Alaska Native’s discuss what ‘Eskimo’ means to them

Screenshot of the Alaska Airlines redesigned greeting page before it was changed. (Photo by Blossom Twitchell)
Screenshot of the Alaska Airlines redesigned greeting page before it was changed. (Photo by Blossom Twitchell)

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After Alaska Airlines unveiled a new look for their airplanes and website many Alaska Natives took offense to a phrase they with their new marketing campaign. The phrase that sparked a controversy and a new round of conversations about what the word “Eskimo” means to Alaska Natives.

Alaska Airlines unveiled their new airplane and website designs late last month. Both prominently feature the familiar face of a smiling Alaska Native elder. The website also included the phrase “Meet our Eskimo” which was quickly changed to “Meet the Eskimo” But does the change go far enough?

“I would rather be called ‘Inupiaq’ because that’s what I am and my children are Yup’ik,” Blossom Twitchell, from Kotzebue, said. “I want them to be able to connect to their culture and people won’t group us in as little people that live in igloo’s and give little Eskimo kisses all the time, we are so much more than that.”

“We have culture and traditions that have been passed down for generations and I don’t believe the word Eskimo does our heritage justice.”

After the Alaska Airlines redesign incident, Twitchell decided to take it a step further by starting a petition asking the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stop identifying people’s ethnicity as “Eskimo” in Federal paperwork. As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had over 50 supporters.

Much like the familiar face on the tail of the Alaska Airlines planes, no one seems to have a definitive answer on where the word Eskimo came from. An article by University of Alaska Fairbanks Linguist Lawrence Kaplan said the words original origin means “eater of raw meat” and might have been given to the Inupiaq people by western explorers. The article also says the Canadian version of the word could have come from an Ojibwa word meaning “netter of snowshoes.”

The word isn’t used much in Canada as it’s considered offensive by many Inuit in the country. But Alaska Natives say they have been using the word for a while. Nels Alexie, is a Yup’ik elder from Bethel.

“In my first memories we used Eskimo when referring to ourselves or each other. Then along the way we started using the word Yup’ik to describe ourselves,” Alexie said.

Alexie is like many Yup’ik’s interviewed for this story that are accustomed to the term and have no firm position about whether it’s appropriate or not.

Other Yup’ik elder’s however don’t like the term. Dr. Theresa John is an Associate Professor for Indigenous Studies at UAF.

“If we stop using the names other people give us, they will understand. Our ancestors were proud to be Yup’ik and were strengthened by their way of life. They wanted us, their descendants, to keep our tradition alive. Not to act like it’s not there but to understand it and to live it,” John said.

John also added the word “Eskimo” isn’t part of the Yup’ik language, or originally any native language in Alaska.

Tiffany Zulkosky from Anchorage, and the former mayor of Bethel, sent a letter to Alaska Airlines expressing her disappointment about their website statements and invited them to participate in the Racial Equity Summit sponsored by the First Alaskans Institute.

Airlines CEO Brad Tilden released a statement apologizing on behalf of the company for the “insensitive reference.” The airline ultimately changed their website greeting, completely removing the word “Eskimo,” and stated they are looking forward to working together with the Alaska Native community to ensure their actions reflect their respect for all Alaska Natives and Alaskans alike.

Like most native languages in Alaska, the words Yup’ik and Inupiaq both mean “real person”. But what the word ‘Eskimo’ is, is not so clear cut and means different things to different people.