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Eskimo (ĕsˈkəmō), a general term used to refer to a number of groups inhabiting the coastline from the Bering Sea to Greenland and the Chukchi Peninsula in NE Siberia. A number of distinct groups, based on differences in patterns of resource exploitation, are commonly identified, including Siberian, St. Lawrence Island, Nunivak, Chugach, Nunamiut, North Alaskan, Mackenzie, Copper, Caribou, Netsilik, Iglulik, Baffinland, Labrador, Coastal Labrador, Polar, and East and West Greenland. Since the 1970s Eskimo groups in Canada and Greenland rejected Eskimo as offensive and used the name Inuit, although the term has not taken hold in Alaska or Siberia.

In spite of regional differences, Eskimo groups are relatively uniform in language, physical type, and culture, and, as a group, are distinct in these traits from all neighbors. They speak dialects of the same language, Eskimo, which is a major branch of the Eskimo-Aleut family of languages. Their antiquity is unknown, but genetic testing of ancient human remains in North America that they are relatively recent migrants to the Americas from NE Asia, spreading from west to east beginning about 1,000 years. By about 1300 A.D. their ancestors, known as the Thule culture, had displaced the earlier inhabitants of North American Arctic. The earlier inhabitants, known as Paleo-Eskimos but genetically unrelated to to modern Eskimos, had first migrated into North America 6,000 years ago.

Eskimo Life

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 came 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.

Eskimo Culture

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.

Contemporary Life

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 another agreement called for establishing a self-governing area, Nunavik, in N Quebec in 2009, but Nunavik residents rejected the proposed arrangement in 2011. There are also Eskimo populations in Greenland and Siberia.


See U. Steltzer, Inuit: The North in Transition (1985); A. Balikci, The Netsilik Eskimo (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a people inhabiting the region that extends from the eastern tip of the Chukchi Peninsula to Greenland. According to a 1975 estimate, the Eskimo number 90,000. They speak Eskimo and are classed as members of the Arctic Mongoloid race.

The Eskimo were formed as a people approximately 4,000–5,000 years ago in the Bering Sea region; they spread eastward to Greenland, arriving there long before the beginning of the Common Era. The Eskimo adapted with remarkable success to life in the arctic; they created the toggle harpoon for hunting marine animals, a special boat known as the kayak, the snowhouse known as the igloo, and fur pullover clothing.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Eskimo economy was based on the hunting of caribou and marine animals. The social organization was characterized by territorial communes and by substantial vestiges of primitive collectivist norms in the distributions of the catch. Religion consisted in the worship of spirits and of some animals. In the 19th century the Eskimo did not have a clan organization or a highly developed tribal organization.

With the arrival of outsiders, the life of the Eskimo outside Russia underwent fundamental changes. Considerable numbers switched from marine hunting and fishing to hunting for arctic fox and, in Greenland, commercial fishing. Some Eskimo, especially those in Greenland, worked as hired laborers. In Greenland, a small, local bourgeoisie emerged. The Eskimo of western Greenland form a separate people: the Greenlandic Eskimo. In Labrador the Eskimo have, to a considerable extent, intermingled with the long-established indigenous population, which is of European descent. The remnants of traditional Eskimo culture are rapidly disappearing everywhere.

In the USSR the Eskimo constitute a small ethnic group of 1,510 persons (1979 census) that lives with, or in close proximity to, the Chukchi in a number of settlements along the eastern coast of the Chukchi Peninsula and on Vrangel’ Island. Their traditional occupation was hunting marine animals. Under Soviet power radical changes have occurred in the economy and way of life of the Eskimo, who are being resettled from yarangas (portable dwellings) to houses with modern conveniences. On kolkhozes, whose members generally include both Eskimo and Chukchi, a diversified and mechanized economy is being developed; it is based largely on reindeer raising and on hunting, including the hunting of marine animals. Illiteracy has been eliminated, and an intelligentsia has formed.


The Eskimo created a distinctive decorative, applied, and representational art. Excavations have uncovered artifacts dating from the end of the first millennium B.C. and from the first millennium of the Common Era. These finds include bone harpoon heads and arrowheads; “winged objects,” thought to be decorations for the bows of boats; miniature stylized figures of humans and animals; models of kayaks that are decorated with representations of men and animals; and intricate ornamental carving. The characteristic Eskimo art of the 18th to 20th centuries is represented by figures carved of walrus tusk or, sometimes, soapstone, by wood carvings, by applique work, and by embroidery that consists of patterns of reindeer fur and skin that are used to decorate clothing and articles for everyday use.


Narody Sibiri. Moscow-Leningrad, 1956.
Narody Ameriki, vol. 1. Moscow, 1959.
Menovshchikov, G. A. Eskimosy. Magadan, 1959.
Fainberg, L. A. Obshchestvennyi stroi eskimosov i aleutov ot materinskogo roda k sosedskoi obshchine. Moscow, 1964.
Fainberg, L. A. Ocherki etnicheskoi istorii zarubezhnogo Severa. Moscow, 1971.
Mitlianskaia, T. B. Khudozhniki Chukotki. Moscow, 1976.
Ray, D. J. Eskimo Art. Seattle-London, 1977.



the language of the Eskimo, who live in the USSR in the Chukchi Autonomous Okrug (formerly Chukchi National Okrug) and in Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. According to a 1975 estimate, the Eskimo number 90,000, including 1,300 Siberian Eskimo (1970 census).

Eskimo, an Eskimo-Aleut language, has 20 dialects, which, having developed in isolation of one another, are widely divergent; many are virtually independent languages. Among the Siberian Eskimo, three principal dialects are distinguished: Chaplin, on which the written language is based; Naukan; and the dialect of the Sirenik Eskimo, which is becoming extinct. A Latin writing system was devised for the Siberian Eskimo in 1932; in 1937 it was replaced by a Cyrillic alphabet. Among the Eskimo outside the USSR; the Greenlandic Eskimo have a writing system.


Menovshchikov, G. A. Grammatika iazyka aziatskikh eskimosov, parts 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962–67.
Rubtsova, E. S. Eskimossko-russkii slovar’. Moscow, 1971.
Kleinschmidt, S. P. Grammatik der grönländischen Sprache. Berlin, 1851.
Schultz-Zorentzen, C. W. A Grammar of the West Greenland Language. Copenhagen, 1945.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a member of a group of peoples inhabiting N Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and E Siberia, having a material culture adapted to an extremely cold climate
2. the language of these peoples
3. a family of languages that includes Eskimo and Aleut
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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