Traditionally, most groups relied on sea mammals for food, illumination, cooking oil, tools, and weapons. Fish and caribou were next in importance in their economy. The practice of eating raw meat, disapproved of by their Native American neighbors, saved scarce fuel and provided their limited diet with essential nutritional elements that cooking would destroy. Except for the Caribou Eskimo of central Canada, they were a littoral people who roved inland in the summer for freshwater fishing and game hunting.
Eskimos traditionally used various types of houses. Tents of caribou skins or sealskins provided adequate summer dwellings; in colder seasons shelter was constructed of sod, driftwood, or sometimes stone, placed over excavated floors. Among some Eskimo groups the snow hut was used as a winter residence (see igloo). More commonly, however, such structures were used as temporary overnight shelters during journeys. The dogsled was used for the hauling of heavy loads over long distances, made necessary by the Eskimos' nomadic hunting life. Their skin canoe, known as a kayak, is one of the most highly maneuverable small craft ever constructed. Hunting technologies included several types of harpoons, the bow and arrow, knives, and fish spears and weirs. While iron and guns have come into common use in the 20th cent., previously weapons were crafted from ivory, bone, copper, or stone. Their clothing was sewn largely of caribou hide and included parkas, breeches, mittens, snow goggles, and boots. Finely crafted items such as needles, combs, awls, figurines, and decorative carvings on weapons were executed with the rotary bow drill.
Particularly when compared to other hunting and gathering populations, Eskimo groups were justly famous for elaborate technologies, artisanship, and well-developed art. They lived in small bands, in voluntary association under a leader recognized for his ability to provide for the group. Only the most personal property was considered private; any equipment reverted through disuse to those who had need for it. In the traditional Eskimo economy, the division of labor between the sexes was strict; men constructed homes and hunted, and women took care of the homes. Their religion was imbued with a rich mythology, and shamanism (see shaman) was practiced.
Eskimos in the United States and Canada now live largely in settled communities, working for wages and using guns for hunting. Their mode of transportation is typically the all-terrain vehicle or the snowmobile. The native food supply has been reduced through the use of firearms, but, as a result of increased contact with other cultures, the Eskimo are no longer completely dependent on their traditional sources of sustenance. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 granted Alaska natives some 44 million acres of land and established native village and regional corporations to encourage economic growth. In 1990 the Eskimo population of the United States was some 57,000, with most living in Alaska. There are over 33,000 Inuit in Canada, the majority living in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, N Quebec, and Labrador. Nunavut was created out of the Northwest Territories in 1999 as a politically separate, predominantly Inuit territory. A settlement with the Inuit of Labrador established (2005) Nunatsiavut, a self-governing area in N and central E Labrador, and an agreement calls for establishing a self-governing area, Nunavik, in N Quebec in 2009. There are also Eskimo populations in Greenland and Siberia.
See U. Steltzer, Inuit: The North in Transition (1985); A. Balikci, The Netsilik Eskimo (1989).
The earliest known Eskimo cultures were Pre-Dorset Technology, which appear to have been a fully developed Eskimo culture that dates to 5,000 years ago. They appear to have evolved in Alaska from people using the Archaic Small Tools Technology, who probably had migrated to Alaska from Siberia at least 2 to 3 thousand years earlier; though they might have been in Alaska as far back as 10 to 12 thousand years or more. There are similar artifacts found in Siberia going back to perhaps 18,000 years ago. It is believed that the Mongols of China, Eskimos, and probably the Korean people too all share a common ancestor in northern Asia.
Today the two main groups of Eskimos are the Inuit of northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland, and the Yupik, comprising speakers of four distinct Yupik languages and originating in western Alaska, in South Central Alaska along the Gulf of Alaska coast, and in the Russian Far East.
Inuit languages comprise a dialect continuum, or dialect chain, that stretches from Unalakleet and Norton Sound in Alaska, across northern Alaska and Canada, and east all the way to Greenland. Speakers of two adjacent Inuit dialects can easily understand one another, but speakers of dialects at the extreme distant ends of the range have significant difficulty. Seward Peninsula dialects in Western Alaska, where much of the Inupiat culture has only been in place for perhaps less than 500 years, are greatly affected by phonological influence from the Yupik languages. Eastern Greenlandic, at the opposite end of the Inuit range has had significant word replacement due to a unique form of ritual name avoidance.
The four Yupik languages have existed in place, which probably includes the locations where Eskimo culture and language began, for much longer than the Inuit language. Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Naukan (Naukanski), and Siberian Yupik, are distinct languages with limited mutual intelligibility. Even the dialectic differences within Alutiiq and Central Alaskan Yup'ik sometimes are relatively great for locations that are relatively close geographically.
While grammatical structures of Yupik and Inuit languages are similar, they have pronounced differences phonologically and differences of vocabulary between Inuit and any of one of the Yupik languages is greater than between any two Yupik languages.
The primary reason that Eskimo is considered derogatory is the false perception that it means "eaters of raw meat". There are two different etymologies in scientific literature for the term Eskimo. The most well-known comes from Ives Goddard at the Smithsonian Institution , who says it means "Snowshoe netters". Quebec linguist Jose Mailhot, who speaks Innu-aimun (Montagnais) (which Mailhot and Goddard agree is the language from which the word originated), published a definitive study in 1978 stating that it means "people who speak a different language".
Nevertheless, while the word is not inherently pejorative, since the 1970s in Canada and Greenland Eskimo has widely been considered offensive, owing to folklore and derogatory usage. In government usage the term has been replaced with Inuit. The preferred term in Canada's Central Arctic is Inuinnaq, and in the eastern Canadian Arctic Inuit. The language is often called Inuktitut, though other local designations are also used.
The Inuit of Greenland refer to themselves as Greenlanders or, in their own language, Kalaallit, and to their language as Greenlandic or Kalaallisut.
Because of the linguistic, ethnic, and cultural differences between Yupik and Inuit peoples there is uncertainty as to the acceptance of any term encompassing all Yupik and Inuit people. There has been some movement to use Inuit, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council, representing a circumpolar population of 150,000 Inuit and Yupik people of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, in its charter defines Inuit for use within the ICC as including "the Inupiat, Yupik (Alaska), Inuit, Inuvialuit (Canada), Kalaallit (Greenland) and Yupik (Russia)." However, even the Inuit people in Alaska refer themselves as Inupiat (the language is Inupiaq) and do not typically use the term Inuit. Thus, in Alaska, Eskimo is in common usage, and is the preferred term when speaking collectively of all Inupiat and Yupik people, or of all Inuit and Yupik people of the world.
Alaskans also use the term Alaska Native, which is inclusive of all Eskimo, Aleut and Indian people of Alaska, and is of course exclusive of Inuit or Yupik people originating outside the state. The term Alaska Native has important legal usage in Alaska and the rest of the United States as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
The term "Eskimo" is also used world wide in linguistic or ethnographic works to denote the larger branch of Eskimo-Aleut languages, the smaller branch being Aleut.
The Inuit inhabit the Arctic and northern Bering Sea coasts of Alaska and Arctic coasts of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Quebec, Labrador, and Greenland. Until fairly recent times, there has been a remarkable homogeneity in the culture throughout this area, which traditionally relied on fish, sea mammals, and land animals for food, heat, light, clothing, tools, and shelter.
The above mentioned peculiarities of this (already extinct) Eskimo language amounted to mutual unintelligibility even with its nearest language relatives: in the past, Sireniki Eskimos even had to use the unrelated Chukchi language as a lingua franca for communicating with Siberian Yupik.
Many words are formed from entirely different roots than in Siberian Yupik, but even the grammar has several peculiarities not only among Eskimo languages, but even inside the entire language family, thus, even compared to Aleut. For example, it is the only Eskimo-Aleut language that lacks dual number, even its neighboring Siberian Yupik relatives have dual.
Little is known about the origin of this diversity. According to a supposition, the peculiarities of this language may be the result of a supposed long isolation from other Eskimo groups, being in contact only with speakers of unrelated languages for many centuries. Influence by Chukchi language is clear.
Because of all these, the mere classification of Sireniki Eskimo language is not settled yet: Sireniki language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of Eskimo (at least, its possibility is mentioned), but sometimes it is regarded rather as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.
The four Yupik languages, including Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Naukan (Naukanski), and Siberian Yupik are distinct languages with phonological, morphological, and lexical differences, and demonstrating limited mutual intelligibility. Additionally, both Alutiiq Central Yup'ik have considerable dialect diversity. The northernmost Yupik languages — Siberian Yupik and Naukanski Yupik — are linguistically only slightly closer to Inuit than is Alutiiq, which is the southernmost of the Yupik languages. Although the grammatical structures of Yupik and Inuit languages are similar, they have pronounced differences phonologically, and differences of vocabulary between Inuit and any of one of the Yupik languages is greater than between any two Yupik languages.
The Sirenikski language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of the Eskimo language family, but other sources regard it as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.
An overview of the Eskimo-Aleut languages family is given below: