Eskimo Avenue: Pejorative Arctic ethnonyms as the final frontier of racism?

Kenn Nakata Steffensen

 

At the recent Media for All Conference in London I came across a stall marketing a new division of the subtitling company Broadcast Text International. The rather unfortunate name they have chosen is Eskimo Avenue. It could not have been named Paki Street or Nigger Lane, but it seems that Eskimo Avenue does not raise many eyebrows in our day and age. In the company’s own words:

Eskimo Avenue is a Nordic dubbing company within the home entertainment industry.

We localise cartoons, films, games and TV shows into Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Finnish.

If you demand excellence throughout the whole chain, from translation to the 5.1. master – welcome to Eskimo Avenue.

(htttp://www.eskimoavenue.com)

Ironically, some translational excellence seems to be missing somewhere in the chain. The name is highly inappropriate, even offensive to the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Using the word “Eskimo” is a serious branding error and a manifestation of, probably unthinking, racism. It is all the more surprising because both the parent company and Eskimo Avenue pride themselves on the quality of their translation work. Cross-cultural branding is, in the broad sense, about translation. A brand transmits meanings between different cultures. As an exercise in translation, this is a failure. As I have argued elsewhere (Steffensen 2011, forthcoming), what Charles Taylor terms misrecognition is a serious problem in the media’s representation of subaltern ethnicities, and in this case in branding:

A person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back a demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being (Taylor 1997: 98).

The term “Eskimo” refers collectively to the Yupik and Inuit peoples of the circumpolar Arctic. Specialists disagree on its exact etymology and whether it was originally a pejorative term or not. What they do agree on is that it originates in more southerly North American languages. That is to say that it was an externally ascribed ethnonym. The people labelled as “Eskimo” never adopted it and, more importantly, take objection to it as mirroring back “a demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.” Unlike some other externally ascribed names for marginalised and oppressed social groups, like “queer” or to some extent “nigger”, “Eskimo” has never been appropriated and resignified by the stateless nations it lumps together and demeans. That is what matters in this case. Whether it originally meant “those who lace snowshoes” or “eaters of raw meat” and whether it came from Cree or Algonquin is irrelevant to its contemporary meaning in political discourse. Over the last 40 years or longer, the “Eskimo” in Canada and Danish-occupied Greenland have asked the wider world to stop using the word. They do not identify as “Eskimo” and prefer other designations (Kalaalit, Inuit, Inupiak, Yupik, Naukan and others) that do not have the negative connotations associated with centuries of colonisation and racism.

Eskimo Avenue
Eskimo Avenue Logo

It is well known that the Inuit and Yupik resent being called by this name. One does not have to be a specialist in Arctic affairs to know this. It is common knowledge to most generally informed Westerners. It is therefore nothing less than scandalous for a company whose business is to transmit meanings between cultures and languages to engage in such racist name-calling. The fact that it is discursively possible to launch a company called Eskimo Avenue apparently without further thought provides some insight into the status of the Arctic and its population in the contemporary world. As I argued in an earlier post on this blog, the Arctic tends to be constituted in policy and academic discourse as nature rather than culture (Steffensen 2009). Its human inhabitants and their cultures are systematically erased, as can be seen and heard at policy and academic conferences about the region. It is conceived of as a tabula rasa for states and corporations ruled and managed by Asians, Europeans or their diasporic descendants to act on and in to further their own national, corporate or putatively universal (in the case of climate change) political and economic interests. The Arctic is seen as a zone of climate change, military rivalry, transit and economic exploitation, but rarely as somewhere where “real” people of equal worth and dignity live and die. Or, as Kuupik Kleist put it at the Arctic Council summit in May this year:

Although the focus on the natural sciences absolutely makes sense for our political way of thinking and strategic planning, it is also important to consider what we who depend on the conditions in the Arctic consider the most important aspect. The Arctic is not only about polar bears and ice. What is most often absent from discussions is the human situation in the Arctic and our living conditions. (Quoted in Sermitsiaq, 13th May 2011, my translation)

What the inhabitants of the Arctic consider “the most important aspect” is the human factor, which the outside world tends to prioritise lower than fishing, shipping, mineral and fossil fuel extraction, global climate change and military security. What Broadcast Text/Eskimo Avenue are doing lies in continuation of a long tradition of dehumanising non-Western peoples and using racism to justify political and economic domination. In this Western optic, the Arctic is a vast space to be exploited, and its inhabitants “wholly crude and barbarous peoples such as the Eskimos.” (1988: 229) Continuing on a Hegelian note, it is “is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” (Hegel 1956: 99) Whatever history takes place in that part of the world, such as the new global warming-fuelled geopolitical and economic “great game” unfolding between the Arctic powers is thought not to include the region’s human inhabitants. They and their aspirations for self-determination, equality and liberty are either overlooked or considered so insignificant as to be fair game for stereotyping and misrepresentation in advertising and marketing. The Arctic remains incompletely decolonised and there are no politically powerful diasporas of Arctic peoples. These are the conditions of possibility for naming a business Eskimo Avenue. The people insulted are far away and matter very little. Usually, the subaltern does not speak back (Spivak 1994). One can better understand that companies and products may have contained a pejorative name some 50 years or more ago, but it is utterly indefensible in 2011. One therefore hopes that the Qallunaat at Broadcast Text International take note and reconsider their branding in their own interest and as a gesture of respect to the Arctic nations.

References

Eskimo Avenue website http://www.eskimoavenue.com

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 1956 The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover, 1956

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 1988 Lectures on the philosophy of religion: The lectures of 1827. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988

Sermitsiaq 13th May 2011 http://sermitsiaq.ag/node/100965

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty “Can the Subaltern Speak?” pp. 66-111 in Williams, Patrick & Laura Chrisman (eds.) Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1994

Steffensen, Kenn Nakata 2009 “Arctic science, Arctic policy and Acrtic politics: A tale of different lifeworlds” https://culturalmeanings.wordpress.com/2009/06/30/new-frontiers-inscience-diplomacy/

Steffensen, Kenn Nakata 2011 “BBC English with an accent: “African” and “Asian” accents and the translation of culture in British Broadcasting. Thematic issue on “Ideology and manipulation in audiovisual translation”. Meta: Journal of Translation 2011, edited by Jorge Diaz Cintas and Aline Remael

Taylor, Charles “The politics of recognition”, pp. 98-130 in Heble, Ajay, Donna Palmateer Pennee & JR (Tim) Struthers (eds.) New contexts of Canadian criticism. Peterborough: Broadway Press, 1997

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