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Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: What Does "Eskimo" Mean In Cree?

Q: Does the word "Eskimos" really mean "eaters of raw flesh" in Cree?

A: Actually, the etymology of the word Eskimo is uncertain. Cree people today definitely associate the name with the Cree word ask‚wa, which does mean raw meat or eggs. One Cree speaker suggested the original word that became corrupted to Eskimo might have been askamiciw (which means "he eats it raw,") and the Inuit are referred to in some Cree texts as askipiw (which means "eats something raw.")

On the other hand, some linguists have recently suggested that this might be a 'folk etymology'--an origin for a word which, though believed by many speakers of the language, isn't historically true. (An example of folk etymology in English is the word 'niggardly,' which many people incorrectly think is related to the similar-sounding racial slur 'nigger.') The Cree word askimew means "he laces snowshoes," and these linguists believe that may have been the original name the Crees used to refer to their Inuit neighbors.

Either of these theories is possible. In our own opinion, the biggest problem with the snowshoe theory is that lacing snowshoes was not a distinguishing trait of the Inuit--nearly every American Indian tribe in Canada used laced snowshoes, with the style of snowshoe varying from tribe to tribe. For the Cree to call the Inuit "snowshoe-lacers" would have been like the Germans calling the French "shoe-wearers." Why would they do that? Since the Inuit and Aleut did and still do eat some fish uncooked, which the Cree do not, that would have been a much more sensible name (and not necessarily an insulting one, at least originally.) On the other hand, English corruptions of Native American names are often much abbreviated ("Sioux" comes from the last two syllables of the Ojibway name Naadawesiwag, for example,) so it's certainly possible that the original name could have meant "he makes circular snowshoes" or something else meaningfully descriptive.

In any event, regardless of the name's origins, many Inuit people do not like the word "Eskimo" today. Like the word "nigger" (which originally only meant "black"), "Eskimo" has often been used in a racist or demeaning way over the years, so although some communities do continue to use the word, others prefer to be called by their native name for themselves, Inuit.



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