ESKIMO

 

A general term used to refer to a number of groups inhabiting the coastline from the Bering Sea to Greenland and the Chukchi Peninsula in N.E. Siberia.

A number of distinct groups, based on differences in patterns of resource exploitation, are commonly identified, including Siberian, St. Lawrence Island, Nunivak, Chugach, Nunamiut, North Alaskan, Mackenzie, Copper, Caribou, Netsilik, Iglulik, Baffinland, Labrador, Coastal Labrador, Polar, and East and West Greenland.

Since the 1970s Eskimo groups in Canada and Greenland have adopted the name Inuit, although the term has not taken hold in Alaska or Siberia.

In spite of regional differences, Eskimo groups are surprisingly uniform in language, physical type, and culture, and, as a group, are distinct in these traits from all neighbors.

They speak dialects of the same language, Eskimo, which is a major branch of the Eskimo-Aleut family of languages.

Their antiquity is unknown, but it is generally agreed that they were relatively recent migrants to the Americas from N.E. Asia, spreading from west to east over the course of the past 5,000 years.

The Eskimos are the most widely dispersed group in the world still leading a partly aboriginal way of life.

They live in a region that spans more than 3,500 miles, including Greenland, the northern fringe of North America, and a sector of eastern Siberia.

Eskimos are racially distinct from American Indians, and are not, as previously believed, merely Indians transformed.

In fact, the Eskimos are most closely related to the Mongolian peoples of eastern Asia.

Eskimos consider themselves to be Inuit (The People).

The Eskimo-Aleut languages are unrelated to any American Indian language groups.

The Eskimo population was approximately 50,000 at the time of the first widespread contact with Europeans.

An estimated 2,000 Siberian Eskimos lived near the Bering Strait, the Alaskan Eskimos numbered about 25,000, and the Central Eskimos (who inhabited what is now northern Canada) numbered about 10,000.

The Labrador Eskimos totaled about 3,000, while the Greenland Eskimos totaled about 10,000.

The popular conception of the Eskimoswhale hunters dressed in heavy fur clothing and living in dome-shaped ice lodgesis derived from the Eskimos who live farthest north, on the Arctic islands of Canada and along northwestern Greenland.

In reality, these northern Arctic dwellers formed a minority among Eskimos as a whole.

No single environmental adaptation existed throughout the area of Eskimo occupancy.

Eskimos along the Pacific coast probably obtained much of their food by fishing for salmon, while the Central Eskimos of Canada subsisted mainly on caribou.

Eskimo groups lived in various types of shelters, including semi-subterranean sod houses and tents made of caribou skins.

At no time did the Eskimos possess a national or even well-defined tribal sense.

The emphasis was on the local and familial group rather than on associations of land and territory.

The overall Eskimo population has remained fairly constant over the past several centuries, although not all groups have remained stable in number.

According to the 1990 census, there are 57,152 Eskimos and 23,797 Aleuts living in the United States.

 

Eskimo Culture:

Particularly when compared to other hunting and gathering populations, Eskimo groups are justly famous for elaborate technologies, artisanship, and well-developed art.

They live in small bands, in voluntary association under a leader recognized for his ability to provide for the group.

Only the most personal property is considered private; any equipment reverts through disuse to those who have need for it.

In the traditional Eskimo economy, the division of labor between the sexes was strict; men constructed homes and hunted, while the women took care of the homes.

Their religion is imbued with a rich mythology, and shamanism has been practiced.

The native food supply has been reduced through the use of firearms, but, as a result of increased contact with other cultures, the Eskimo are no longer completely dependent on their traditional sources of sustenance.

The present Eskimo population is approximately 60,000, with about 10,000 in Greenland, 29,000 in Alaska, 19,000 in Canada, and 2,000 in Siberia.

 

Eskimo Life:

Most groups rely on sea mammals for food, illumination, cooking oil, tools, and weapons.

Fish and caribou are next in importance in their economy.

The practice of eating raw meat, disapproved of by their Native American neighbors, saves scarce fuel and provides their limited diet with essential nutritional elements that cooking would destroy.

Except for the Caribou Eskimo of central Canada, they are a littoral people who rove inland in the summer for freshwater fishing and game hunting.

Eskimos have various types of houses.

Tents of caribou skins or sealskins provide adequate summer dwellings; in colder seasons shelter is constructed of sod, driftwood, or sometimes stone, placed over excavated floors.

Among some Eskimo groups the snow hut is used as a winter residence.

More commonly, however, such structures may be used as temporary overnight shelters during journeys.

The dogsled is used for the hauling of heavy loads over long distances, made necessary by the Eskimo's nomadic hunting life.

Their skin canoe, known as a kayak, is one of the most highly maneuverable small craft ever constructed.

Hunting technologies include several types of harpoons, the bow and arrow, knives, and fish spears and weirs.

While iron has come into common use in the 20th cent., previously weapons were crafted from ivory, bone, copper, or stone.

Their clothing is sewn largely of caribou hide and includes parkas, breeches, mittens, snow goggles, and boots.

Finely crafted items such as needles, combs, awls, figurines, and decorative carvings on weapons are executed with the rotary bow drill.

See Ulli Steltzer, Inuit: The North in Transition (1985); Asen Balikci, The Netsilik Eskimo (1989).

 

Eskimo-Aleut:

The family of Native American languages consisting of Aleut (spoken on the Aleutian Islands and the Kodiak Peninsula) and Eskimo (spoken in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia).

Aleut is the language of fewer than one thousand people, and Eskimo is native to almost 100,000 people.

There are a few varieties of the Eskimo language.

Eskimo and Aleut have enough similarities to justify the theory that they are descendants of a single ancestor language.

A striking and important feature of both tongues is polysynthesism.

In a polysynthetic language, a one-word unit composed of a number of word elements can convey the meaning of an entire sentence in an Indo-European language.

Eskimo and Aleut make great use of suffixes, but almost never of prefixes.

Internal vowel changes are rare.

Both languages are highly inflected.

The difference between transitive and intransitive verbs is clearly shown.

Three numbers are foundsingular, dual, and plural.

Phonetically, there are three main vowels in Eskimo, and from 13 to 20 consonants, the number varying according to the dialect.

In earlier times the Eskimos had only pictographic writing.

Since the 18th cent., however, the Eskimos of Greenland, Labrador, and Alaska have used an adaptation of the Roman alphabet, introduced by missionaries.

The Eskimos of modern Siberia and the Aleut-speaking groups employ the Cyrillic alphabet.

See Knut Bergslund, A Grammatical Outline of the Eskimo Language of West Greenland (1955) and Aleut Dialects of Atha and Attu (1959); L. L. Hammerich, The Eskimo Language (1970); Michael E. Krauss, Alaskan Native Languages (1980).