When Alaska Airlines unveiled a new look for their airplanes and website, many Alaska Natives took offense to a phrase in their marketing campaign.
Alaska Airlines’ website prominently featured the familiar face of a smiling Alaska Native elder and included the phrase “Meet our Eskimo.” It’s sparked a controversy and a new conversation about what “Eskimo” means to Alaska Natives.
Things that will not fly: Alaska Airline’s “Meet our Eskimo” campaign. pic.twitter.com/BPmFMCfsC1
— Hayden King (@Hayden_King) January 27, 2016
The phrase was quickly changed to “Meet the Eskimo,” but some Alaska Natives say that doesn’t go far enough.
“I would rather be called ‘Inupiaq’ because that’s what I am and my children are Yup’ik,” said Blossom Twitchell from Kotzebue. “I want them to be able to connect to their culture and people won’t group us in as little people that live in igloos 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. The petition had 75 supporters as of Saturday evening.
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 word meant “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 where it’s considered offensive by many Inuit in the country. But Alaska Natives say they have been using the word for a while.
“In my first memories, we used Eskimo when referring to ourselves or each other,” said Nels Alexie, a Yup’ik elder from Bethel. “Then along the way we started using the word Yup’ik to describe ourselves.”
Like many Yup’ik interviewed for this story, Alexie is accustomed to the term and has no firm position about whether it’s appropriate or not.
Other Yup’ik elders, however, don’t like the term.
“If we stop using the names other people give us, they will understand,” said Theresa John, an associate professor of indigenous studies at University of Alaska Fairbanks. “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 also added noted that “Eskimo” isn’t part of the Yup’ik language, or any Native language in Alaska, originally.
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.
In a statement, Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden apologized on behalf of the company for the “insensitive reference.” The airline stated it is looking forward to working with the Alaska Native community to ensure their actions reflect their respect for all Alaska Natives and Alaskans.