Deeper dive on the Eskimos name

I’ve seen a lot of people wondering why, exactly, the name ‘Eskimos’ is considered offensive. Take a moment and see how you can explain it before continuing. Jot that down, and even if you don’t think it is, put in words why you think someone might.

The question ‘why’, in addition to the usual forms of outrage on polarizing issues, made me want to sit down and cobble together the best exposition I could from the perspective of an (in my humble opinion) open-minded and lifelong Edmonton Eskimos fan. I’ve done my best to keep things as matter-of-fact as possible and the personal touches to a minimum. That is a story for another day.

I want to say as we begin: it is perturbing that so few places explain the ‘why’ of this topic rather than writing “It’s racist!” in big bold letters and stopping at that – obviously enough so that I felt the need to do this, although it is improving as time goes by. Simultaneously, it accomplishes nothing to call someone a ‘snowflake’ and block them without another thought.

This is not a perfect information game like chess. We don’t have exact numbers of who stands where and at most we use the available data to do our best guesswork. (Don’t tell anyone, but I basically just described statistics.) In a lot of ways, one can argue that exact numbers don’t matter and that any sizeable number merits change; otherwise, you have to come up with some arbitrary number for ‘enough’ people hurt. Is it 20 percent? 25 percent? 50 percent plus one? It would indeed be nice to have a large enough sample that the goalposts get firmly set and can’t be moved anymore and I think you can appreciate that whether you believe the name should change or not, but it’s not quite that simple.

To their credit, the Eskimos organization has been open about seeking consultation with Inuit communities in recent years, but without more than vague “we’re talking about it” statements it’s irresponsible to put a ton of faith in that process. It’s too easy to pick out bits you like and claim them as absolute fact. For example, there are prominent Inuit individuals including Nunavut Member of Parliament Mumilaaq Qaqqaq who are very outspoken against the name, but you can find segments such as the following that suggest many Inuit in favour.

No, this is more than a numbers game. This conversation is a combination of linguistics and sociology.

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I’m going to be transparent: I sent in my first draft of this piece literally one minute before Inuk NHLer Jordin Tootoo posted a superb release on the topic. I’m grateful to him for doing so, because in addition to being an exact solution to my above lament, it helped me collect some of my thoughts into a better rounded form. I strongly encourage you to read it if you haven’t already, not least because he is far more qualified to talk about this than me. 

What I can do is explain beyond a social media release, and there are two main points I want to cover. The first is denotation (dictionary definition of a word) versus connotation (associated feelings of a word). You’ve probably heard before that ‘Eskimo’ means something like ‘eater of raw meat’, but the wider linguistic consensus is that that’s incorrect and it is derived from a word meaning ‘person who laces snowshoes’.

The denotation – essentially, snowshoe maker – we can agree contains nothing offensive. But the connotation is an issue among Inuit opposed to the name. ‘Eskimos’ is an improper term – no one will argue that ‘Inuit’ is the correct blanket word for their people – and principally, many feel it is demeaning; via their history it makes them feel ‘less than people’. We can see that there are Inuit who say they are proud of the name and even identify with it, unaffected by negative associations. But many others are the opposite.

That leads me right into exonym (name given by others) versus endonym (name given by oneselves). As a quick alternate example, ‘Germany’ and the French equivalent ‘Allemagne’ are exonyms while ‘Deutschland’ is an endonym. ‘Eskimos’ is not a term that the Inuit chose, but rather it was used to refer to them – or you may say forced upon them – in decades and centuries past. As an outsider I think it’s easier to understand in that context, not wanting to be constantly connected with colonialism and oppression. You can take it deeper and discuss holding control over themselves and rejecting memories of an imperial power struggle in favour of a unity and integration. Whatever you think of modern use, the name is for many an unpleasant reminder.

Tootoo tells us the context of use does matter. He brings up the question ‘why did you choose the name Eskimos?’ That turns the discussion towards respect versus disregard. Is it and has it been used to honour the Inuit and their strength, or is it used without thought and without care? I want to impress that idea, and encourage you to think about it. Relevant to that, just as the meanings of a word change over time so too can the way the word is used.

It is not enough to say that it is not oppressive or that some may not be objected so you can keep the name. It is about treating them as they deserve to be treated as a distinctive and robust culture, as well as respecting them and their wishes.

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I have to make one semi-personal note to encapsulate: the conflict is that in Edmonton, or even all the way across the lower mainland of Canada, we have little if any memory of ‘Eskimos’ being used derogatorily. We have generally positive connotations to do with sports and so it’s difficult (impossible) to understand the flip side. This has to be the key takeaway. I’m not telling you your opinion doesn’t matter, but without experience of the reverse perspective there’s a limit to the value of your input. That also applies to those who are unfamiliar with the history of the franchise or are quick to paint them as incomplex villains.

Eskimos legend Warren Moon said it wonderfully: “The name Eskimos, to me, just means pride and it means winning with that organization… but if it is something that is insensitive to another group of people, then that is something we really need to be concerned about.”

One further detail for completeness: for a while there has noticeably been – I say as a bit of a statistics and linguistics nerd – a fascinating geographical difference where inhabitants of the Western Arctic are more accepting of the name than those in the Eastern Arctic. I was curious about regional differences in data, and the Eskimos annual general meeting partially obliged with an interesting but still too vague announcement. They give one set of percentages with no comment on method nor raw numbers, although it’s since been reported that the survey number was around a pitifully small 236. You can find their full report here but the summary is as follows:

There is a specific comment I want to touch on: the @EdmontonEsks social media releases use the word ‘Inuit’ instead of the team name ‘Eskimos’, doesn’t that tell you it’s a bad word? No, not on its own. As I stated above, ‘Inuit’ is 100 percent the proper term and we all know it. It would be foolish to use any other term as a formal descriptor of Canada’s Northern indigenous peoples. It’s not the same thing, but imagine Statistics Canada releasing a survey result as “Seven in ten Canucks…” instead of ‘Canadians’. It doesn’t have the same undertones but it would be similarly unprofessional and inaccurate.

Sports team names are closer to nicknames than ‘formal descriptors’, and the biggest element of the “Is the name offensive?” argument is to what extent, if any, it can be appropriate to be colloquial or offhandish with a deep history. I would suggest it has become abundantly clear that distance is not an acceptable continuation and that if the name does not change – highly unlikely at this point – at minimum there would need to be more direct involvement on the part of the team with Inuit communities as slowly started to happen.

As for why a name change hasn’t happened earlier? It’s quite safe to say they aren’t thrilled to do this. I see two contributors. One is that the organization’s feelings have been somewhere between ‘legitimately unsure how Inuit feel’ and ‘clinging to fond memories,’ with which I can empathize. More than any of us, those with the power to act are deeply invested. The other is that they’re aware of the effect of a change on their bottom line and are slowplaying it to ease the blow. While they may gain a few fans by taking the forward road with the goal of long-term benefit, they will lose fans too – mostly older fans, we have to acknowledge, who make up the majority of the fanbase. As a proxy:

Judging by Tootoo’s statement, a similar age gap seems to be at least partly identifiable among Inuit peoples too. The Eskimos team knows, and I think we all know, they will make people mad whichever route they ultimately go, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right path and their last release says we’ll get a longer term commitment soon.

There you have it. Everything I’ve learned as an observer over the years in one place. You don’t need to approve of the franchise’s final decision, but I hope you will try to understand rather than dismiss without consideration simply because you don’t agree. Whether you are making a point or a criticism, remember to cast a thought towards ‘why’.

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Mike Ludwig
Mike Ludwig enjoys math, chess, and football, all of which are kind of related. He lives in Edmonton and does not endorse Rod Black's metaphors. Follow him on twitter at @CityOfChamps14.