An angry tweet blasting a frequently used term for some Alaska Natives is getting significant play online, amid changing views of the word’s meaning and usefulness today.

More than 31,000 people have liked Rachelle Aga’s Monday tweet and more than 12,000 have shared the message, which begins by repeating the phrase “Eskimo is a slur” half a dozen times.

In a subsequent tweet, Aga goes on to say the term was previously equated with “raw meat eater.”

Aga, who says she's an Alaska Native who identifies as Alutiiq, said the tweet was inspired after having a friend from Central Oregon referred to her as an Eskimo. 

"It turns out that her and many others were not aware that this term was made out to be offensive towards northern natives," Aga said. 

"I have received many responses from both sides of the spectrum-- which I would have never expected," She continued. "Some people were astonished and horrified at the fact that they were never taught this in schools. And were even encouraged to use such a word because of the use by teachers and it’s presence used so casually textbooks. Others have disagreed with me and even challenged me as to why I am wrong because of articles such as Wikipedia not stating the true history of the word completely.

"I wish people wouldn’t discredit an authentic Alaska Native over their thoughts and opinions upon the true prejudice history of the word. However, I am glad that I have educated many people about how and why the e-word is a racial slur."

Eskimo” has generally fallen into disfavor, according to “Frontiers with Rhonda McBride,” as individual tribes instead seek recognition by their own names like Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Inupiat. A major tipping point in the dispute came in 2016 when Alaska Airlines apologized for an ad campaign focusing on the face adorning its planes’ tail fins entitled “Meet Our Eskimo.”

Paul Ongtooguk, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Education, said he is Inupiat and can be considered “Eskimo” himself.

Ongtooguk – a Bering Straits Native Corp. shareholder who graduated from high school in Nome – said his consideration of the term occurs against a backdrop of Western conceptions of history, which place industrialized societies above “hunter-gatherers” although each are optimized for their environment.

“It’s like when you get chicken pox as a kid: it immunizes you from other ways of understanding history, and it immunizes you from understanding that this is a deeply racist way of understanding history,” Ongtooguk said. “A better way is, if anyone thinks this is primitive, let them spend a year competing out there with the Inupiat.”

Ongtooguk said people’s views of the word “Eskimo” have changed over time, much as the black-rights group NAACP’s acronym originally stood for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“If Eskimo is a slur never to be used you have to consider Arctic Slope Regional Corp., which is made up of Eskimo – one of its longest-serving, most productive subsidiaries was called Eskimo, Inc.,” Ongtooguk said. “It wasn’t someone slurring them that made them use the term; it was self-selected.”

Other self-named examples Ongtooguk cited include the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Eskimo Walrus Commission.

Canadians consider the term “Eskimo” pejorative and instead use “First Nations,” a phrase Ongtooguk said has been adopted by the First Alaskans Institute. The most common reference on the Last Frontier remains “Alaska Native,” not to be confused with “native Alaskans” who are lifelong residents of any race.

“Others will say, ‘I prefer Alaska Native,’ but that’s getting pushed back by some people; I get tired of it because of the mush some media make of it,” Ongtooguk said. “When they get interchanged, both terms lose their usefulness.”

How Ongtooguk refers to himself, he said, is complicated by the popular use of “Eskimo.”

“My dad’s position was that when someone would ask, and this happens to me outside of Alaska – people ask, ‘Are you Eskimo?’ -- I say, ‘Yes, I’m Inupiat Eskimo,’” Ongtooguk said. “If someone uses the term you can say, ‘I’m Inupiat,’ but the problem is that someone won’t remember it 10 minutes later.”

Liz Thomas contributed to this report.

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