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.


53 thoughts on “Inuit vs. Eskimo

  1. buzzmc August 26, 2008 / 10:08 am

    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 August 27, 2008 / 5:14 am

    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 August 27, 2008 / 5:18 am

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

  4. John Concilus September 4, 2008 / 4:33 pm


    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:

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

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

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



  5. Ishmael April 26, 2009 / 4:10 pm

    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 September 24, 2009 / 11:06 am

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

  7. Mike Swanson January 1, 2010 / 2:57 pm

    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 January 1, 2010 / 3:37 pm

    eskimo power!

  9. Linda May 5, 2010 / 11:31 am

    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.

  10. tulugaq December 30, 2010 / 5:08 pm

    Off-topic comments removed.

  11. Dover January 27, 2011 / 8:25 pm

    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 September 26, 2011 / 6:10 pm

    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 November 25, 2011 / 4:17 am

    Inuit is indeed very accepted in Greenland.

  14. Nancy August 15, 2012 / 12:49 pm

    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!).

  15. John McCormick September 9, 2012 / 6:02 pm

    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.

  16. Joanne Robertson December 26, 2012 / 11:11 pm

    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.

  17. Frances Hall January 3, 2013 / 6:44 pm

    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

  18. patrick taalak hugo March 22, 2013 / 9:57 pm

    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 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.

  19. Frances Hall March 24, 2013 / 2:34 pm

    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!

  20. Erica April 23, 2013 / 8:20 am

    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?

  21. RoboticRAven June 20, 2013 / 2:43 pm

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

  22. minnie paul December 21, 2013 / 11:04 am

    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

  23. Austin January 16, 2014 / 8:43 am

    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!

  24. jon January 16, 2014 / 12:58 pm

    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.

  25. paul May 22, 2014 / 3:27 pm

    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 (:

  26. tulugaq November 13, 2014 / 8:55 am

    Thanks for the link. Again, that’s Canada, where there are only Inuit, not Yupit. The situation is different in Alaska.

  27. Aviva Herman Waldstein December 23, 2014 / 8:15 pm

    It’s fascinating to hear all the different opinions and experiences. Also interesting to hear of the variety of peoples, and nice to hear that some people grew up with the local language and culture. Thanks to tulgaq for starting the discussion and to everyone here for the informative answers…

  28. Jesús February 18, 2015 / 11:50 pm

    I have a question for you. There is an object that astronomers call the “Eskimo Nebula”: What is your opinion on the name? Do you find it offensive, do you like it, or do you just do not care? Some people have proposed stopping the use of the term and instead calling it the “Clownface Nebula” or the “Lion’s Head Nebula” (the names are based of alleged resemblances). Would you prefer that, would you mind that there is no Eskimo Nebula name anymore, or do you just do not care? I am interested in your answers.

  29. Chippewa Ferguson October 1, 2015 / 8:12 am

    I spent two years in Kotzebue (1958-59) and while visiting the village of Noatak was told that Eskimos Were wary of Indians. This threw me. Are there native “Indians” in Alaska?

  30. tulugaq October 3, 2015 / 8:32 pm

    Yes, there certainly are.

  31. Baxter January 28, 2016 / 1:20 am

    Iñupiat is the plural of Iñupiaq

  32. Luke Troy September 1, 2016 / 8:18 pm

    I really did think that was weird when I watched mystery Alaska. They call out the Yankee producer (Would Alaska count as non Yankee?) for being insensitive when they want to call the team the Eskimos. The guy says “but we aren’t Eskimos, and the native people that do love here call themselves Inuit.” and I thought ‘that doesn’t sound right. It can’t be Aztecs and Mayans and Navaho and Cherokee and Mohawk and Sioux and all these different people all the way up to the south of Canada and then just Inuit across the rest of the top of the continent, if for no other reason than populations would have been so small and spread apart that there was no way all those people could retain one name for themselves. The majority probably never heard the word Inuit until we started calling them that.

  33. jon September 4, 2016 / 11:46 am

    I am still an Eskimo see most off the younger generations are not educated so are most of our people who have been drinking alcohol most Lives.

  34. Jennifer Jordan September 7, 2016 / 8:05 am

    This blog and all of the comments are fascinating to me! Since my trip to Alaska and Yukon, I have a great hunger to learn more about the First Nation and First Alaskan people.

  35. dijital alışveriş February 28, 2017 / 8:47 am

    Google’da arama yaparken makalenizi buldum siteniz dikkatimi çekti teşekkürlerimi sunarım

  36. Dean July 16, 2017 / 6:59 pm

    My mother grew up in a place called Candle, near Buckland and Deering Alaska. It was a gold mining town but no longer is there. Mother went to school in Kotzebue and we refer to ourselves in our language as Inupaiq (singular) Iñupiat (plural). Our languages are further divided as coastal and inland or up river. While similar and originally once the same, differences occur. Whether coastal or up river we are all of the same, Iñupiat. Traditionally we are western alaska and northern coastal people, Yupik are further south, and also coastal. Further inland and south would be those of Indian decent. Aleut, Haida, Athabaskan, Tlingit, and others.
    I my self am only half Inupaiq, my father’s family history is of European descent. I walk in two worlds with one spirit. Our past is an oral history of us. Only recently has the language been written down, and now there is an app for that. Me as a person, I strongly identify with my native Alaskan heritage, with the knowledge that there is an influence of my fathers ancestry.

  37. Darren Saunders November 9, 2017 / 4:33 pm

    There is currently a dispute about the name of the Canadian CFL football team “the Edmonton Eskimos”. They have possessed this name for many years without dispute. If there is such people that live in Alaska that are proud of this name and identify with it than that is enough for me to except the name and continue to be proud of it. The orgins of the name come from the french meaning a “weaved shoe”.

  38. majora2001 December 27, 2017 / 3:13 pm

    This reminds me of when I lived in Okinawa. As a Military brat, we’ve moved around a lot, and for three years my family lived in Okinawa, just south of Japan in the Ryukyu islands. Although Okinawa is considered by most to be part of Japan, the natives of Okinawa hate to be called Japanese, and do not consider themselves part of Japan, but rather that they are “Okinawan”, understandably causing a lot of confusion.

  39. Jayne March 20, 2018 / 9:43 pm

    I am Alaska native (Athabaskan), and grew up around the various peoples and groups around the state. After leaving Alaska I have to to explain, pretty much anytime that I talk to someone new, that no, I am not “Eskimo”. Using the word to describe any Alaska native seems to just spread it as legitimate and an actual “type” of Alaska native.. Most of the people I grew up around, including those of Yu’pik decent, do not like to be called Eskimo. However it is entirely preference to that person. I hold no ill will for those that like it but its a blanket term that is not for everyone. When in Alaska, I would recommend playing it safe and not referring to any native as eskimo to avoid causing tension and if someone is native you can ask them what tribal group they are from if they are comfortable talking about it.

  40. Myles November 28, 2018 / 2:44 am

    I was directed to this post after listening to a podcast on the matter that described this blog. This post was from 10 years ago, and I think you might reevaluate based on where the discussion about Eskimo is now. My best estimation is that Eskimo is no longer in favor, if not offensive, at least rather dated, with Inupiaq or Yup’ik being preferred, and Inuit sometimes being used as an imperfect catch-all. Favored terminology does change over time. Indigenous also seems to be starting to be preferred to Native in Alaska, too, if not officially.

  41. Dave Stephenson May 6, 2019 / 1:29 pm

    Myles: You’re presumably referencing academe and citing academics who believe that the word “Eskimo” is politically incorrect and the word “indigenous” should be preferred over “Native” in a wishful pseudo-egalitarian paradise, but the reality on the street in Alaska is far different. I am a Tlingit Indian from Southeast Alaska, and the vast majority of Alaskans, Native and non-Native, say “Native,” or “Indian,” to distinguish ourselves from the Eskimo and Aleut groups, who are non-Indian natives. Most Alaska Natives, moreover, reject the word “Inuit,” because it excludes the non-Inupiaq Eskimo nations like Yupik, Alutiiq, Chupik. The word “Inuit,” doesn’t exist in these languages, yet they are members of the same the same ethnicity as Inupiaqs and Canadian Inuits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s