Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Real Native Myths and Legends #4 - Indians and Eskimos

Indian. Eskimo. Native American. Tribe. Clan. People group. First
Nations. First Peoples. American Indian. Indigenous.

It's dang confusing sometimes, I know, and I've grown up with all
these terms. I have some sympathy for every (non-Native) friend I've
ever had who has worked up to (usually unsure of how to approach it)
asking me, "So… what do you call yourself?"

There are actually many different forms of this question, but it boils
down to, "How on earth do I say what you are?" I know there are those
who will argue we should be "color-blind" and not look at a person's
culture. I disagree. I think we should honor and celebrate a person's
culture, we would be robbing them of a huge part of who they are not
to – we just don't have to judge a person by their culture. It's also
just a reality – having to define someone's background is not going

Kind of reminds me of a discussion I had about this topic in high
school, and my "African-American" friend was asked how to address his
race. He said, "We're 'Black' now. But I'll let you know if it

If you ask the government, they would consider me from the "Indian"
people group (as opposed to "Eskimo" or "Aleut". On a federal document
I am "American Indian or Alaska Native." On my Certificate of Indian
Blood, I am from the Tlingit "tribe."

If you ask me, I will tell you I am Tlingit or Alaska Native,
depending on where I am and who you are. I will not say the Tlingit
tribe – no such thing. There's also no "Tlingit Nation". I won't tell
you I am Indian – as far as I'm concerned, Indians are from India. I
won't tell you I'm Native American, and I won't tell you what tribe
I'm from – as far as I know, I have no tribe.

Much of the problem stems from trying to group an entire continent's
worth of culture into one identifiable group. Even here in Alaska, the
cultures are incredibly diverse. I have a Yup'ik friend that I share
values and experiences with as an Alaska Native woman, but when it
comes to so many other cultural values, she seems to be speaking
another language (though, often times, she quite literally IS speaking
another language.)

There is also the problem of Native people only just being able to
define how they were called by the general public in the last
generation or two, and so it seems quite changeable, and no two people
agree on the perfect way yet.

Last year at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO,) one of the
assistants came to get our dance group, "We need the Indian groups!" A
dozen sets of furrowed brows and he quickly answered, "Hey, if I have
to be Eskimo, you have to be Indian!" Fair enough. Point is, even our
own institutions are outdated in the terms we use.

But all the background and why and how aside, there still remains the
issue of, "What do I call you?"

The simplest answer I can say is, "Just ask."

I have often wondered if this is not a very "polite" thing to do
outside of Alaska Native cultures. Maybe the sensitivities of being PC
or a Western etiquette – but generally when I am asked it is with an
embarrassed tone, usually an apology. A "I'm sorry if this is rude,
but…" Recently, a friend of mine described a non-Native woman who was
offended when a Native woman asked her race.

Although I am generally loathe to group such diverse cultures into one
"group think," my own experiences in my culture and other Native
cultures in the state is that the first thing you want to do is get to
know someone's background. As an example, a dialogue of me meeting
another Native person:

"Nice to meet you – so where are you from?"


"That by Fairbanks?"

"Bethel area."

"Cool – you know John James?"

"Yeah, he's my cousin."


And we switch. I threw in my own lack of geographical awareness in
there for realism. But basically, I now know where he's from (and can
deduce his 'people group' from that,) and who his general family is.
Actually, if it were really real, we would find out all the different
people we know and/or are related to in common. Many times we will ask
and talk directly about what racial background we are from.

In short, the "polite" or friendly thing to do in the culture I know
is to introduce and let your own background be known. Many Native
people who are born in urban areas will identify themselves as being
"from" whatever village or rural area their family is from. I was
delighted to meet a man "from Klawock" last Summer, very near where I
was born, but then he said, "Oh – but I've never been there." I have a
feeling as more and more Native people are born in Anchorage, this
will become even more common.

I believe the Tlingit people have elevated introductions to an art. My
Yup'ik friend is fond of telling me that "Tlingits complicate
everything!" Maybe true, but there are some pretty solid reasons
behind it.

Do you know that scene in "Lord of the Rings," where the trees are
talking amongst themselves all day, and when they finally talk to the
Hobbits, you find they've only just introduced themselves? I believe
that this must have been based off of a traditional Tlingit
celebration. You introduce pretty much your whole background and
genealogy. Basically, when I begin my speech, you should know my name
(or names,) my parents, my teachers, my grandparents and
great-grandparents, my moiety, clan and sub-clans, where I am from –
or my family is from, and where I live now. And that's the short

Although I cannot tell you what all Native people would like to be
referred to as – even between my siblings and I this would vary – I
can tell you it doesn't hurt to ask. Of course, basic politeness
applies here too. I don't suggest a "So what's your racial make-up?"
or questions at times that would be ethically inappropriate - job
interview anyone?

A few tips:

-Start with asking where they are from. It wouldn't hurt if you knew
(in general) where people groups were from.

- Don't ask anyone if they are "Eskimo." Really. I mean it. The few
people who are okay with being identified by others as such will let
you know in good time, but this will lose you more respect than it
will gain. And don't assume because one person of that background
prefers to be called "Eskimo" the next is. A friend and I will joke
around, calling each other "Eskimo" and "Indian," but I made a mistake
thinking I could joke like that with another coworker - she did NOT
appreciate being called Eskimo, although from the same background as
my friend.

- As an Alaska Native person, the above also applies to the word
"Indian." From what I understand, in the Lower 48 this can be a pretty
common identifier, but not so popular up here.

- Don't attach a "tribe," "clan," "nation" or other grouping word when
asking. I get asked a lot if I am from the Tlingit tribe, or what
tribe I am from. Federally, this is correct. There are people groups
in the U.S. which embrace the word. But no Tlingit person I know
identifies themselves this way. Likewise, there is no Tlingit clan. I
DO belong to a clan, as well as a house and a moiety, but the same
will not be true of every Alaska Native culture.

Basically, just see how the person identifies themselves, and treat
them with respect. You do not have to do things "traditionally" - most
Native people do not address or introduce traditionally, unless in a
formal setting, and do not expect that of you. But to "gain friends
and influence Native people," showing a respect for their
individuality as a person, and within a culture, will go far.


Maia said...

My brother and I have an Inupiaq friend who, in the course of explaining why she doesn't like being called an Eskimo, told us that Eskimo is actually from a French word that meaning "raw fish eater." (My brother reasoned that, since he loves sushi, that technically makes him an esquimaux.) It was funny, though -- we'd been friends with her for more than a decade, and that was the first time the subject of what she wanted to be called had ever come up.

I can look back and see that, when we were growing up in Anchorage in the late 1980s, there were some good faith efforts to try to teach us city kids something about Native culture. There was the Athabaskan craft project in fourth grade, and the song we sang every year in music class that we were told was an "Eskimo" song but could have been in a made-up language for all we knew. (When we sang it for our Inupiaq friend, she told us it was in Yup'ik.) But it was all from this very anthropological, lost-culture kind of point of view. We never talked about the fact that Alaska Natives were real people living amongst us (sometimes in the classroom, making paper-bag "birch bark" baby carriers and mixing imaginary batches of "Eskimo ice cream" along with the rest of us).

Thanks for these posts. Keep 'em coming.

Unknown said...

This is the most awesome blog. I have been following your myths and legends and I am particularly taken with this one. I myself am according to all the forms I fill out "caucasian". Nowhere in there does it allow me to acknowledge my Shoshone, Cherokee or Chippewa ancestors whom for whatever reason polluted the gene pool with europeans who migrated. I am honored by who I am and where I come from. My son who is now in HS was deeply offended when he was but a wee elementary student learning from two of the most amazing Tlingit ladies I have ever met that we weren't Tlingit because that was clearly the coolest thing to be. God Bless you for setting the world straight.

Becky Blitch said...

Really fabulous post (and blog)! Although I am non-Native, as a woman living with disability I absolutely empathize with the awkwardness around language, and introductions. For me, "the" question is always around the source of my disability. Many people assume I have a spinal cord injury (I'm often asked when my accident was); others assume I have MS (for reasons still unclear to me). Neither is the case - I have a genetic neuromuscular condition - but people are so clearly afraid to just say, "So hey, why do you use a wheelchair?"

I love that your solution is the same as mine - to encourage respectful questions. Can yu imagine how much richer and more authentic our relationships (and society) would be if people would just follow their curiosities and ask (again, with respect) questions to better understand one another?

Keep on rockin'!

Katherine Lee said...

Thank you! I am one quarter Aleut and I have no idea what to call myself.