The Eskimos are the most widely dispersed group in the world still leading a partly aboriginal way of life. They live in a region that spans more than 3,500 miles, including Greenland, the northern fringe of North America, and a sector of eastern Siberia.
Eskimos are racially distinct from American Indians, and are not, as previously believed, merely “Indians transformed.” In fact, the Eskimos are most closely related to the Mongolian peoples of eastern Asia. Eskimos consider themselves to be “Inuit” (The People). The Eskimo-Aleut languages are unrelated to any American Indian language groups.
The Eskimo population was approximately 50,000 at the time of the first widespread contact with Europeans. An estimated 2,000 Siberian Eskimos lived near the Bering Strait, the Alaskan Eskimos numbered about 25,000, and the Central Eskimos (who inhabited what is now northern Canada) numbered about 10,000. The Labrador Eskimos totaled about 3,000, while the Greenland Eskimos totaled about 10,000.
The popular conception of the Eskimos—whale hunters dressed in heavy fur clothing and living in dome-shaped ice lodges—is derived from the Eskimos who live farthest north, on the Arctic islands of Canada and along northwestern Greenland. In reality, these northern Arctic dwellers formed a minority among Eskimos as a whole. No single environmental adaptation existed throughout the area of Eskimo occupancy. Eskimos along the Pacific coast probably obtained much of their food by fishing for salmon, while the Central Eskimos of Canada subsisted mainly on caribou. Eskimo groups lived in various types of shelters, including semi-subterranean sod houses and tents made of caribou skins.
At no time did the Eskimos possess a national or even well-defined tribal sense. The emphasis was on the local and familial group rather than on associations of land and territory.
The overall Eskimo population has remained fairly constant over the past several centuries, although not all groups have remained stable in number. According to the 1990 census, there are 57,152 Eskimos and 23,797 Aleuts living in the United States.
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