“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What can we learn from digital storytelling of Yup’ik, Inupiat and Inuit People? Do these tribes claim the Eskimo name? Content curation in the form of a digital story may be found in my Storify, Who Says Eskimo? including clips and trailers for several digital stories.
I previously took it for granted that the word Eskimo was politically correct in referring to northern natives of Alaska and Canada. Yet walk into any place that sells tchotchke for tourists and something doesn’t seem quite right with how Alaska Natives are characterized in toys, books, postcards, and the wooden cutouts/standings. In talking with both Native and non-Native Alaskans I get a mixed perspective on whether it is an offensive, acceptable or desirable term.
The Peace Party, Blue Corn Comics has an archive of ways Eskimo have been stereotyped, Eskimo: The Ultimate Aboriginis and perhaps it is the stereotyping that is more offensive than the word Eskimo. Of course even on this site Inuit are referred to as Eskimo which is inaccurate according to Linguists…and Inuit.
Lawrence Kaplan, Professor and Director of the UAF Alaska Native Language Center states, “Although the name ‘Eskimo’ is commonly used in Alaska to refer to all Inuit and Yup’ik people of the world, this name is considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean ‘eater of raw meat’” (UAF, 2011). Part of the reason for this is that Inuit translates to mean people; however, it is not a word in Yupik. To go further down the linguistic rabbit hole “Linguists now believe that ‘Eskimo” is derived from an Ojibwa word meaning “to net snowshoes’.” (UAF, 2011)
Language specialist and write, Rachel Qitsualik provides a comprehensive history of the the word Eskimo as well in her article “Are Eskimo and Inuit the same people?” . Qitsualik articulates that Inuit and Eskimo refer to different indigenous groups and the term is offensive to the Inuit as it is reminiscent of a time when they were labeled and abused by settlers. Her article ends with “It all really boils down to choice, the right to accept or reject specific labels at will, the right to be known as one wishes to be. And is that not what liberty is all about?” (AAA Native Arts).
Films give us a beautiful way to explore the cultural portrayal of people such as the Inuit, Inupiat or Yup’ik. In my Storify, Who Says Eskimo? I look at films by Natives and non-natives; fictional, non-fictional and somewhere in between; stories in various multimedia formats of varying length, stories for different audiences at different times. Examples include “Nanook of the North”, “Eskimo Hunters in Alaska – The Traditional Inuit Way of Life”, “Maina”, “On the Ice”, “Inuk” and “Qallunaat! Why White People are Funny”.
In earlier examples of documentaries such as “Nanook of the North” and “Eskimo Hunters in Alaska” one purpose of the films like all documentaries intends to satisfy our curiosity for different experiences. What other agendas are expressly or ambiguously part of these films? During this time period there is indoctrination, forced relocation and boarding schools of indigenous people.
A traditional western viewpoint of western ethnographic work is that one must be an outsider yet this seems counter-intuitive to me. Would “Qallunaat! Why White People are Funny” be considered autoethnographic work? Should we be applying these labels to the way that diverse people choose to tell their own story and histories? We do not call US History authoethnographic work…when in reality it is often ethnocentric.
Only since moving to Alaska in 2010 have I watched films from the perspective of indigenous people. “Inuk”, “On the Ice” and “Maina” are just a few examples of Inuit and Inupiaq stories. Digital Storytelling is a way to expand highly oral traditions in their cultures, provide a unique perspective to the dominant western culture, and to do so in their own voice.
In the earlier films and propaganda videos indigenous people are portrayed as simple and savage with an underlying message that outsiders will help to civilize. In contrast contemporary films explore the complexity of the human experience, juxtaposition of culture and time, and develop individual characters.
“Nanook of the North” is a silent film with music and some additional text. There is a lot of staging in this documentary and dramatization of event such as hunting. In “Eskimo Hunters of Alaska” there is a first-person narration though it sounds somewhat artificial and scripted by someone else.
In the short film, “Native Time” there is no dialogue either. An indigenous man with traditional clothes and tools and comes to a modern traffic intersection. At this intersection he encounters a fast moving world of machines and learns how to use a cross walk. From his perspective the world is volatile and moving fast; however, from the perspective of a driver he is moving in slow motion. Film editing is used to create these effects for the audience.
Watching “Inuk”, “Maina”, “On the Ice” and other indigenous films at the Alaska Native Heritage Center is a new and embraced experience for me. I grew up in the Northeast and did not realize as a child the cultures of Native Americans are living cultures. I had one friend in school who is Alaska Native. I remember wanting to do a project on Alaska and requesting brochures in the mail. I learned about Native Americans as people who lived in the past, mystical and otherworldly yet there are four recognized tribes in Vermont where I grew up.
Digital storytelling is a medium through which indigenous people may tell their story uninterrupted and for diverse audiences. These films also provide an opportunity for dialogue on issues that are often difficult to discuss and ask questions.
Of course these are also examples of good storytelling and through good storytelling we connect with the characters’ story, empathize with their experiences and hope they will overcome challenges. In this experience we dilute the stereotypes and grow to appreciate different cultures without assigning our own labels.
Kaplan, L. (2011, July 1). Alaska Native Language Center | Inuit or Eskimo?. Alaska Native Language Center | Inuit or Eskimo?. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from https://www.uaf.edu/anlc/resources/inuit-eskimo/
Qitsualik, R. (n.d.). eskimo – inuit. Are Eskimo and Inuit the same people?. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from http://www.aaanativearts.com/alaskan-natives/eskimo-vs-inuit.htm
- Traditional clothing; left: seal; right: caribou - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8a/Inuit-Kleidung_1.jpg/1492px-Inuit-Kleidung_1.jpg
- Bizzaro Comic – http://www.bluecorncomics.com/pics/bizarr22.gif
- Yaari – http://jodyophoto.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/yaari-13_07_004.jpg
- Eskimo Film Poster – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/Eskimo-FilmPoster.jpg
- Inuk Poster – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/92/Inuk_Poster.jpg
- Walrus Hunting – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/59/Walrus_hunting.jpg