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Eskimo (or Esquimaux in French) is a term for the indigenous peoples who have traditionally inhabited the northern circumpolar region from eastern Siberia (Russia), across Alaska (United States), Canada, and Greenland.
The term "Eskimo" is still in use, particularly in Alaska, to include both Yupik and Iñupiat. In Canada and Greenland, the term "Eskimo" has fallen out of favor as it is considered pejorative and has been widely replaced by the term "Inuit," "Alaska Natives," or other terms. Alaska Natives refers to all indigenous peoples of Alaska, including indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast and the Dene.
While the term "Eskimo" is sometimes considered offensive, it is not, in its linguistic origins, a fundamentally offensive word. Alternate terms for American Eskimos, such as Inuit–Yupik, have been proposed, but none have come into widespread acceptance within the United States. Two main groups have historically been referred to as Eskimos by outsiders: the Yupik and Inuit, especially the Inupiat people of Alaska. A third group, the Aleut, is closely related.
The two main peoples known as "Eskimo" are the Inuit of northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland and the Yupik of Central Alaska and Siberia. The Yupik comprise speakers of four distinct Yupik languages: one originated in the Russian Far East and the others among the descendants of people who had migrated to Western Alaska, Southcentral Alaska and along the Gulf of Alaska coast.
While earlier peoples are thought to have migrated through the region, the earliest known North American Arctic culture (pre-Dorset) date to 5,000 years ago. They appear to have evolved in Alaska from people using the Arctic small tool tradition. They probably had migrated to Alaska from Siberia at least 2,000 to 3000 years earlier, though they might have been in Alaska as far back as 10,000 to 12,000 years or more. There are similar artifacts found in Siberia going back perhaps 18,000 years.
The Yupik languages and cultures in eastern Siberia and Alaska evolved in place, beginning with the original pre-Dorset indigenous culture that developed in Alaska. Approximately 4000 years ago, the Unangan culture of the Aleut became distinct. It is largely considered a non-Eskimo culture.
Approximately 1500–2000 years ago, apparently in Northwestern Alaska, two other distinct variations appeared. Inuit culture became distinct and, over a period of several centuries, they expanded and migrated across Northern Alaska, Canada and into Greenland. The distinct culture of the Thule people developed in northwestern Alaska and very quickly spread over the entire area occupied by Inuit, though it was not necessarily adopted by all of them.
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Two principal competing etymologies have been proposed for the name "Eskimo," both derived from the Innu-aimun (Montagnais) language, an Algonquian language of the Atlantic Ocean coast. The most commonly accepted today appears to be the proposal of Ives Goddard at the Smithsonian Institution, who derives it from the Montagnais word meaning "snowshoe-netter" or "to net snowshoes." The word assime·w means "she laces a snowshoe" in Montagnais. Montagnais speakers refer to the neighbouring Mi'kmaq people using words that sound very much like eskimo. The second proposal, from Jose Mailhot, a Quebec anthropologist who speaks Montagnais, published a paper in 1978 which suggested, alternatively, that the meaning is "people who speak a different language". French traders who encountered the Montagnais in the eastern areas, adopted their word for the more western peoples.
The primary reason that the peoples consider Eskimo derogatory is the questionable but widespread perception that in Algonkian languages it means "eaters of raw meat." One Cree speaker suggested the original word that became corrupted to Eskimo might indeed have been askamiciw (which means "he eats it raw"), and the Inuit are referred to in some Cree texts as askipiw (which means "eats something raw").
In 1977, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference meeting in Barrow, Alaska, officially adopted "Inuit" as a designation for all Eskimos, regardless of their local usages. The Inuit Circumpolar Council, as it is known today, uses both "Inuit" and "Eskimo" in its official documents so the term is still use.
In Canada and Greenland the term Eskimo is widely held by the indigenous peoples to be pejorative and has fallen out of favour, largely supplanted by the term Inuit. However, while Inuit describes all of the Eskimo peoples in Canada and Greenland, that is not true in Alaska and Siberia. In Alaska the term Eskimo is commonly used, because it includes both Yupik and Iñupiat, while Inuit is not accepted as a collective term or even specifically used for Iñupiat (who are Inuit).
In 1977, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference meeting in Barrow, Alaska, officially adopted Inuit as a designation for all circumpolar native peoples, regardless of their local view on an appropriate term. As a result the Canadian government usage has replaced the (locally) defunct term Eskimo with Inuit (Inuk in singular). The preferred term in Canada's Central Arctic is Inuinnaq, and in the eastern Canadian Arctic Inuit. The language is often called Inuktitut, though other local designations are also used.
Because of the linguistic, ethnic, and cultural differences between Yupik and Inuit peoples, it seems questionable that any umbrella term to encompass all Yupik and Inuit people will be acceptable. There has been some movement to use Inuit, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council, representing a circumpolar population of 150,000 Inuit and Yupik people of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, in its charter defines Inuit for use within the ICC as including "the Inupiat, Yupik (Alaska), Inuit, Inuvialuit (Canada), Kalaallit (Greenland) and Yupik (Russia)." But, in Alaska, the Inuit people refer to themselves as Iñupiat, plural, and Iñupiaq, singular (their North Alaskan Inupiatun language is also called Iñupiaq) and do not use the term Inuit as commonly. Thus, in Alaska, Eskimo is in common usage.
Alaskans also use the term Alaska Native, which is inclusive of all Eskimo, Aleut and Native American people of Alaska. It does not apply to Inuit or Yupik people originating outside the state. The term Alaska Native has important legal usage in Alaska and the rest of the United States as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
The term "Eskimo" is also used in linguistic or ethnographic works to denote the larger branch of Eskimo–Aleut languages, the smaller branch being Aleut.
The Eskimo–Aleut family of languages includes two cognate branches: the Aleut (Unangan) branch and the Eskimo branch. The Eskimo sub-family consists of the Inuit language and Yupik language sub-groups. The Sirenikski language, which is virtually extinct, is sometimes regarded as a third branch of the Eskimo language family. Other sources regard it as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.
Inuit languages comprise a dialect continuum, or dialect chain, that stretches from Unalakleet and Norton Sound in Alaska, across northern Alaska and Canada, and east to Greenland. Changes from western (Iñupiaq) to eastern dialects are marked by the dropping of vestigial Yupik-related features, increasing consonant assimilation (e.g., kumlu, meaning "thumb," changes to kuvlu, changes to kublu, changes to kulluk, changes to kulluq), and increased consonant lengthening, and lexical change. Thus, speakers of two adjacent Inuit dialects would usually be able to understand one another, but speakers from dialects distant from each other on the dialect continuum would have difficulty understanding one another. Seward Peninsula dialects in Western Alaska, where much of the Iñupiat culture has been in place for perhaps less than 500 years, are greatly affected by phonological influence from the Yupik languages. Eastern Greenlandic, at the opposite end of the Inuit range, has had significant word replacement due to a unique form of ritual name avoidance.
The four Yupik languages, by contrast, including Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Naukan (Naukanski), and Siberian Yupik, are distinct languages with phonological, morphological, and lexical differences. They demonstrate limited mutual intelligibility. Additionally, both Alutiiq and Central Yup'ik have considerable dialect diversity. The northernmost Yupik languages — Siberian Yupik and Naukanski Yupik — are linguistically only slightly closer to Inuit than is Alutiiq, which is the southernmost of the Yupik languages. Although the grammatical structures of Yupik and Inuit languages are similar, they have pronounced differences phonologically. Differences of vocabulary between Inuit and any of one of the Yupik languages is greater than between any two Yupik languages. Even the dialectal differences within Alutiiq and Central Alaskan Yup'ik sometimes are relatively great for locations that are relatively close geographically.
The Sirenikski language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of the Eskimo language family, but other sources regard it as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.
An overview of the Eskimo–Aleut languages family is given below:
The Inuit inhabit the Arctic and northern Bering Sea coasts of Alaska in the United States, and Arctic coasts of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Quebec, and Labrador in Canada, and Greenland (associated with Denmark). Until fairly recent times, there has been a remarkable homogeneity in the culture throughout this area, which traditionally relied on fish, sea mammals, and land animals for food, heat, light, clothing, and tools. They maintain a unique Inuit culture.
The Inuvialuit live in the western Canadian Arctic region. Their homeland – the Inuvialuit Settlement Region – covers the Arctic Ocean coastline area from the Alaskan border east to Amundsen Gulf and includes the western Canadian Arctic Islands. The land was demarked in 1984 by the Inuvialuit Final Agreement.
The Iñupiat are the Inuit of Alaska's Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs and the Bering Straits region, including the Seward Peninsula. Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, is above the Arctic Circle and in the Iñupiat region. Their language is known as Iñupiaq.
The Yupik are indigenous or aboriginal peoples who live along the coast of western Alaska, especially on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta and along the Kuskokwim River (Central Alaskan Yup'ik); in southern Alaska (the Alutiiq); and along the eastern coast of Chukotka in the Russian Far East and St. Lawrence Island in western Alaska (the Siberian Yupik). The Yupik economy has traditionally been strongly dominated by the harvest of marine mammals, especially seals, walrus, and whales.
The Alutiiq, also called Pacific Yupik or Sugpiaq, are a southern, coastal branch of Yupik. They are not to be confused with the Aleut, who live further to the southwest, including along the Aleutian Islands. They traditionally lived a coastal lifestyle, subsisting primarily on ocean resources such as salmon, halibut, and whales, as well as rich land resources such as berries and land mammals. Alutiiq people today live in coastal fishing communities, where they work in all aspects of the modern economy. They also maintain the cultural value of subsistence.
The Alutiiq language is relatively close to that spoken by the Yupik in the Bethel, Alaska area. But, it is considered a distinct language with two major dialects: the Koniag dialect, spoken on the Alaska Peninsula and on Kodiak Island, and the Chugach dialect, spoken on the southern Kenai Peninsula and in Prince William Sound. Residents of Nanwalek, located on southern part of the Kenai Peninsula near Seldovia, speak what they call Sugpiaq. They are able to understand those who speak Yupik in Bethel. With a population of approximately 3,000, and the number of speakers in the hundreds, Alutiiq communities are working to revitalize their language.
Yup'ik, with an apostrophe, denotes the speakers of the Central Alaskan Yup'ik language, who live in western Alaska and southwestern Alaska from southern Norton Sound to the north side of Bristol Bay, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and on Nelson Island. The use of the apostrophe in the name Yup'ik denotes a longer pronunciation of the p sound than found in Siberian Yupik. Of all the Alaska Native languages, Central Alaskan Yup'ik has the most speakers, with about 10,000 of a total Yup'ik population of 21,000 still speaking the language. The five dialects of Central Alaskan Yup'ik include General Central Yup'ik, and the Egegik, Norton Sound, Hooper Bay-Chevak, and Nunivak dialects. In the latter two dialects, both the language and the people are called Cup'ik.
Siberian Yupik reside along the Bering Sea coast of the Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia in the Russian Far East and in the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska. The Central Siberian Yupik spoken on the Chukchi Peninsula and on St. Lawrence Island is nearly identical. About 1,050 of a total Alaska population of 1,100 Siberian Yupik people in Alaska still speak the language. It is the first language of the home for most St. Lawrence Island children. In Siberia, about 300 of a total of 900 Siberian Yupik people still learn and study the language, though it is no longer learned as a first language by children.
Some speakers of Siberian Yupik languages used to speak an Eskimo variant in the past, before they underwent a language shift. These former speakers of Sirenik Eskimo language inhabited the settlements of Sireniki, Imtuk, and some small villages stretching to the west from Sireniki along south-eastern coasts of Chukchi Peninsula. They lived in neighborhood with Siberian Yupik and Chukchi peoples.
As early as in 1895, Imtuk was already a settlement with a mixed population of Sirenik Eskimos and Ungazigmit (the latter belonging to Siberian Yupik). Sirenik Eskimo culture has been influenced by that of Chukchi, and the language shows Chukchi language influences. Folktale motifs also show the influence of Chuckchi culture.)
The above peculiarities of this (already extinct) Eskimo language amounted to mutual unintelligibility even with its nearest language relatives: in the past, Sirenik Eskimos had to use the unrelated Chukchi language as a lingua franca for communicating with Siberian Yupik.
Many words are formed from entirely different roots than in Siberian Yupik, but even the grammar has several peculiarities distinct not only among Eskimo languages, but even compared to Aleut. For example, dual number is not known in Sirenik Eskimo, while most Eskimo–Aleut languages have dual, including its neighboring Siberian Yupikax relatives.
Little is known about the origin of this diversity. The peculiarities of this language may be the result of a supposed long isolation from other Eskimo groups, and being in contact only with speakers of unrelated languages for many centuries. The influence of the Chukchi language is clear.
Because of all these factors, the classification of Sireniki Eskimo language is not settled yet: Sireniki language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of Eskimo (at least, its possibility is mentioned). Sometimes it is regarded rather as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.
There are common erroneous ideas about the Eskimo. These include: