TORONTO — Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq has convinced Brooklyn indie band Eskimeaux to swap out its name for one deemed more culturally sensitive.
The Polaris Prize-winner jumped on Twitter last week to call out singer-songwriter Gabrielle Smith for “using slurs to sell music.”
“If you want to use the word Eskimo you had better be an Eskimo or I’ll eat you for lunch,” Tagaq tweeted. “I’m tired of being reduced, diminished, dismissed. Our matriarchs are better than this,” she added in another message. The band responded within days to tell her they’d decided to rename themselves O.
“We’ve been talking about changing the band name for a little over a year now,” Smith said in a statement. “The band name is the gateway to the project and I never set out to make it controversial, hurt people’s feelings, or bring up a kind of hardship I haven’t personally had to endure.” Smith said she was adopted and settled on the name Eskimeaux after searching for information about her heritage, knowing only that her father was Tlingit, an indigenous group originating from the Pacific northwest coast.
“Everywhere I looked for more information the word ‘Eskimo’ was commonplace,” she added. “Talking to Tanya about this was what ultimately helped me make up my mind to change the band name. She and I have had really different struggles, but they don’t serve to diminish one another.”
It’s not the first time the word “Eskimo” has been considered problematic in recent years. Many indigenous groups see the term as derogatory because it was used by Europeans and said to mean “eater of raw meat.” Linguists have also suggested the name is derived from Ojibwa to mean a “netter of snowshoes.” The word isn’t decisively considered offensive across all regions. In Alaska, for example, some groups commonly refer to themselves as Eskimos. But indigenous peoples in Canada and Greenland — where the term was once used — have all but ruled it out as a sweeping and inaccurate generalization.
That’s why it’s become a point of contention for Tagaq, who is pushing for more change in perceptions of indigenous peoples in popular culture. “The word Eskimo is a slur for many Inuit. The name being applied to a band by a non-Inuk person incensed me,”Tagaq explained in a statement. “Gabrielle has taught me that people can be open and respectful when mistakes are made. I am very pleased with this outcome of the band name change and our impending friendship. Pleasant surprises.”
Others have refused to back away from using the term, including the CFL team the Edmonton Eskimos. Len Rhodes, the team’s president, said last year that he wouldn’t budge on calls for a change because the football team had been using its name for decades.