People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Eskimo Americans

About the Eskimo Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Eskimos and more.


Where They Came From: The first Eskimos immigrated to Alaska from northern Asia, specifically the Siberian Arctic. Archaeologists set the date at somewhere between 2,000 and 8,000 years ago, after the land bridge across the Bering Strait had been reclaimed by the ocean waters. These migrants probably crossed in umiaks, skin boats large enough to hold a family.

Why They Left: Since hunting has always been the basis of the Eskimo culture, the early migration was most likely related to a change in the availability of game.

Where They Settled: The Eskimos first settled in villages on the coasts and islands of the Bering and Chukchi seas and the Arctic Ocean. Some roamed inland across the Arctic tundra, settling in the Brooks Range near the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.

Eskimos spread east from Alaska, across Canada to Labrador and Greenland, in two waves--the first between 3000 and 800 B.C. and the second around 1000 A.D.

The Eskimo population is now concentrated in towns and cities like Barrow and Point Hope. Nome, whose 1970 population of 2,488 was half Eskimo, is the largest city in Eskimo country.

Numbers: About 28,000 Eskimo Americans live in Alaska today; there are also about 11,000 Eskimos in Canada, 22,000 in Greenland, and 1,200 in Siberia. An estimated 32,000 Eskimos lived in Alaska just prior to contact with the white man.

Their Story in America: The Eskimos have always been hunters, primarily of seals, walrus, and whales on the coast and of wolves and caribou inland. They also fished for salmon and herring. They developed ingenious hunting tools like the toggle harpoon and the light, one-man hunting boats-kayaks-now popular with non-Eskimos as recreational craft.

Originally, Eskimos lived in villages in the winter and made hunting and fishing expeditions in the summer. Transportation was by skin boat or dogsled. The most common dwellings were dome-shaped, semisubterranean sod houses called igloos; snow houses were seldom used in Alaska.

First contact with the white world came in 1741, when Vitus Bering claimed Alaska for Russia. The Russians sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867; it became a territory in 1912; Eskimos were declared U.S. citizens in 1924; and Alaska became a state in 1959. Early whalers almost depleted the Alaskan coast, and later, large fisheries almost ended native salmon fishing. The discoveries of gold in 1896 and oil in 1968 brought influxes of white Americans to the state, who have gradually forced the Eskimo Americans off the land which provides their livelihood. Meanwhile, the whites began emulating the Eskimo Americans' style of cold-weather dress and appreciating their native art and carvings. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, intended to make amends, was passed by Congress in 1971. It traded the natives' aboriginal land rights for $962 million and 44 million acres to be administered by native-run corporations.

Eskimo American have suffered soaring rates of alcoholism, suicide, and crime while jobs have remained scarce. Life expectancy is less than 35 years, and income per capita is less than $1,000 a year.

Most urban Eskimo Americans live in frame houses and work for wages when they can. Alaska's small native villages are the last places in the U.S. where a subsistence life-style is still precariously dominant. However, guns, outboard motors, and snowmobiles are increasingly thought of as necessities by these Eskimo Americans.

Famous Eskimo Americans: Artist George Ahgupuk, whose pen sketches of Eskimo scenes have won international acclaim; editor Howard Rock, who founded the Fairbanks Tundra Times, the first native newspaper; and activist Charles Edwardsen, Jr. (a.k.a. Etok), whose fight for Alaska native rights culminated in the passage of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

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