We’ve discussed American Indian mascots, advertising featuring anachronistic caricatures of American Indians, the ice skater who appropriated aboriginal culture, the lie at the heart of the famous crying Indian PSA, and the stunning irony that is Avatar, but we’ve never directly addressed the use and appropriation of the idea of the Eskimo. The term refers to the Inuit and Yupik people in Eastern Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.
Russell Potter, a professor of English at Rhode Island College, collected a few vintage advertisements featuring the idea of the Eskimo. He argues that they fall roughly into two camps: cheerful adorable Eskimo and the Eskimo as primitive and backwards.
These first two for apples and ginger ale fall into the first category:
But this ad presents the “Esquimaux” as “dull” and Grape Nuts as civilized:
Building on Potter’s collection, Adrienne at Native Appropriations posted some more contemporary uses of the Eskimo.
Eskimo Joe’s (Stillwater, OK) uses an image of an Eskimo looking downright ridiculous and very much like his dog:
Any child of the ’80s probably remembers the Lisa Frank Eskimo girl (which Adrienne points out looks decidely anglo):
And this ad seems to suggest that even decapitated walruses speak better English than Eskimos:
All of these ads turn Eskimos into (cute but inferior) childlike figures or (deficient and inferior) backwards adults, or some combination of the two. For a population with essentially no contact with the Inuit or the Yupik, the idea that they are real human beings can become lost. When real members of a group are invisible, imaginary representatives can be demonized or romanticized as we see fit.