I answered a letter a while ago, from someone at a museum in Alaska.
They wanted to know why Inuit dislike being called “Eskimos.” After all, many Alaskans don’t mind being called Eskimos, and even seem to dislike the term “Inuit” when southerners try to apply it to them, however well-intentioned.
I am not at all surprised at the confusion. The ascendancy of Inuit culture, through good reportage and the establishment of Nunavut, has conditioned southerners to say “Inuit” instead of “Eskimo.” Southerners have complied beautifully, but at last they are running up against peoples, related to Inuit, who insist that they are Eskimos.
The confusion derives from this sticky fact: Inuit are not Eskimos, and Eskimos are not Inuit.
In simple terms: The Mongol-type peoples of North America begin in Alaska, about four and half thousand years ago. Their numbers grow. They separate into many cultures, generally reflecting different lifestyles and settlement areas. Years creak by, and a few waves of such peoples move east.
Inuit are direct descendants of that most recent eastern arrival, the Thule, those inventive souls who brought new technologies along with them – the culture we recognize as Inuit today.
I have read too many interpretations of “Inuit” as meaning “humans,” probably under the (incorrect) assumption that every culture’s name for itself must mean such a thing.
However, as a long-time translator, I can guarantee you that “Inuit” is a specific term. It means, “The Living Ones Who Are Here.” It denotes a sense of place, of having arrived, a memory that Inuit knew they had kin somewhere else. Thus we see how language acts as a code to preserve heritage.
Conversely, the Alaskans are descended from peoples that stayed in the west. As such, they have their own preferred words for themselves, such as, “Yup’ik” and “Aleut” and “Nunamiut.” Additionally, those westernmost peoples have had much more time to split into many different cultures. Add to this the fact that some First Nations (“American Indian” in the U.S.) peoples also reside in Alaska, so that the resultant west is populated by peoples of Mongol-type, American Indian, and mixed descent.
The far east of North America is much simpler. There was one culture, the “Tunit” (or “Dorset”) here before Inuit. Unfortunately, they are now extinct.
Inuit, therefore, have the luxury of using “Inuit” in a wide context. But even this can get politically tricky, since there are a couple of peoples adjacent to them — “Inuvialuit,” for example — who do not always approve of being called Inuit.
But, generally, one can get away with using “Inuit” as a kind of umbrella term for eastern Mongol-type peoples.
The umbrella term for the far west, Alaska, is “Eskimo.” Alaskans do not seem to mind its use these days, simply because it provides a handy general term. There may be another reason not to mind it, as well.
The old thinking was that it came from Cree, derogatorily meaning, “Eaters of Raw Meat.” It was thought that it was overheard by French missionaries, distorted to “Esquimaux” or “Esquimau,” then Anglicized to “Eskimo.”
It is amazing how widespread this belief has become, so that it is cited by all but the most informed sources. Yet, while remaining a bit of a mystery, the missionary origin of “Eskimo” is pretty much discounted today, since there is some compelling evidence that the word existed in pre-colonial times.
Some researchers have made a good case for it coming from Montagnais vocabulary, literally meaning, “snowshoe net-weaver,” but culturally being a term that indicates any craftsman of great skill. It seems to me that this makes more sense and, if true, would mean that the word is not derogatory after all.
Inuit, however, will never be Eskimos. Existent in the west or not, preferred by Alaskans or not, it was simply never part of their vocabulary. Inuit, after all, have their own name for themselves: Inuit.
Today, “Eskimo” only reminds Inuit of the days when missionaries kidnapped them, dumped flea powder all over them, and assigned “Eskimo numbers” to them, instead of bothering to note the proper name for the culture or the individuals within it.
It all really boils down to choice, the right to accept or reject specific labels at will, the right to be known as one wishes to be. Is that not what freedom is all about?