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Just a Note on Ethnonyms


Every now and then I complain about ethnonyms. Here is an excerpt from a recent paper (Paleo-Eskimo Genetic Legacy Across North America) that demonstrates the difficulty:

Current evidence suggests that present-day Native Americans descend from at least four distinct streams of ancient migration from Asia1-3. The largest ancestral contribution was from populations that separated from the ancestors of present-day East Asian groups ~23,000 calendar years before present (calBP), occupied Beringia for several thousand years, and then moved into North and South America approximately 16,000 calBP2. To be consistent with the previous genetic literature we call this lineage “First Americans”, while acknowledging that indigenous scholars have suggested the term “First Peoples” as an alternative…

How do people not understand that “First Peoples” IS NOT SPECIFIC ENOUGH for genetic, ethnographic, or historical literature? Like, maybe there are multiple groups of people on the planet that phrase could refer to, making it completely useless for identifying anyone?

Besides, what if it turns out there were people there before them? Do we go back to all of the old books and papers, cross out “First Peoples” and replace it with “Second Peoples”?

The archaeological record in the Arctic provides clear evidence for the spread of Paleo-Eskimo culture, which spread across the Bering strait about 5,000 calBP, and expanded across coastal Alaska, Arctic Canada and Greenland a few hundred years later. Direct ancient DNA data has proven that the Paleo-Eskimo cultural spread was strongly correlated with the spread of a new people that continuously occupied the American Arctic for more than four millennia until ~700 calBP… Paleo-Eskimo archeological cultures are grouped under the Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt), and include the Denbigh, Choris, Norton, and Ipiutak cultures in Alaska and the Saqqaq, Independence, Pre-Dorset, and Dorset cultures in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. … In this paper, we use the genetic label “Paleo-Eskimo” to refer to the ancestry associated with ancient DNA from the ASTt and “Neo-Eskimo” to refer to ancient DNA from the later Northern Maritime tradition. While we recognize that some indigenous groups would prefer that the term “Eskimo” not be used, we are not aware of an alternative term that all relevant groups prefer instead. The terms “Paleo-Inuit” and “Thule Inuit” have been proposed as possible replacements for “Paleo-Eskimo” and “Neo-Eskimo”, respectively19, but the use of “Inuit” in this context might seem to imply that individuals from these ancient cultures are more closely related to present-day Inuit than to present-day Yupik, whereas genetic data show that Yupik and Inuit derive largely from the same ancestral populations (see below). Moreover, the term “Thule” does not cover the whole spectrum of Northern Mar associated with the latest phase of this tradition. We therefore use the “Eskimo” terminology here while acknowledging its imperfections.

Yupik are Eskimo. Inuit are Eskimo. Inuit want to be called Inuit. Yupik probably want to be called Yupik but are happy with Eskimo and think those Inuit are trying to impose this “Inuit” name on them that they don’t use for themselves. There is no way around this that doesn’t involve too many words, which is why I just call them all Eskimo.

The term “Eskimo” is not even pejorative; according to Wikipedia, it means “a person who laces a snowshoe.” Snowshoes are very clever and useful inventions and there is no shame in being able to lace one properly. I mean, I’m an “American”, what’s that, a corruption of an Italian guy’s signature that got mistaken for a map label?

There is a claim that it means “eaters of raw meat.” This sounds like backwards or creative etymology to me, less sound than the snowshoe label. But even if it is true, so what? Eskimo do eat raw meat. So do the French and the Japanese. The traditional Eskimo diet is one of the best, most nutritious in the world and there is no reason to feel ashamed of it.

Maybe we should change “America” to “Burger Eaters.” We’d be the “Golden Arches Land.”

A rose by any other name would smell just as deep fried in oil.

(Also, since the Neo-Eskimo only show up in the archaeological records of North America around 2,000 years ago, a couple thousand years after the Paleo-Eskimo, they aren’t “First People.” More like Second or Third People. Numbering peoples is absurd.)

It is otherwise a good paper and I encourage you to read it; I just feel sorry for the authors for having to spend so many lines defending the concept of conveying information clearly.