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Inuit face off against the Eskimos

What's in a name?

Every once in a while, society is asked to examine the use of racially-charged sports team names, such as baseball's Cleveland Indians, the NFL's Washington Redskins, and the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos, the latter having the most relevance to Nunavummiut.

For some, it's much ado about nothing. For others, it's a dated name that affirms colonial notions of Inuit.

Our colleague at the Kivalliq News, Darrell Greer, believes Nunavummiut have more important concerns, and noted in his most recent column that Kiviaq, the first Inuk to dress for the Edmonton Eskimos (he was injured before he could play a regular season game), was far from offended by the name.

“(Eskimos is) what civilized man called us. German isn’t a derogatory word, Italian isn’t. American isn’t,” Kiviaq told the Edmonton Journal in 2014.

We support Greer's argument that the discussion of the name is a distraction from the important issues Nunavummiut face, issues southern Canada is in a position to address. But even if you're running late for an important meeting at work, you don't let your kid go to school wearing a bathing suit. It's a distraction but you address the distraction to get on with the important work.

Piita Irniq, a frequent contributor to this newspaper and the former commissioner of Nunavut, told us last week the name Edmonton Eskimos is no big deal. "The name doesn't bother me whatsoever. It means we are raw meat eaters. Yes we are!"

This stands in stark contrast to an in-depth column he wrote for this newspaper in 2011 titled 'Inuit, not Eskimos, OK?'

In the opening paragraph, Irniq wrote, "I resent being called an Eskimo. Many Inuit are offended when referred to as Eskimos. Negative issues are associated with the word Eskimo."

Many Nunavummiut are obviously conflicted about it. “Eskimo” is a distasteful word but it’s hard not to feel nostalgia for a storied sports franchise with many fans from all over Canada, including Nunavut.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting how the team name came to be. According to the Edmonton Journal, the Edmonton Eskimos earned their name after a Calgary sportswriter hurled the word as an insult to Edmonton residents, noting the city's more northern latitude and frigid temperatures. The team embraced the insult, and adopted the name. In other words, this is a team formed by 19th-century white folks caught up in a rivalry.

A national survey this month noted that 57 per cent of 'Canadians' – mostly old (probably white) men from western Canada, if you read the survey details – favour the team keeping the name. Nunavummiut were not polled.

Some prominent Inuit – such as performer Tanya Tagaq, and indeed Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami – are saying the name should go.

The team says it is listening but also that it has no plans to change the name. It has not reached a groundswell yet but it appears the team name is fast losing legitimacy among Inuit.

We hope the Edmonton Eskimos will consider their concerns and reflect on the acknowledged history of the name as an insult.

After all, what's in a name? A football team by any other name would still be a football team. Unless they start calling themselves the Edmonton Redskins.