Since 1977, the indigenous peoples living in the coldest reaches of North America, Greenland, and Siberia have formally referred to themselves as Inuit (sometimes spelled “Innuit”), even though the inhabitants of this icy—but increasingly thawing—part of the planet also self-identify as Inupiat, Yupik, Inuvialuit, and Kalaallit. Here in the warmer regions of the Western world, we have long called these people Eskimos, a word which has its roots in the Montagnais language of the Innu people (no relation to the Inuit) in what is now Quebec.

Some Inuit are fine with the word Eskimo, others are not. Regardless, the decorative and traditional objects made by circumpolar peoples, as well as those in western Alaska (the Aleut) and southeastern Alaska and southwestern Canada (the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian), often get lumped under the heading of Eskimo art. But the range of such pieces is not as uniform as their shared label of convenience would suggest, reflecting the diversity and unique aesthetic histories of their creators.

This range can be most easily seen in the differences between sculptural pieces. For example, the rounded, chunky soapstone figurines of 20th-century Inuit artists bear little resemblance to the ethereal spirit masks of their predecessors. Similarly, wood carvings by Haida artists appear realistic when compared to those of the Tlingit and Tsimshian, whose motifs are more abstracted, cartoony, or graphic.

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