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Eskimo is the collective name for the indigenous peoples in the northern polar region , whose settlement area extends from north-east Siberia over the Bering Strait and the arctic regions of Alaska and Canada to Greenland . The two main groups are the Inuit (eastern Eskimos) in northern Canada and on Greenland and the Yupik (western Eskimos) on the Russian Chukchi Peninsula and in Alaska. A smaller dialect group of the Inuit are the Iñupiat living in Alaska . Are still being used to the Native Alaska counting Aleutian Islands . Together they speak Eskimo-Aleut languages and, as relatively homogeneous cultures, form the North American cultural area of the "Arctic".


The word "Eskimo" is originally a foreign name that has been known since the 17th century and the etymology of which has not been clearly clarified. The Inuit Circumpolar Council , a non-governmental organization founded by Inuit, would like to replace the term “Eskimo” with “Inuit” in general. However, this word does not appear in all Eskimo languages ​​and only designates the Canadian and Greenlandic ethnic groups, which is why the Yupik and Inupiat use their own name or feel that they belong to the "people of the Eskimos". The located in Inuit-owned, internationally through the sale of Inuit art known cooperative of Cape Dorset in the Territory of Nunavut called since its inception West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative (WBEC). The term "Eskimo" is commonly used in Alaska for Inuit and Yupik. Most people in Alaska still accept the term "Eskimo" but do not want to be called Inuit.

Although their settlement areas are geographically extensive and not contiguous, the ethnic groups belonging to the Eskimos are characterized by a uniform culture and close linguistic affinities , but the common denomination of "human" also makes differences clear. In southern Alaska the indigenous people call themselves “Yupik”, in northwestern Alaska “Inupiat”, in the Mackenzie region “Inuvialuit”, in north and northeastern Canada “Inuit” and on Greenland “Kalaallit”.

"Eskimo" is originally from Cree - and Algonquian - Native Americans used collective term for the non-related peoples in the northern polar region . According to Ives Goddard (RH Ives Goddard, III) at the Smithsonian Institution, the word should be derived etymologically from the Cree word aayaskimeew , " snowshoe netters" .

The linguist Jose Mailhot from Québec , who speaks the Innu-Montagnais language , published a study in 1978 in which he derived the word from this language and with " people who speak a different language " translated.

The earlier linguistic derivation from the language of the Anishinabe ashkipok , " raw meat eater" (English: eaters of raw meat ) and from similar words in related Indian languages ​​is now considered to be refuted. This earlier explanation of the word led the Inuit to reject the word "Eskimo" because they found "raw meat eaters" to be derogatory.


The total number of Eskimo Arctic inhabitants is estimated to be around 160,000 today. Around 50,000 live in Greenland , around 60,000 in Canada - around 30,000 of them in the Nunavut Territory and around 30,000 in the rest of Canada, mainly in the Northwest Territories , in the Nunavik area (northern Québec) and in Labrador , together also around 30,000 - and in Alaska about 30,000. Another 1500 live in Chukotka (northeastern Siberia ). Depending on the region, these people have different names: Inuit in North and Northeast Canada , Inuit and special Kalaallit in Greenland, Yupik (also Yuit ) on the Siberian Chukchi Peninsula and on the St. Lawrence Island off Alaska, Inupiat in Western Alaska, Inuvialuit (also Inuvialiut ) in northern Alaska and northwestern Canada . The Eskimos also include the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), who are closely related to the Yupik .

There is an Eskimo museum in Churchill, Manitoba .


The Eskimos were traditionally semi-sedentary hunters and gatherers who originally lived mainly from hunting marine mammals , caribou and birds, as well as from fishing. Their technology was characterized by excellent adaptation to the living conditions on the Arctic coast ( harpoon , igloo snow house, kayak and umiak (boats) or ulu chopping knife ). Most of the Eskimo groups were organized in an egalitarian manner (equal) and acephalic (non-domineering). Families or households came together in different seasons (winter: hunting for marine mammals, summer: hunting for caribou, gathering time) to form local groups of different sizes . Approaches to social stratification were found among the Western Eskimo, especially on the Pacific and the Bering Strait. There were also chiefs there .

Even today, subsistence-oriented hunting plays an important role in isolated groups who live far away from small towns. Otherwise, the traditional way of life and social structure are rather the exception, although efforts are being made to revitalize the semi-autonomous Eskimo territories in order to fight poverty and offer the uprooted people a new / old perspective.

The traditional music of the Eskimos is predominantly vocal. The only original musical instruments are the large frame drum qila , which was previously used as a shaman's drum , and the occasional rattle . With the qila the drum songs are accompanied inngerutit in Greenland . In the ritualized "drum fight " ivertut pisii , two opponents throw insults at each other. The drum dance is called aton .


Eskimo shaman from Alaska around 1900, who drives an "evil spirit" out of a sick boy

Since the cultures of the Eskimo peoples are remarkably similar, the traditional beliefs are also largely the same. Nevertheless, the great isolation of the individual groups as well as the influences of neighboring ethnic groups have led to diverse varieties of religions that have only been passed down orally.

At this point it should be mentioned that the original belief in its pure form no longer exists anywhere. Christianization was very pervasive everywhere. The last "bastion" of halfway traditional ideas can be found with a few hundred older East Greenland shamanists . In addition, only a few groups in remote regions of North Greenland or Nunavuts still have individual myths and rituals alive. Reports by Inuit students about the respect for the spirits of earlier shamans show that the old world of faith is still seen as a real possibility by young people - but there can be no question of a syncretistic mixed religion . In all other areas of Alaska, Canada and West Greenland there are only folkloric customs (music and dance), stories from ancient myths and occasional "superstitious" ideas.

Traditional ideas

The original religion was decidedly animistic , that is, all animals, plants, inanimate things and even concepts were considered to be endowed with a human-like soul. God-like "figures" stood above an army of collective spirit beings . Everywhere there was a supreme (mostly sexless) being who filled the atmosphere and all of space, was endowed with the highest understanding, and who was called for example Sila , Hila or Sla . Sila punished violations of the law through particularly violent storms. The next highest deity was usually the moon god, who also had an influence on the weather, but who was also responsible for the fertility of women and the protection of the poor and orphans. In addition, as the lord of the animals , he was also a god of hunting who, however, had to share his power over the marine animals with the "sea mother", who was particularly highly revered by the people. The goddess, mostly known in the West under the name Sedna, was an omniscient observer of people. Although women were of little importance in the economy and religion in Eskimo societies, this important deity was female. When people broke taboos, they settled as dirt in Sedna's hair and made her angry, so that she warned the animals about the hunters and could trigger famine. Another goddess was the "mistress of the sun" as the sister of the moon god.

The traditional worldview of the Eskimo peoples is static: Heaven and earth have always rested on world supports and the human world exists without beginning and without change in its present form. Hence, there are usually no cosmogonic narratives in Inuit myths .

According to the Canadian Inuit, above the sky was the world ruled by the moon, where there was always enough food for the recently deceased, since the souls of the hunted animals lived there. However, the human name soul quickly left this transition area to be reincarnated in one or usually several newborns . The ideas of the soul and the image of the hereafter were also inconsistent. Often there was the belief in two paradises, one heavenly and one subterranean, both of which were rated as happy “land of plenty”. The belief in a kind of hell underground was rather rare. In this case, the behavior during lifetime - very similar to Christianity - decided the whereabouts after death.

Similar to other hunter peoples in the north, hunting rites played the predominant role in the cult : The protective spirits of the prey animals had to be benevolent so that the animals showed themselves to the hunter and the spirits did not complain to the gods. Occasionally the killed animals or their spirits received offerings or his bones were ritually buried. Particularly pronounced and complex taboo rules applied to whale hunting. It was widely believed that anything related to marine animals should be strictly separated from anything related to land animals. According to the belief of the Eskimos, if such ethical and ceremonial obligations were not observed, this aroused the strongest anger of the animal spirits. This meant "Inua", the common soul of the respective animal species (not the individual animal). The overwhelming feeling of fear was characteristic of the “religious psychology” of the Eskimos: the feeling of being dependent on such supernatural forces. To protect oneself from the countless spirits that dwelt in every element and activity of nature and could appear as animals, things, giants, dwarfs, etc., there were a large number of taboos and protective amulets such as the Tupilaks : images were particularly uglier Spirit beings who are supposed to protect their owner. The treatment of the dead varied: some groups buried the deceased (which was often done with grave goods for the time in the world of the dead), others laid them wrapped in furs on the tundra.

Arctic shamanism

As with the north and east Siberian peoples , who live under similar environmental conditions, the shaman, as mediator between this world and the hereafter, had a dominant position among the Eskimos, so that he dominated considerable parts of religious activities. The German ethnologist Klaus E. Müller speaks of the elemental shamanism of the arctic hunter peoples. The most important tasks of the Eskimo shaman Angakok (plural Angakut ) (mostly men, but it could also be women) were healing diseases, helping sterile women, bringing back stolen souls, monitoring morality, combating harmful spells , preservation of traditions, weather magic, conducting ceremonies, fortune telling and finally the intercession with the goddess Sedna when the success in catching marine animals was not successful. For many of these tasks - but especially for the journey to Sedna - some Angakut performed an ecstatic soul journey in trance (with the help of the rhythms of a shaman's drum ) with the help of various helper spirits (or on the seabed in the case of Sedna). Shamans were called by gods or spirits, or chosen by an older shaman. He was then trained by an experienced teacher who taught him, among other things, the "spirit language". Before initiation, the adept spent a time of privation in complete solitude, during which he won his auxiliary spirits (spirits of the dead or of animals). With a few exceptions (masks in Alaska), Eskimo shamans did not wear any special clothing or equipment as in some Siberian cultures. Today there are only shamans in East Greenland following traditional patterns, as well as a few healers in North Canada who call themselves Angakok and trace their abilities back to the spirits of holy ancestors.


The earliest attempts at Christianization among Eskimo peoples were in the 18th century. In 1721 the Norwegian pastor Hans Egede ("Apostle of the Greenlanders") worked in Southwest Greenland, the Christian mission began in Labrador by Moravians of German origin in 1774 and from 1794 Russian Orthodox were active in Alaska. For many decades the missionary work had little success because the religions were too different: Jesus was simply integrated into the old spirit world. The missionaries, who, despite the common goal, had very different motives, tried to reach the natives with very different methods. For example, Russian monks carried out mass baptisms on Kodiak and made financial incentives. The establishment of mission schools or trading posts was a popular method. However, some of the men of God changed themselves through the encounter with the Eskimos: For example the missionary couple Edith and John Kilbuck, who lived with the Yup'ik in Alaska from 1885 to 1922 ; its concern changed from the missionary work of the people to the protection of their culture. Incidentally, the Orthodox preachers in Alaska had already done a lasting job when the first American missionaries came in 1872.

While fur traders had long traveled to the far north of Alaska and Canada, the first missionaries and business people did not appear there until the second half of the 19th century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, missionary activities had spread across much of the country. The mission began in 1894 with the East Greenlanders, which were (re) discovered in 1884. The polar explorer Knud Rasmussen , who was respected among the locals, initiated various mission stations on his travels from Greenland to Alaska, for example in 1909 with the Inughuit in North Greenland, and in 1910 in Uummannaq (West- Greenland) and from 1921 to 1924 in the Canadian archipelago . The Netsilik on Canada's north coast were the last Eskimo to be Christianized (within a few years) in the 1930s.

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: Eskimo  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Emile Benveniste: The 'Eskimo' Name. International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 19, No. 3, July 1953, p. 242
  2. Lawrence Kaplan: Inuit or Eskimo: Which name to use? ( Memento of the original from May 18, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Alaska Native Language Center University of Alaska @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  3. Ken Albala (Ed.): Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia , Vol. 1 to 4, Greenwood, Santa Barbara 2011, ISBN 978-0-313-37626-9 , p. 191.
  4. ^ Mark Israel: Eskimo. (No longer available online.) Archived from the original on April 3, 2012 ; accessed on January 6, 2009 .
  5. ^ José Mailhot: L'étymologie de "esquimau" revue et corrigée . In: Études / Inuit / Studies . tape 2 , no. 2 , 1978, ISSN  0701-1008 , pp. 59-69 .
  6. ^ A b Walter Hirschberg (greeting), Wolfgang Müller (red.): Dictionary of Ethnology. New edition, 2nd edition, Reimer, Berlin 2005. p. 98.
  7. Michael Hauser: Traditional Inuit Songs from the Thule Area. Volume 1. Museum Tusculanum Press, Njalsgade (Denmark) 2010, p. 571, ISBN 978-8763525893
  8. ^ EY Arima: The Eskimo Drum Dance. (PDF; 189 kB) In: Arctic, January 1974
  9. Christian F. Feest : Animated Worlds - The religions of the Indians of North America. In: Small Library of Religions , Vol. 9, Herder, Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 1998, ISBN 3-451-23849-7 . P. 15.
  10. a b c d e f Günter Lanczkowski: Eskimo religion, published in: Horst Balz et al. (Ed.): Theologische Realenzyklopädie , Volume 10: "Erasmus - Faculties, Theological". Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, New York 1982, ISBN 978-3-11-019098-4 . Pp. 363-366.
  11. ^ Religious Adherents of Greenland , en: Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), accessed July 26, 2015.
  12. Merete Demant Jakobsen: Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing. Berghahn Books, New York 1999, ISBN 1-57181-195-8 , pp. 52, 114 f.
  13. Pamela R. Stern: Daily Life of the Inuit. ABC-CLIO, 2010, ISBN 978-0-313-36312-2 . Pp. 109-111.
  14. Bryan et al. Cherry Alexander: Eskimo - hunter of the far north. (from the English by Susanne Stephan) Belser, Stuttgart, Zurich 1993, ISBN 3-7630-2210-4 . Pp. 6-8, 10-11.
  15. ^ Rolf Gilberg: Polar Eskimo , in William C. Sturtevant (ed.): Handbook of North American Indians: Arctic p. 597.
  16. a b Christian F. Feest: Animated Worlds - The Religions of the Indians of North America. In: Small Library of Religions , Vol. 9, Herder, Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 1998, ISBN 3-451-23849-7 . Pp. 98, 152, 163.
  17. Wolfgang Lindig et al. Mark Münzel: The Indians. Cultures and history of the Indians of North, Central and South America. dtv, Munich 1978, ISBN 3-423-04317-X . Pp. 34-36.
  18. Miriam Schultze: Traditional Religions in North America. In: Harenberg Lexicon of Religions. Harenberg, Dortmund 2002, ISBN 3-611-01060-X . P. 881.
  19. Hans Läng : Cultural history of the Indians of North America. Gondrom Verlag, Bindlach 1993, ISBN 3-8112-1056-4 . Pp. 75 ff., 101-103.
  20. SA Tokarev : Religion in the History of Nations. Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1968. pp. 144-149.
  21. Hans Läng : Cultural history of the Indians of North America. Gondrom Verlag, Bindlach 1993, ISBN 3-8112-1056-4 . Pp. 75 ff., 101-103.
  22. SA Tokarev : Religion in the History of Nations. Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1968. pp. 144-149.
  23. a b Klaus J. Friese: Missionierung in Alaska , Institute for Ethnology, Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich 2012. Accessed on November 20, 2015.
  24. Handbook of the Arctic ., accessed on: November 16, 2015.
  25. Barry M. Pritzker: A Native American Encyclopedia. History, Culture and Peoples. Oxford University Press, New York 2000, ISBN 978-0-19-513877-1 . P. 546 Keyword: "Netsilik".