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Episode 43: Behind the Name ‘Eskimo’

By KTVA Alaska 7:10 PM February 21, 2016

The frontiers of language and culture are always changing. Words take on new meanings all the time.

For those of you old enough to remember, there was a time when “cool” referred only to the temperature of something. Nowadays, a slight shift in intonation can turn the meaning of “bad” to “good.” Or more recently, the word “friend” is no longer just a noun but also a verb, when you “friend” someone on Facebook.

Sometimes the use of language is subtle, meant by one group to control another – or used to right a wrong, as in the recent push by college students to rename buildings named after slaveholders.

Here in Alaska, the word “Eskimo” has taken on a life of its own. Although you will not find the word “Eskimo” in any indigenous language in Alaska, it has been used to describe Alaskan’s northernmost peoples going back to the times of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Cook Inlet.

“Eskimo” is a name outsiders have used for the indigenous peoples here – and eventually became widely adopted by Alaska Natives themselves.

In recent years, there’s been a movement to use the names that indigenous peoples call themselves – so instead of Eskimo, the preferred names are Yup’ik, Cup’ik or Inupiat – or Inuit, to address this group of similar cultures collectively.

The debate heated up recently when Alaska Airlines was in the process of giving its Eskimo logo a makeover and used the words “Meet our Eskimo” on its website.

The words launched a social media campaign, calling the airline’s use of the word “our” insensitive and inappropriate, as if to imply that it owned the Eskimo people.

The airline quickly apologized and changed the wording on the website from “our Eskimo” to “the Eskimo.”

By then another debate took off – about whether the use of the word Eskimo should be retired permanently.

This week on Frontiers, we look at what’s behind the name with help from Tiffany Tutiakoff, owner of Northwest Strategies, an Anchorage marketing company. Two language and culture experts weigh in: Paul Ongtooguk, who teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s College of Education, and Roy Mitchell, an anthropological linguist. Mitchell is a researcher for the state, who works with the Alaska Language and Preservation Advisory Council.

We also hear from Marilyn Romano, a regional vice president for Alaska Airlines; Helvi Sandvik, president for the NANA Regional Native Corporation and an Alaska Airlines board member; and Willie Hensley, a longtime Alaska Native leader who teaches at UAA’s College of Business and Public Policy.

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