Thursday, January 24, 2008

The "E" Word Versus The "I" Word

When I'm travelling outside of Nunavut I tend to get asked what term should be used to describe the majority of Nunavut's residents. The words "Inuit" and "Eskimo" seem to be bandied about quite a bit. Often when people mention the word "Eskimo" I find that they are using it either out of innocent ignorance (understandable perhaps) or, in rarer cases, stupidity. I get the sense from most people I talk to outside of Nunavut that there is a general acknowledgment that "Eskimo" is an outdated term but that they may not know the correct words to ue or may find it too awkward to ask. Anyhow, I thought I would take a moment and address this issue as best I can.

The term most often used in the past (and still used among certain segments of the population) was "Eskimo". While familiar to most, and perhaps not necessarily pejorative (though it certainly can be), this word is rarely used today. In pre-contact times, the word that was always by Nunavummiut (or the people that would come to be known as Nunavummiut) when referring to themselves was "Inuit". Inuit simply means "people" in Inuktitut, the language of much of Nunavut. (Inuk = 1 person, Inuuk = 2 people, Inuit = 3 or more people).

It should also be mentioned that the word "Inuit" does not describe all residents of the polar world. It refers mainly to people of the Eastern Canadian Arctic. "Inuuinnaq" is a word I've heard used to refer to those of the Central Arctic while the correct term in the West (we're heading into Northwest Territories territory here) is Inuvialuit. Inuit can be even further divided down as there are terms to describe smaller sub-groups (Nattilingmiut, in the vicinity of what is now Talurjuaq, or Spence Bay for example). Heading over into Alaska, you have the Yupik and Inupiat.

The "E" word is still employed by linguists, sociologists, archaeologists and various other "ologists". The word "Eskimo-Aleut" may be used but it only refers to the language group of these different peoples and not any one individual sub-group. There are language commonalities between all these smaller groups as one might expect, but I digress. Simply put though, using the "E" word to describe any one of these groups or an individual would be inaccurate.

I've come across a few different etymologies (entomologies?) for the word "eskimo", either one of which may be definitive. I tried to track down something a bit more concrete but I know there are a few readers of my blog that are more knowledgeable on this subject than me so I invite them comment or correct me. From the different sources, then -

A) "Eskimo" was created by a French priest circa 1611. It was simply a corruption of the word "Eskimantsik", a Cree word for "eaters of raw meat";

B) "Eskimo" derives from an Innu-Montagnais word meaning "people who speak a different language" OR

C) "Eskimo" may mean "snowshoe netters" (source: Wikipedia)

A couple Inuit staff I discussed this issue with told me they see the "E" word as an old-fashioned moniker. They never used it themselves when talking about each other. It was always passed down to them as a word used by others to describe them but quite simply in the words of one of my colleagues, "That was their word for us and we have our own word that we use."

So there you have it. I hope I haven't muddied the waters here. Perhaps there is someone out there that can add to, or clarify, my little ramble. I'm just explaining things the best I can as they were explained to me. It is late here so any mistakes are my own (aren't they always).


Nancy said...

I find it wierd when non-Inuit use the word "Qallunat" (multiple spellings obviously, possibly all different from the one I've used here) to refer to themselves. Especially when the alleged etymology of that word is no more flattering or accurate than the old word "Eskimo" was.

I never use Qallunat to refer to myself, and it's actually something that secretly (until now!) drives me crazy when I hear other non-inuit use it to refer to ourselves.

It doesn't bug me when Inuit people use it as I know they mean no harm, but I do wonder when it will be recognized as no more appropriate a word than "Eskimo" was. Those using "Eskimo" also meant no harm.

Generically speaking I'd call myself a southerner, or a Canadian, or a Quebecer (although of course the Quebecois might disagree), or a North American, depending on the context, and if race is the issue I'm caucasian.

Sorry, off on a tangent, but the politics of naming and re-naming is a very interesting topic.

jen said...

I was watching Oprah one day and saw a Native Alaskan. She was referring to herself as Eskimo, and talking about how that was what they call themselves there. It was curious to me because I thought 'Eskimo' was supposedly not a nice thing. Have you heard anything about that? Very informative post!

I have to say that I don't mind being called Qallunaat or hearing it. What I heard was it just meant someone who was not inuk, not necessarily meaning white. Maybe this meaning is wrong?

Way Way Up said...


I'm not sure the word "qallunaaq" is inherently unflattering. The word itself is a composite of "qallu" meaning "eyebrow" and "naaq" meaning stomach. The translation I was given for "qallunaaq" is "bushy eyebrows" which I always have to chuckle over. Though I rarely run into this, I've found when this word is used as a put down it is the tone of voice used in speaking it rather than the word itself. Every culture has a term to describe people other than themselves. "Barbarian" was used by ancient Greeks to describe any people other than themselves.


I'm not a huge Oprah fan but I would have liked to have seen that epsisode. I think "Eskimo" is used more in the US than Canada so perhaps it is just more accepted there. I'm not really sure. At any rate, I don't mind being refered to as a qallunaaq. I tend to play it up and I seemed to have developed a bit of a cult following among the younger kids at my school because of it.

This post is an example of why I sometimes long to teach math rather than social studies. 1+1 will always be 2 but with socio-political issues there never seems to be a correct

Clare said...

Eskimo, as I understand it derives from Esquimaux which is the corruption of a cree work for raw meat eater. A descriptive word, much like qallunat is. You can make almost any word into an insult by inflection and circumstance. I had no problem describing myself as a cop, but there were people who would use it as an insult.

A while back I had a conversation with someone from the southern United States and when they used "Eskimo" I pointed out that people here preferred to be called Inuit. The person launched in a discourse about who black Americans kept changing what they wanted to be called, and implied that you should be able to call someone what you wanted. My reply then is the same here, it isn't a difficult thing to call a people by the term they prefer. It is simply a matter of respecting them and there wishes, be it black Americans, Natives, or Inuit, or in the case of Native Alaskan's "Eskimo" which is I understand what they prefer.

I don't mind being called a qallunat up here, I've never found it to be used as an epithet, people have found other less polite terms when they've wanted to insult my race.

Locals here do occasionally call each other "eskimo", I've always heard it done in a good natured way, but... it is clear it wouldn't be appropriate for me to do it.

Most people here don't mind strangers calling them eskimo because they realize that many people just don't know what they prefer. Sometimes they'll correct them, sometimes not.

And a couple of notes on ethnology of Eskimo/Esquimaux. The whalers and later English visitors/residents often further shortened it to "eski" which eventually changed to "husky". I believe that the word for the dog breed derived from this usage Eskimo dog = Husky dog, but I'm not 100 percent sure. And no, it wasn't always used as a simple non-insulting word.

Kate Nova said...

I found it really bizarre that the art gallery/museum in Iqaluit still uses the old "Eskimo Art" certification tags for each of the pieces it sells. Last time I was in there to purchase something I asked the gallery assistant (an Inuk) about it and he said something to the effect that it's better than being called by your disc number - E5-1234, or whatever.

I think the naming of oneself is also very interesting. I guess I am one of those annoying people who uses the word qallunaat to describe myself, mostly because that is how I am described on a regular, mainly matter-of-fact, basis. I don't refer to myself as a Southerner because I consider myself to be a Northerner at this point in my life. Even if Iqaluit is pretty southern by most standards. :)

Nancy said...

I find it interesting that, (as I knew would be the case), that people don't understand that "Qallunat" and "Eskimo" are the same type of word- a descriptive word for a group of people considered to be "other". Why would it be OK to name me after a physical trait of some male explorers who left their eyebrow trimmers back in Europe, but not name the folks who called them that after their trait of eating raw meat? (although etymology of either word is not consistenly agreed on)

Using descriptor words is either proper or not. Personally, neither word inherently bugs me, but if one has that rule (and I would never use the word "Eskimo" to describe Inuit as I know it's not correct), then one should apply the principle consistently. Really, I'm just a "People". :-)

Interesting discussion!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting indeed.

One of the caretakers at our school uses the term Eskimo for people who are of mixed race- Inuit and non-Inuit parents. Before Aowyn was born, he asked if she was Eskimo or qallunaat (I guess even though Ian is my husband, there was still a question of who my baby's father would be!).

This discussion reminds me of one we had in one of our BEd classes discussing the labeling of students with special needs but the same could be applied to many groups - they are people with disabilities not disabled people. This sort of feeds into this discussion here when you think about how "developmentally delayed" used to be "idiot" and then later "retard" until it began being used as an insult.

-jennifer of nunablog

Bonnieupnorth said...

Darcy, Small world but today at lunch after church here in Rankin I met a couple here who were originally from Arctic Bay. Julie and Manasie, the latter who is related to Mortie. When travelling they said very often the customs people would not understand their last name and mistake for different nationalities from Hawaiian to Philipino. Julie taught there about 10-15 years ago.

Clare said...

Of course qallunat and eskimo are simply descriptive words, although I don't understand why it is all or nothing with "proper or not". White, black and redskin are also simply descriptive words. Whether or not one SHOULD be offended is immaterial if one is. Today I don't know of anyone who would consider calling a Native a Redskin, but black is an acceptable term (I believe) for African Americans.

Personally I'm not offended when someone calls me a qallunat and I often use the term to describe myself, but I've not had a negative experience with the word. I'm not offended by being called white, but I should be because I'm not white, but more of a pale corpulent pink. I would be offended if someone used that as a term for my race though (You pale corpulent pinks get all the jobs).

Certainly terms like Inuit and Dene mean the people, but just because we don't go around describing ourselves as "the people" doesn't mean it isn't acceptable for other groups to.

Again, to my mind, it is a simple thing to use the term that people prefer when describing themselves. And if one is offended by being called a qallunat then they should (as Nancy has) made that known.

Probably the world would be a better place if we could dispense with all of this and just think of ourselves as human, but I'm afraid that day is a long way off.

Anonymous said...

I love this kind of conversation!

It all depends on what room you are in. Even in Canada, what is the generic term for all aboriginal Canadians? Aboriginal Canadians? Natives? There is no concensus there. Some people (yeah, that's you federal government) even mistakenly use "First Nations" to include Inuit and Metis.

And in the States? Native American? American Indian?

I am Inuk, by the way.

The Inuit vs. Eskimo use is very different than blacks vs. African American (or what other description are out there). Inuit (well, most Inuit) have ALWAYS been known as Inuit. For a while, people have used other words and now we are asserting the word we have always used.

I think the use of Eskimo is okay in some situations when not used in a derogatory way. For example, when I am overseas most people do not know "Inuit" so I use Eskimo. But then I say we use the word Inuit now. Zebedee Nungak of Nunavik (who has a commentary on Friday morning CBC Radio) uses Eskimo often. And there is even a Department of Eskimology at the University of Copenhagen.

There is a transition. For a while, Eskimo had bad connotations for many people. Then the name Inuit became more prevalent. But even at the beginning of the transition, Eskimo was a "bad" word. But now there is some distance to that time and for some people Eskimo is not necessarily a bad word.

Because not all Inuit in Canada (or in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia) have concensus on what word to use, it makes it all harder for the non-Inuit. Some people care very much and some do not. Good luck with the room you are in!

WJM said...

Eskimo doesn't "derive" from Esquimaux; they are the same word, one as rendered by people who wrote English, the other by people who wrote French.

Clare said...

I don't want to be pedantic but I believe Eskimo does derive from Esquimaux or eskimaux. If you look at early journals, such as those of Back, Hall and Richardson of Franklin's first overland expedition you'll see that they use esquimaux or eskimaux and not eskimo. They are very much people who wrote English.

Clare said...

Something that may shed light on the origins of the name is an article in the International Journal of American Linguistics. The article is The 'Eskimo' Name by E. Benveniste. International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jul., 1953), pp. 242-245. Unfortunately it is a pay for view Journal, and I try to resist paying for them. Someone that has access to libraries and inter-library loans might be able to read the full article.

Nancy said...

For the record, I'm not offended, just logical (laughs!).

Kimberlee said...

This is a very interesting discussion! I have been teaching in an Inupiat village in northern Alaska for six years and am asked OFTEN about this very issue.

Over the years, I have heard all of the arguments for the different theories of origin of the word and I do understand that there are Inuit groups that ARE offended by the term "Eskimo." I can only speak for the area where I live and work. The Inupiat of Alaska are not only willing to be called Eskimo...they are PROUD to be called Eskimo. Although the term may have carried a negative connotation in the past, as some have previously mentioned, there may have been enough time/space to have caused a shift in the use of the word. I am not surprised to hear that the woman on Oprah claimed Eskimo as her cultural/ethnic descriptor. I have never met an Inupiat (or a Yup'ik for that matter) who was in the least hesitant to use the term in describing themselves. In this area, being called an Eskimo is received with pleasure and is in no way considered an insult.

On the other hand, I HAVE heard of other Native people of Alaska (and there are many) who are very annoyed (rightfully) when they are assumed to be Eskimo simply because they are Native and from Alaska. People, especially tourists, can be thoughtless and insensitive. As many have already pointed out, it is irresponsible to make assumptions about anyone.