Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Eskimo or Inuit: What ethnonym do museums use in displaying art and material culture?

Eskimo or Inuit: What ethnonym do museums use in displaying art and material culture?

Ashley Phifer

The ethnonyms Eskimo and Inuit are often times misunderstood and misrepresented. This misrepresentation also occurs in museum settings which raise issues dealing with repatriation, NAGPRA and ethnic labeling. Literary review on the ethnonyms Eskimo and Inuit was performed. Ten museums in the southern peninsula of Michigan were surveyed in terms of display labels and classification of Eskimo and Inuit art and material culture housed in their respective museum collections. Survey results showed that a majority of positively responding institutions classify art and material culture of Arctic indigenous people using the term Inuit. Further results showed that many reporting museums do not have collections policies that allow the museum to decipher between Eskimo and Inuit. This research is intended to shed light on an unrecognized issue in museums in the United States that can have cultural, societal, representational, and even legal issues.

Keywords: museum, Eskimo, Inuit, label, ethnonym, plate

April 16, 2011 - Posted by | abstract


  1. With the official recognition of Nunavut, has there been any pronouncement on preferred terminology, orthography, toponymy or the like, at least for people and places within Nunavut? Whether the answer is yes or no, there’s always the matter of who speaks for “the group,” however it is defined.

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 21, 2011 | Reply

  2. I don’t understand the supposed need to call Eskimoes–a simple appellation having not the slightest hint of disparagement–Innu or Inuit (which is the adjective? Which is the noun? It’s not easy for a non-Innu/it person to remember) . Sure, it may be the name they call themselves. So what? When speaking English, we don’t call the French “les Français” or the Germans “die Deutscher”. I’ve read that “Innuit”, translated, means, simply, “the people”–a name a group, however large, isolated from people of other origins, might indeed come up with, though perhaps not very politically correct in a day and age when they are no longer isolated and do certainly know of there being other peoples in the world. Why, when speaking English, ought we call them a name in their language (let alone one that means “the people”), when we have a perfectly good alternative we’ve been using in English for a couple of hundred years? This evidence of “political correctness” I distinguish from Western black people’s wishes in recent decades to be referred to by various names which in turn have fallen out of fashion: At least, in regard to English-speaking countries, the names chosen were all in English; and historically blacks have been enslaved and divided by the dominant white population and hence in a sense are owed, among other things, whatever name they care to choose. Eskimoes do not have the same history.
    My interest is in what I perceive as unnecessary attrition of perfectly good English words out of well-meant but misplaced “political correctness”. As a woman I am well aware of the need for revision of our language usages in some circumstances. I also care for the English language, though, and don’t automatically see every attack on a common (non-disparaging) English word, under the banner of political correctness, as a good thing. Another example is the disfavour into which the word “Oriental” has fallen because some Orientals prefer to be called Asian. I have never heard or sensed any disparagement in the word “Oriental”, and cannot see how using the word “Asian” (which at least is an English word) to describe all the many varied races of Asia, including for instance those of India, Malaysia and China, when one means to refer to only one of them, assists anyone or in particular assists communication, which is the function of language. Instead, such, such a usage obscures meaning. Please lets have more thought on these matters before so cheerfully chucking perfectly good English words.

    Comment by Gone2far | October 11, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure why the term ‘Eskimo’ is simpler than ‘Inuit’. For the record, the Innu are not an Inuit people, but a subarctic group more closely related to the Cree. Inuit is both a noun and an adjective, like ‘Canadian’ or ‘American’, and ‘Inuktitut’ is the language they traditionally speak.

      The best reason, in my view, to use Inuit is that many Inuit prefer not to be called Eskimo and they do prefer to be called Inuit. If French people were really concerned about being called ‘Français’, we would argue similarly that there is no reason not to call people what they wish to be called, and a good reason to avoid being called what they do not wish to be called. If someone’s personal name is Richard and someone goes around calling them Dick even though they say it bothers them, one can’t say “But Dick is a perfectly good historical nickname for Richard that we’ve been using for hundreds of years!” And while I agree that Inuit have a different history than that of enslaved African descendants, I certainly don’t agree that the Inuit have not been exposed to discrimination of various sorts – if that is the criterion we are using.

      More to the point, though, Ashley’s paper raises another good reason for using ‘Inuit’, which is that among contemporary Arctic peoples, we now have both Eskimos and Inuit (Alaskan vs. Canadian). Given that they consider themselves to be different people (although clearly related), this is a good reason to be careful when we assign labels to material culture in museums. A good analogy here is the way that Canadians don’t like being called Americans even though, in a sense, we are both ‘North American’ people.

      Comment by schrisomalis | October 12, 2012 | Reply

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