Eskimo (ĕs´kəmō), 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 have adopted the name Inuit, although the term has not taken hold in Alaska or Siberia. In spite of regional differences, Eskimo groups are surprisingly 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 it is generally agreed that they were relatively recent migrants to the Americas from NE Asia, spreading from west to east over the course of the past 5,000 years.
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 have come 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.
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.
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 an agreement calls for establishing a self-governing area, Nunavik, in N Quebec in 2009. There are also Eskimo populations in Greenland and Siberia.
See U. Steltzer, Inuit: The North in Transition (1985); A. Balikci, The Netsilik Eskimo (1989).