozen parts of Canada. I found one, but it was really just for tourists. On p. 16 it gets into the different people. I wonder if you would agree with everything they have to say.

  2. Anthony Woodbury said,

    You write:

    ” * Russia: Eskimo (albeit in Russian, Эскимо). There are no Inuit linguistic or cultural groups there, only Yupik.”

    Not quite. On Big Diomede, which is part of Russia, the people speak the same variety of Iñupiat spoken on Little Diomede, in the US.

    Also–at least until quite recently–there was a variety of Eskimo in the Russian Arctic known as Sirenik(ski), spoken only on the Sirenik Peninsula in its last days, which most specialists now view as being it’s own, third branch–neither Yupik nor Inuit.

    Tony Woodbury

  3. tulugaq said,

    Oh, I’d forgotten about Diomede. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. John Concilus said,

    Hello,

    I think the folks living on Big Diomede were removed many years ago to Uleen and other parts of Chukotka, and many of their descendents are still in Uelen.

    The only people on Big Diomede are soldiers who do long postings at this base:

    http://www.odyssei.com/travel-gallery/79808.html

    You can see this Russian observation post from the village on Little Diomede. The picture shows the village looking from the Russian side:

    http://www.odyssei.com/travel-gallery/79810.html

    You can contact the Diomede School teachers and students through their website at:

    http://diomede.bssd.org/blog/

    Hope this is of interest. Their steerable webcam should be back up next week.

    Regards,

    John

  5. Ishmael said,

    My mom proudly referred to herself as Eskimo, and so do I. I whip out “Central Yupik” and explain the relationship to other related and unrelated Alaska Native groups if they want specifics.

  6. Ac said,

    Like this. eing a Yupik Eskimo I have to explain this all the time.

  7. Mike Swanson said,

    If you’re looking for a term for the Indigenous people of Alaska, the universal term is Alaska Native. That term encompasses the Yup’ik, Cup’ik, Aleut, Sugpiaq, Inupiaq, Eyak, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimpsian, and Athbascan peoples (and anyone I might have overlooked). As I understand it, the term Inuit only applies to the Arctic people of Canada who share ancestry and language patterns with the Inupiat and Kalaallit. Indigenous Canadians who may be Athabaskan (note the different spelling they use in Canada), as well as other tribes are often called First Nations. I like this term better than Native American which sometimes stirs populist sentiment like “I’m a native American. I was born here.” When you call yourself First Nations, there is no dispute. You were there first. There is a foundation in Alaska called First Alaskans, which also makes sense semantically.

  8. John Chase said,

    eskimo power!

  9. Linda said,

    I am a registered nurse, from Canada, who will soon be working in outpost communities of northern Ontario. Although I have studied First Nations a fair bit, I am admittedly limited in my knowledge of Inuit vs Eskimo people and culture. This post and it’s replies were excellent; very enlightening. Thank you all for sharing what you know. It will help me be a better nurse to the communities I serve.
    :o)

  10. tulugaq said,

    Off-topic comments removed.

  11. Dover said,

    Thanks for posting. It was very useful for knowing the detailed specifics and differences among Northern indigenous peoples. Growing up in southern Canada I was never taught, in detail about the many varied indigenous groups living in the artic, which is a shame. Thanks again.

  12. jonzjenn said,

    As John Chase said Eskimo power, but since I am new to blogging, mostly I am called Eskimo when I am overseas, but when I came back to the States I become Native, or at least called. but mostly I refer myself just a person but when I am called Eskimo I become safe, my people represent peace, once when we were entering Zurich, while waiting for my group, I asked the security who told me “just joy our country”, why check my other people in our group, he just said “your people can not make instrument of destruction”, “and there is no record of violence toward any humans”, and after saying that he turn to serve and check other, while I was left to wonder. now, I in my sixties I enjoy traveling at times with just driver lic, and tribe id. and here it is in real Eskimo there is no, word for “fear, hate, nor love in “real Eskimo” like me maybe?…Eskimo speaker tell me….

  13. Arnór Bogason said,

    Inuit is indeed very accepted in Greenland.

  14. Aleut inuit | Brooza said,

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  16. Nancy said,

    Just to clarify: aboriginal groups in Canada are Inuit, Metis, and First Nations. There are a bunch of different aboriginal groups inside the First Nations classification, but Inuit is not one. And here, Inuit is the actual name of the group so that’s why we refer to them as Inuit. And we definitely don’t use Inuit as a blanket term for everyone living in the territories (I’m not saying that’s what you meant, just making sure it’s clear!).

  17. John McCormick said,

    Just aside from the point, there is more than just the Inuit in Canada, I am of Inuvialuit decent, and would rather be called Inuvialuit over Inuit.

  18. Joanne Robertson said,

    I really like what Mike Swanson said and I wholly agree. “Alaska Native” encompasses all groups. I also like to use “Indigenous” over “Native.” When it comes down to it, I am Inupiaq, not Eskimo. To me (personally), “Eskimo” is pejorative and it is not how I identify myself. I dislike how there is always a need to classify people and use blanket terms but I also understand that in academia one must choose something – in which case I still choose Alaska Native.

  19. Frances Hall said,

    I am the English grandmother of a Inuvialuit grandson (he has a wonderful diverse ancestry including Hawaiian). His mother prefers to be called Eskimo although we live in the Yukon, Canada. Her great Grandmother was born on Big Diomede. Your blog is fascinating. I am attempting to learn more about Tyler’s diverse cultural ancestry so that when I sing to him or tell him stories I get the names of his peoples right. Personally I think labels are for jars – but I also think children should take pride in their ancestry too.l

  20. patrick taalak hugo said,

    my name is taalak hugo and i was born inupiaq and proud of it.just because a different dialect or country use a term to identify themselves does not make them a different class.Going to bia indian boarding school as a teen we were classified natives. there were aleuts / yupiks/athabascans/ halfbreeds and colored people and we fell under the same category and we were punished for speaking our language even just for a few words.it is different now where there is bilingual classes in elementary and in high schools .in lower 48′s they ask us if we are inuits .i just tell them yes so i don’t have to try and explain to them the difference between inuit or inupiaq. they do not know the difference. they ask me if i still live in igloo and i tell them yes i do and it is two- story and built in freezer. i strongly believe & know that i did not originate from a monkey and that my ancestors did not came across the ice-bridge because we were already here. enough said for now.

  21. Frances Hall said,

    You sound a bit angry and I don’t fault you for it. Those schools did a grand job of alienating children from their families. These schools operated in Ireland, Wales and Scotland too, ensuring that Celtic children lost their language and thus their history. I live in the Yukon and even though I am not First Nation I am often asked while I am in the South if I live in an Igloo too. Like you I tell them yes and its awfully difficult to keep the central heating going! Be proud of who you are – after all we don’t call you the First Nations for nothing!
    Coming over the land bridge thing – take pride that your ancestors did that and so long ago – thousands of years ago – there was no one here before your ancestors – so you guys get first dibs!
    Darwin? it was not monkey’s but Apes and all life on earth share an common ancestry – a million years ago some itty bitty ape creature stood up and took a walk on the African plains and she is our ancestor. No shame in that. Just think of the struggle all of mankind has had to get where we are today – well not much pride in that is there is some cases – but well we are still evolving I hope!

  22. Erica said,

    Fascinating. However, could someone clarify something regarding the Inuit Circumpolar Council? Eben Hopson Jr., who was highly instrumental in the founding of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, was Inupiat. Am I correct that the Inupiat of Alaska share a common ancestry with Canada’s Inuit? Would it then be derogatory to refer to someone of Inupiat heritage as Inuit?

  23. RoboticRAven said,

    I am unclear on the difference between Inupiat and Inupiaq. Could you explain that? Thanks!

  24. minnie paul said,

    Hi my father is yup’ik I hate to say that I never got to me him .but would love to know more about that side of my family culture

  25. Austin said,

    My girlfriend is from Alaska and is inuit (Thats why I’m looking this up) But she finds it offensive when I call her an eskimo. She says it means “Wild flesh eater.” Why is this if she’s from Alaska? I’m very confused, somebody please help!

  26. jon said,

    I use it to alot, because when people as what Yup’ik is I just say Its Eskimo, and leave at that, maybe just let them wonder about it. Here it is I am Eskimo, or Yup’ik actually Inuit and yuit are the same word same genetic code all the way from Aluet to Greenland. Now that I am older or old I don’t mind about it, when I was young I felt it, but then I grew up with my grandparents and my grandparents encouraged me who I am, but in theirs it was “Happiness they posses” and known for it. I wasn’t or become or learn the actually its…See at one point in Eskimo, there wasn’t any word for ‘Fear, Hope, Love nor hate’ in our language, but now we make the words, in my generation, In their words didn’t exist. or their world at one point….now Inuit or yuit they might look it, but they can not speak the language or able to write and read it. I was born in 1950′s so Yup’ik Language was the first I learn and reading and writing it all came from the translated Yup’ik Bible…Now what tell me so I can believe you.

  27. paul said,

    We don’t even use blanket terms where I live…if needed, we say First Nations. But usually we just say what they are. I have Gwich’in friends and I call them Gwich’in. I know Ktunaxa people, Sinixt people, Dene, Cree…etc. Every group is so diverse…I just really try to avoid blanket terms (:

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