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I answered a letter a while ago, from someone at a museum in Alaska.

They wanted to know why Inuit dislike being called "Eskimos." After all, many Alaskans don't mind being called Eskimos, and even seem to dislike the term "Inuit" when southerners try to apply it to them, however well-intentioned.

I am not at all surprised at the confusion. The ascendancy of Inuit culture, through good reportage and the establishment of Nunavut, has conditioned southerners to say "Inuit" instead of "Eskimo." Southerners have complied beautifully, but at last they are running up against peoples, related to Inuit, who insist that they are Eskimos.

The confusion derives from this sticky fact: Inuit are not Eskimos, and Eskimos are not Inuit.

In simple terms: The Mongol-type peoples of North America begin in Alaska, about four and half thousand years ago. Their numbers grow. They separate into many cultures, generally reflecting different lifestyles and settlement areas. Years creak by, and a few waves of such peoples move east.

Inuit are direct descendants of that most recent eastern arrival, the Thule, those inventive souls who brought new technologies along with them - the culture we recognize as Inuit today.

I have read too many interpretations of "Inuit" as meaning "humans," probably under the (incorrect) assumption that every culture's name for itself must mean such a thing.

However, as a long-time translator, I can guarantee you that "Inuit" is a specific term. It means, "The Living Ones Who Are Here." It denotes a sense of place, of having arrived, a memory that Inuit knew they had kin somewhere else. Thus we see how language acts as a code to preserve heritage.

Conversely, the Alaskans are descended from peoples that stayed in the west. As such, they have their own preferred words for themselves, such as, "Yup'ik" and "Aleut" and "Nunamiut." Additionally, those westernmost peoples have had much more time to split into many different cultures. Add to this the fact that some First Nations ("American Indian" in the U.S.) peoples also reside in Alaska, so that the resultant west is populated by peoples of Mongol-type, American Indian, and mixed descent.

The far east of North America is much simpler. There was one culture, the "Tunit" (or "Dorset") here before Inuit. Unfortunately, they are now extinct.

Inuit, therefore, have the luxury of using "Inuit" in a wide context. But even this can get politically tricky, since there are a couple of peoples adjacent to them — "Inuvialuit," for example — who do not always approve of being called Inuit.

But, generally, one can get away with using "Inuit" as a kind of umbrella term for eastern Mongol-type peoples.

The umbrella term for the far west, Alaska, is "Eskimo." Alaskans do not seem to mind its use these days, simply because it provides a handy general term. There may be another reason not to mind it, as well.

The old thinking was that it came from Cree, derogatorily meaning, "Eaters of Raw Meat." It was thought that it was overheard by French missionaries, distorted to "Esquimaux" or "Esquimau," then Anglicized to "Eskimo."

It is amazing how widespread this belief has become, so that it is cited by all but the most informed sources. Yet, while remaining a bit of a mystery, the missionary origin of "Eskimo" is pretty much discounted today, since there is some compelling evidence that the word existed in pre-colonial times.

Some researchers have made a good case for it coming from Montagnais vocabulary, literally meaning, "snowshoe net-weaver," but culturally being a term that indicates any craftsman of great skill. It seems to me that this makes more sense and, if true, would mean that the word is not derogatory after all.

Inuit, however, will never be Eskimos. Existent in the west or not, preferred by Alaskans or not, it was simply never part of their vocabulary. Inuit, after all, have their own name for themselves: Inuit.

Today, "Eskimo" only reminds Inuit of the days when missionaries kidnapped them, dumped flea powder all over them, and assigned "Eskimo numbers" to them, instead of bothering to note the proper name for the culture or the individuals within it.

It all really boils down to choice, the right to accept or reject specific labels at will, the right to be known as one wishes to be. Is that not what freedom is all about?


June 13, 2003

Nomad (Part three)


By 350 A.D., the old Mongol-type culture of Tunit (i.e., Dorset) would certainly have noticed the arrival of strangers in their lands. This was a younger, aggressive, more innovative Mongol-type people called the "Thule," and the swish of their sleds had already been carrying them eastward across North America's Arctic for the last three centuries.

These new nomads were dependent upon marine mammals, and the Tunit had never before conceived of the technologies they brought with them: dog-teams, toggling harpoons, large skin boats, lamps, waterproof stitching, countless specialized hunting paraphernalia. There is no evidence of major hostilities between Thule and Tunit, but the Thule lived fast, ate well, and dominated the landscape. It is no wonder the Inuit oral tradition insists that the Tunit were a shy, elusive people.

The odd thing is that this makes sense. History seems to imply that, when Mongol-type nomads are placed under pressure and organized by strong leaders, they burst forth in waves of innovation and enterprise. Any human culture does, of course, but the Mongol-types seem to do it so ... explosively.

Around the same time as the Thule were flowing across the Arctic, the western world was about to receive a darker, more horrifying introduction to the Mongol-type nomad — distant, Ice Age cousins of Inuit known to the Chinese as "Hsunnu," to the West as "Huns." Like North America's Thule, they were caught between northern weather and southern overpopulation, so they turned westward. Armed with their own innovations, they invaded Europe in 374 A.D. Their invention was the modern stirrup, allowing combat from horseback in a manner of unprecedented efficiency. They were unstoppable. Almost overnight, they conquered the eastern Germanic kingdoms, driving others ahead of them in waves, greatly contributing to Europe's ethnic distribution. Under Attila (450 A.D.), they clashed with the Western Empire, demanding tribute from Rome itself.

And this is where the Achilles' Heel of the nomad shows itself. They need to keep moving. They need innovation and leadership to impel their great waves. When Attila died (453 A.D.), the Huns found themselves with neither breathing room, nor vision. Apathetic, without purpose, they intermarried with conquered peoples (e.g., "Hun-garia") and faded away.

Luckily, over in North America, the Thule still had lots of room left, and no dire enemies to contend with. By 1000 A.D., they had spread as far as Greenland. But once they reached this limit, there was still the entire Arctic to cycle around within.

They could never know that there was an entire other world held in terror of similarly nomadic people, distantly related to them. At the time Thule had reached the easternmost Arctic, yet another Mongol-type people were swelling in numbers, in northern Asia. Within only two centuries, these nomads were united under a leader named Temujin, commonly known as "Genghis Khan." He envisioned universal Mongol dominion. With innovative military tactics, espionage, and communication systems of his own design, he conquered 7,821,400 square kilometres (85% more than Napoleon) in 20 years. His empire, at the time, was entirely nomadic. Genghis Khan's heirs continued the conquest, so that by 1241, they owned Asia, Russia, the Ukraine, eastern Europe, and had entered central Europe. They had never lost a battle. By 1279, they were the uncontested world superpower.

Ultimately, the Mongol Empire was checked by its own nomadic needs. Later generations of Khans became urbanized, over-content with their holdings. They shed nomadic culture. Eventually, their borders shrank, their Empire fragmented, then ceased to be. The stubbornly nomadic ones among them went back to their former, Mongolian lifestyle, where they could continue to roam at will.

By 1550 A.D., the Thule had reached the limit of their own expansion, and were developing a lifestyle easily recognizable today. They had become Inuit, and they had no idea that, over in the Old World, their distant cousins had arisen and faded into a memory from a few generations before.

They had no idea that theirs was the peculiar branch of humanity that had wandered out of the Ice Age, with a need to keep moving, not necessarily needing conquest, but simply the feeling of wind in their hair. And if the comparison of these "cousins" illustrates one truth, it is this: nomadic blood runs cold only when it is still. It is a fact that modern Inuit would do well to remember.


June 6, 2003

Nomad (Part Two)


(Note to the reader: You're going to catch me using the term "Mongol-type" now and again. This is my way of dancing around the term "Mongoloid." Mongoloid, strictly speaking, is simply an old word denoting the common physical heritage of peoples descended from those earliest, Ice Age ancestors of Inuit. These are certainly Asiatic in appearance, but they nevertheless differ from other Asian physical types making up most of China, Southeast Asia, Thailand, etc. The Mongol-type peoples span the circumpolar world. We are natural nomads. We have always liked to spread ourselves out. And you can find our kind in Arctic North America, Greenland, Siberia, Mongolia, and the Asiatic steppes. We are mixed in with other gene-lines in Korea, northernmost China, Japan, Russia, and even Eastern Europe. We share: 1. A short, stocky build, with unusually high bone and muscle density. 2. Beautiful, epicanthus-shielded eyes, thick and streamlined and somewhat differing from those found in other Asiatic peoples. 3. Smooth, nearly hairless skin, of a pleasing bronze-coffee colouration. 4. A so-called "Mongolian mark," a bluish mark we are born with over the tailbone, fading as adolescence.

About 2,500 years ago (ie., appr. 500 B.C.), this was the state of humanity: The first of the great religions, those that were to inspire all others afterward, had recently sprung up (coincidentally, around the same time). Judaism appeared in Judea. Taoism and Confucianism popped up in China. Buddhism and Jainism in India. Zoroastrianism (which introduced the idea of ultimate good versus ultimate evil) in Persia.

Mystery religions (which would later influence Rome) appeared in Greece. Pythagoreanism in Italy. The first Rationalist Philosophy in Ionia. The superpower of the day was the Persian Empire, which owned everything from the Aegean Sea to Egypt to the borders of India. The Greeks, ever a collection of warring city-states and traders up till then, were just about to prove themselves; their total population of 2.5 million was about to defeat great Persia (population 14 million), upping their profile forever after. Further west, Rome and Carthage were on the rise, and would soon square off against one another, setting the stage for the Roman Imperium to come centuries later.

Eastern Siberia was heavily populated with nomadic peoples of Mongol-type form, the distant, Ice Age cousins of Inuit. As soon as they acquired horses, those that resided in northern Asia began to cause trouble for the Chinese (the Chinese, as with much of Asia at the time, were of a different, non-Mongol stock), raiding at will. This would presage a time of future conflict and disaster, and eventually introduce the rest of the world to the Mongol-type peoples in a nasty sort of way.

Meanwhile, in Arctic North America, the more direct ancestors of Inuit were beginning to become aware that it was getting colder. Much colder. The Alaskan ancestors of Inuit were adapting to this cold-shift in their own ways, and the different methods of adaptation taken up by various groups were forming distinct cultures. There were now many different cultures of Mongol-type people, as there are today. In the far east of the continent, one of the cultures that would have the roughest go of things was the Dorset, or those that Inuit would later call the "Tunit." The Tunit (I'll run with the Inuit term) did not adapt as well as others to the temperature shift. Like every other Mongol-type culture in North America up till then, the Tunit relied upon chasing inland animals, such as caribou - one of the things that kept everyone nomadic. The Tunit population began to dwindle (or at least, it did not increase) as food became scarce.

Another Mongol-type culture that was moving into the east would become known to archaeologists as the "Thule." These people would become Inuit, and it was these that would flourish by making a radical shift to a new kind of living: Dependency upon sea mammals.


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