The Edmonton Eskimos football team is once again facing demands that it change its name.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said publicly earlier this month that the Canadian Football League franchise, founded in 1949, should have a more “inclusive” name.
Norma Dunning, a PhD candidate in Indigenous studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, agrees. She refers to “Eskimo” as an outdated term and a racial slur.
“We have to understand that an institution, such as the Edmonton Eskimos, will appear as though they are helping and respecting the less fortunate, or the underdogs of society, when in fact they are not only disrespecting but suppressing Inuit peoples,” Dunning said. “They are perpetuating an image through the use of the word ‘Eskimo’ that is, firstly, not used by the people, and secondly, perpetuating the concept of Inuit not having the abilities required for present-day modern living.”
In response to the mounting criticism, the Edmonton Eskimos issued a statement proclaiming that the organization is “keenly listening” to the public conversation surrounding the team’s name.
“We are always interested in hearing what people think within our community and elsewhere, on this topic or any other topic related to our football club. We use the Edmonton Eskimos name with pride and respect. We will not comment further today on this matter,” the team’s statement reads.
The term “Eskimo” is associated with ongoing colonization of Canadian Inuit people, said Dunning, who is of Inuit descent through ancestral ties in Whale Cove.
“The general population can believe that the word ‘Eskimo’ is harmless, but that is rhetoric that is constantly generated by media, to an audience that is uninformed or misinformed about the truth of Inuit existence in Canada,” she said.
Dunning added that she would like an example of how the Edmonton Eskimos have given back to Inuit Canadians, particularly the estimated 1,115 Inuit who reside in Alberta’s capital city.
“From where I stand, they as a franchise have done very well financially through the use of the word ‘Eskimo’, however, I do not see where the team and the institution… have given back to Inuit Canadians as a whole,” she said.
While many fans of the team follow football statistics closely, Dunning is more concerned with data showing that Inuit are not faring well in some respects.
“The issue is not only about the use of a word, it is also about the disparity that Inuit Canadians live within on a daily basis,” she said. “It is about Inuit as the smallest group of Aboriginal Canadians, holding the rank of first place in all the statistics that point to poverty, food scarcity, and high attrition rates in high school. It is also about the empowerment and respect required and demanded by Inuit Canadians.”
Nunavummiut and Alaskan reaction to the Eskimos controversy
Opinions vary on whether the Edmonton Eskimos ought to change their name. Some find the term Eskimo offensive, while others are not bothered by it. Here’s what some Nunavummiut and an Alaskan linguistics expert had to say on the issue:
Randy Taparti, Respulse Bay: “I don’t mind the name at all. It doesn’t offend me at all. It wouldn’t bother me if someone called me an Eskimo. I’ve been called worse.”
David Nakashuk, Pangnirtung: “I don’t mind keeping the name. Eskimo is what they used before. I’m not against it. It’s fine with me.”
Eva Aariak, former premier of Nunavut: “They’re suddenly not going to change their name to Edmonton Inuit, right? I grew up with (the term Eskimo) when everybody else was saying we’re Eskimos and so on because there was no other word established at the time. It was our great leaders of the ’70s that changed it to Inuit so that we can have our own term created by us, to be used by us about us. That was an absolutely wonderful thing that happened.”
Piita Irniq, former MLA and Commissioner of Nunavut: “The name doesn’t bother me whatsoever. It’s a Cree name and it’s their language, so I don’t have any problem with it. It means we are raw meat eaters. Yes we are! Having said this, I think what is more offensive is ‘Itqiliq,’ the name different Inuit dialects gave to the Indians a long, long time ago. Itqiliq means ‘one with the baby louce.’ Itqiliit, ‘those with licebaby lice on their hair.’ I think we Inuit have to change with our description for our First Nation friends. I am willing to change and do away with the word Itqiliq.”
Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami: “I would like to thank Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman for supporting the call for the Edmonton CFL team to change its name. Edmonton’s CFL team can be a leader in Canada’s movement towards reconciliation by addressing this outstanding concern, and I look forward to further conversations with the Edmonton team leadership, the Edmonton mayor, and all other stakeholders in bringing positive resolution to this issue. It is my hope that the team will respect the wishes of Inuit and replace its moniker with a team name that is not widely considered an ethnic slur, and does not use an Indigenous ethnicity as its base.”
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.: Declined to comment.
Lawrence Kaplan, professor of linguistics and director of the Alaska Native Language Center: “It’s true that the term Eskimo has hung on longer in Alaska than in Canada or Greenland, but it’s going away also. Different groups of people are expressing the wish that the term go away. It’s taken longer but it is happening… I think people are just accepting the term Inuit as it is used in Canada.”