Corporations and Eskimos and the Dynamics In Between


“Meet Our Eskimo.” Watching the unveiling of Alaska Airline’s new advertising and the surrounding discussion, the phrase clearly hit a nerve.

There were a few articles that were crafted in response to the immense discussion generated by the release of the advertising. Many felt offense at the word “Eskimo” but also, many did not. Alternatively, some who didn’t find the word especially egregious found offense in the concept of owning an indigenous person, or owning a human being in general.

What is also clear is that the Alaska Native community, particularly the Alaskan Inuit community, is in the midst of a family conversation.

We live in a state with a large number of those who are indigenous, and a large number of those who are not. There is a long history of local economy (an English word for it is “subsistence”), and there is considerable economy that has been introduced. The original economy has had to go through generations of past and current adjustments to figure out how to live complementarily with that which has been instituted; it makes sense that in time, the introduced people, companies, entities, businesses and organizations would have to learn to do the same.

When Contact happened, it hit our Native communities with heartbreaking force; many are now finding their grounding generations later. A new strength and cultural pride for our communities is emerging from the young ones, building off the incredible acumen, Western navigability and self-determination grown from the ANCSA generation; with that comes the realization that indigenous ways of being are valid, correct, right, valuable, contributing and proper, too.

Alaska is growing a healing generation.

And so. This time of figuring out to live complementarily by introduced organizations is being comprehended on a later timeline than the greater Native community has had to do.

With that growing understanding for the inherent value of Native ways creates the strength and bravery to have a voice on behalf of people’s communities or people groups. And with a voice comes the ability to impact and influence. And with the power to influence, comes the ability to affect the powers that be. Like airline corporations.

When you have the power to affect change, and because it is simply a good and better way to be, entities and businesses are going to work to be respectful. Deliberate and abject slander is hopefully forever behind us. There is a small market for cultural orientations in Alaska because organizations and entities and people want to be told what to say. But where does someone even start? Who do you ask? And will even broaching a question be an offense?

And so we come back to the word “Eskimo.” The word is recurring throughout innumerable recent books, articles, documentaries. But perhaps another unintentional thing Alaska Airlines did was prod the Native community to examine the use of the word in a more deliberate way.

There is a narrative, a storyline, with the use of the term. And the discussion and the conflict that Alaska is seeing is because we’re caught in the middle of two generations with differing experiences and relationships to the word.

When the expression was first introduced, whether it means “raw meat eater,” or “excommunicated,” it largely was taken as the English equivalent to the indigenous, local words for “people.” Even if it was meant to be derogatory, the acceptance of the word as an English equivalent is evidenced by how it is used by our northern populace, in phrases such as “Eskimo food,” or “Eskimo dance.” Even though there has been a history of internalizing Western ways as being superior, there is also an underlying question – if this word refers to my food, or my dancing, or my ways of being, how could it be derogatory? Because there is nothing wrong with me.

With the younger generation comes a largely different sentiment of, “Given the knowledge available, the resources for understanding, and the feeling of respect that is owed, the word “Eskimo” is simply not the best and most accurate word to describe who my people are. I am Iñupiaq. I am Yupik. I am Haida.” The use of the word is the difference between actually putting in the effort and caring what most accurate term is, and not.

Whatever the original intent of the word, whatever its original meaning, it is a phrase that has been introduced. It is a phrase that is not from here. It lumps all Alaska Native people into one group and negates the fact that there are and always have been non-Inuit people thriving in this state who may not care to be characterized by external powers by a people group quite unrelated to their own.

There are innumerable instances of someone writing an article or producing a film who has needed to get “the Alaska Native” perspective on whether “Eskimo” is an offensive word or not.

Depending on who they ask, that answer is going to be “yes.”

Depending on who they ask, the answer may also be “no.”

No matter who they ask, however, the inquirer may be led to feel fairly secure because they got their answer from a Native person, so it must be right.

The Alaska Native community, particularly the Alaskan Inuit community, is in the midst of a family conversation. Those seeking an immediate answer to the solution, whether it be media outlets or documentary makers, need to understand that. Consider this your Alaska-sized FYI. It needs to be understood that, family-style, we are figuring this one out, and it is going to require the space to do so accordingly.
One day this will not arouse such a fight. One day, 10 or 15 years from now, this will cease to be an issue. And that is because, like Canada, Alaskans will gradually phase out and cease to use the word, because it is one that is introduced. Because it did not come from here. And because it is not the best and the most accurate one to describe who we are.

Meet the Sugpiaq. Meet the Tshimshian. Meet the Koyukon.

Part Two will discuss common snafus found in print of organizations or entities written by non-Native writers and will propose better language that is both more appropriate for corporations, but also more respectful to indigenous peoples.

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