The Ubiquitous "Eskimo"

In Alaska Native, ANHC, Eskimo, Eskimo Joe's, Igloo, Inuit, Inupiaq, Yupik by Adrienne K.9 Comments

 (Hipster band One EskimO…they’ll get a whole post on their own soon. So many problems.)

Hi Friends! Yes, I’m back. I have a litany of excuses, but you don’t care! So back to the Native Appropriations!

Since Boston is on a record-breaking snow streak (already over 60 inches this season), I thought I would pull together a post about the ever-present “Eskimo” in advertising and pop culture. Because everyone knows, snow, ice, cold=”Eskimos”! (/sarcasm)

Alaska Native communities are often completely left out of conversations about race in the US, and even left out when we talk about Native communities. I lament the fact that the only representations we see of American Indians are the feathers-and-buckskin stereotypes, but I think it is even more apparent that the only images we see of Alaska Native peoples are the “Eskimo” images–furry hood, big parka, probably an igloo, maybe a dog sled…you know exactly what I’m talking about. So without further ado, some of these images:

A major offender, Eskimo Joe’s in Stillwater, OK. Their website says they are famous for the “smile seen round the world,” and you can buy a whole host of memorabilia featuring this image. Don’t worry, there’s also Mexico Joe’s, if you’re an equal opportunity stereotyper. The “eskimo” doesn’t even have eyes. Talk about de-humanizing.

This is actually the image that inspired this post. My friend Marj had an 80’s party this weekend, and she bought Lisa Frank decorations (which were awesome). There was one that featured this image above, except it had the girl hugging a polar bear, with a penguin and a puffin dancing beside them. But note all the images thrown together–igloo, polar bear, penguin, husky, northern lights…um, shouldn’t we be aware of some geography here? I’m pretty sure you can’t find all of those things in the same place. Not to mention the anglo-cizing of her features. 

My grandparents always had Eskimo Pies in the freezer when I was growing up. There are a lot of historic images of their mascot too, since they’ve been around since 1921:

Images of Alaska Natives have been used in advertising since the 1800’s, and there are numerous examples all over the internet. This page, compiled by a professor at Rhode Island College is a great collection, and this ad was on boingboing a while back:

Note the nonsense “language” they’re speaking, and implications that they’re unintelligent and “savage”.

There are so many examples to draw from–movies often exploit this stereotype, as we saw in The Simpsons Movie, and then later on the show, “Mukluks” and other arctic-inspired footwear have invaded fashion…I could go on and on.

These images collapse over 11 distinct Alaskan cultural groups into one stereotype, not to mention the other cultural groups in recognized in Canada. The Alaska Native Heritage Center is an amazing resource for learning about the indigenous people of Alaska, and they divide their exhibitions up into five cultural groupings (click to be taken to the web pages): Athabascan, Unangax & Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Yup’ik & Cup’ik, Inupiaq & St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida & Tsimshian.

I visited the ANHC on one of my admissions recruiting trips, and it was amazing. If you’re ever in Anchorage, I definitely recommend a visit. 

(it was summer when I was there)

There is also some debate surrounding the term “Eskimo”–which is usually a blanket term to describe Yupik and sometimes Inupiaq peoples. The accepted term in Canada and Greenland is “Inuit,” however it is not used in Alaska. Most Alaska Natives I know identify by their cultural group and consider the term “Eskimo” pejorative–but I also know a few who identify as “Yupik Eskimo” or other similar combinations. If there’s someone who knows more and wants to weigh in, please let me know. 

I feel like this post is a little all over the place, but I just wanted to point out how ubiquitous these images are in our everyday lives. They are just as harmful as all the images of American Indians I post–reducing a heterogeneous group of people to one stereotyped image rooted in the past, in “magic” or fantasy, and erasing the current, contemporary presence of Alaska Native and Inuit peoples.

(Thanks Wendy and Marj!)

  • Thank you for all of the effort to educate. Love it, and take it all to heart. That is my buckskin and feathered Lakȟóta heart :)
    In solidarity, as an allie I will work to recognize stereotypes that misrepresent the Athabascan, Unangax & Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Yup’ik & Cup’ik, Inupiaq & St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida & Tsimshian.

  • Quyana so much for posting. I am Yup’ik and Cup’ik, but I do refer to myself as “Eskimo.” I never thought about it, but maybe it was because I thought people wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I said I was “Yup’ik and Cup’ik” rather than “Eskimo.”

    I went to college and law school in California, and would often feel a little left out by my American Indian friends who often referred to all Natives as “Indians” and Eskimos aren’t Indians. I used to say something, but I eventually gave up because they didn’t really seem to care, and I tried to tell myself that they really meant all Natives when they said “Indians.”

    I wonder if Indian and Aleuts feel a bit left out because a lot of people think all Alaska Natives are Eskimos? I’ve never asked my friends.

  • Rob

    There are no penguins in the Arctic!

  • It is interesting to consider the other contexts in which colonization continues. I have been researching and writing about how imagery of Inuit peoples and the North and how colonialism through imagery continues today in the environmental movement. However, this is based on a historical past of ‘othering’ Inuit peoples that seems to have shifted into erasing Inuit peoples from the pictures altogether, at least in some contexts. Think about images you see of the North within climate change discussions and Southern activism.. the images we see are of a vast, barren, peopleless place of melting glaciers and struggling polar bears. There is little to no discussion of the fact that there are thousands of people who live in the North whom are struggling with and adapting to climate change. In imaging the Arctic as a place without people, the South can (conveniently) forget about people in the North and make policy concerning climate change without hearing their voices. An excellent example of this is National Geographic’s film, “Arctic Tale” which creates a story of a walrus and a polar bear struggling with the effects of climate change. Inuit peoples are not mentioned and the first words in the film are “far beyond the world we humans know” lies a kingdom of ice and snow (that last bit is paraphrasing.. I forget the exact words after that first bit)… yikes. Clearly there is a problem (or rather, a problem that has continued for decades) that really needs to be addressed.

    If people are interested in watching Inuit made films check out If you’re particularly interested in climate change, there’s a film on there called “Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change” that’s definitely worth watching.

  • And by “interesting” I mean, crucial, imperative.

  • When my kids were young they attended an “Indian Education” program in our school district. (It was discontinued even before they reached high school though.) There was a family from Alaska that was Inuit. The mom told us all that Eskimo meant “dirty raw fish eater” and she did not want to hear that word in reference to her family. In looking it up, there is some controversy over the origin of the word, but it is still one I choose not to ever use myself.

  • I think the debate concerning when, or if, a “formerly” derogatory term becomes empowering to the group it was meant to oppress is an interesting one. In pop culture we’ve heard the debates primarily in reference to the Black community and the word I won’t reference.

    But what about us as “Indians” and “Eskimos”? Where I’m from (unceded Algonquin territory, a.k.a. Ottawa, Canada) the politically correct term for Natives and non-Natives is “First Nations.” But no one actually *uses* that term to describe themselves (well, aside from the select few, like my Mom). Some, like me, use “Native” but a far larger majority still refer to themselves as an “Indian.” Whether you can refer to yourself and your community as “Indian(s)” without blushing (because you’re aware of the long-standing and problematic history behind the term) has almost become a sign of authentic “Indianness.” Some friends and cousins of mine even tried a few years ago to make the slang, “Savs,” happen, but I won’t go there today.

    All I really wanted to do was share this to a cute little colourful map that breaks it down!:

  • Rob

    Discussion of “Eskimo” vs. “Inuit”:

    Roundup of “Eskimo” stereotypes:

    P.S. Good job as usual, Adrienne!

  • I recently saw a portion of this awful awful movie called “North.” I’m not native anything, but I found this portion to be incredibly offensive.

    Though, if it’s any consolation, the part where he’s in China is just as bad. Turned it off after that.