Is the word Eskimo inappropriate to use? Should I say Inuit? Eskimo vs Inuit, what’s the correct term to use?

Is the word Eskimo inappropriate to use? Should I say Inuit?
Eskimo vs Inuit, what’s the correct term to use?

The word, Eskimo is fading from use. Most Natives of the Arctic regions from Greenland to Chukotka (Russia) prefer the term Inuit as a collective nominative. More correctly two distinctive groups could be the Yupik in northeast Russia, and western Alaska, and the Inuit in northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Even better is to use the correct local name of the different native groups… Kalaallit, Inupiat, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Sugpiaq, Unangax̂, Aleut, etc.

Are they even one people?

Yes, they are.

eskimo vs inuit

About 9000 years BC, the Bering Strait opened up and closed the land connection between Siberia and America. For a period of 20.000 years before that, people could migrate from Asia to Alaska dry-shod. The whole American continent was first populated over the Bering land bridge.

In the beginning, the Laurentide Ice Sheet blocked the way south, so the new immigrants had to stay more or less in Alaska. But as the Ice melted new lands opened up for exploration. Many went south, but some went east. We don’t know much about these early settlers but what we do know is that about 4500 years ago, Paleo-Inuit were present in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.

Then, around 1000 AD, a new group expanded eastward through Canada. These were the Thule people who had been living around the Bering strait for a very long time. But for some reason, in just a few hundred years, they spread all the way to Greenland, and subsequently pushed other groups back. 

The Thule were able to process iron, and that could have been a reason for their fast expansion. By the 14th century, they were present in all of today’s Inuit areas. These Thule are the Inuit’s ancestors.

That’s why they are tied together.

So, the Inuit spread across the Arctic less than a thousand years ago. Since then the different groups have developed somewhat different traditions and languages. The Yupik language is spoken mostly around the original location of the Thule: western Alaska and Siberia. 

Someone could look at the normal map (Google map) and note a long distance between Alaska and Greenland. But using a different angle, it becomes obvious that the polar region actually is rather limited. And apart from the extreme environment spot on the North pole, the regions around it, together with the sea ice, could be seen as one single continent… And a reasonably small continent. The Inuit population has conquered and today, inhabit this part of the globe. It’s their land. 

The stupid borders…

Unfortunately, their land is divided into various nations, even different continents. There are other peoples all over the world facing exactly the same issue. The national borders, sometimes drawn with a pen on a map without any knowledge about the realities of the territory, divide and separate populations, groups, and even families. 

The white man has a dubious reputation in some parts of our planet. He brings diseases, he brings guns and warfare, he brings alcohol and he has a peculiar idea about land… He likes to put fences and flags into the ground and then this part is this, and that part is that. 

The Europeans, without understanding the ethnic and territorial facts, have treated the Inuit like second-class citizens for centuries, in the US, Canada, Russia (The Soviet Union), and Denmark. In recent years many of the Indigenous people present on all continents all over the world, rightfully have reclaimed some of their lost rights and privileges. 

The Sami of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia is one example. Their Saami Council, founded in 1956, is a voluntary organization dealing with Saami policy tasks within these different nations.

constructing an igloo ArcticIn the same way, the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), founded in 1977, is a body that represents all Inuit from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka in Siberia on matters of international importance.

We all want to be called by the correct name.

So, back to the name. Eskimo vs Inuit.

Inuit is the name for those previously called Eskimo. The Inuit Circumpolar Council decided in 1977 after having debated Eskimo vs Inuit, to prefer the term Inuit instead of the previously used Eskimo. The Inuit have never referred to themselves as Eskimo. In Canada and Greenland, the term has a derogative significance. This supposedly has to do with some interpreters having the word Eskimo meaning “Eater of raw meat”.

But it is normal that one would prefer naming oneself instead of having a complete stranger telling you what you’re supposed to be called. And that, in a strange language too. I believe it’s as simple as that. 

aurora borealis

The decision to use Inuit for all, was a somewhat pragmatic compromise. 

Most people would have had a hard time distinguishing exactly who they would be talking about. And having one, single, and easy way to substitute Eskimo for something else, would be a great help. 

The eastern Inuit agreed, but the linguistically distinct group of Yupik didn’t like the idea. The term Inuit would mean that they still have to call themselves something that wasn’t in their own language. 

  • The word Inuit is the plural of Inuk meaning person, in Inuit language. Thus Inuit means People.
  • The word Yupik means real person from the term Yuk, meaning person, in Yupik language.

So, even though Inuit is accepted everywhere in the Arctic, a more correct way to address those from western, central, and southern Alaska would be Yup’ik (written with the accent.), and the people of Siberia and S:t Lawrence island as Yupik.  

Here are some more rules when addressing the American Indigenous people.

Generally accepted rules about First Nation and First People:

  • The term Inuit replaces the term Eskimo. 
  • The term First Nation replaces the term Indian.
  • First Peoples is an all-encompassing term that includes Inuit, First Nations, and Métis.

The groups within the Inuit community.

eskimo vs inuit

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The correct term for the people formerly known as Eskimo, is Inuit. Better still is to refer to the western groups as Yupik or Yup’ik.