What to Do When You Learn You Are Eskimo

Sometimes, a new piece of family history drops onto the landscape like a meteorite, sending everyone scrambling around the unfamiliar crater they find themselves in

I learned some weeks ago that I am an Eskimo, at least part Eskimo, maybe, well there’s a slight possibility, and that’s enough to change my identity, don’t you think? There are a few things that have to be cleared up, however, before I buy a tusk-carving set.

The first thing is how not to stumble over the pronunciation of Inuit. That’s the word that my people have always called themselves — “Eskimo” being the word used by English-speaking observers — but I seem to fall into the trap of saying “in-you-wheat” instead of “in-you-it,” which makes me sound like a jerk who can’t even pronounce her own identity. While I practice, I’ve been using the old-fashioned “Eskimo,” hoping it makes me sound in the know, like New Yorkers who still say Sixth Avenue instead of Avenue of the Americas.

Then I need to learn some traditional customs — songs, a few recipes, the name of the ethnic group on which to look down, and maybe a noble precept or two — to add to my Eastern European Jewish manners and mores. I can’t go around announcing myself as an Eskimo if I’ve never so much as paddled a kayak on a pond in Marin County.

Third, a very minor matter it seems, I suppose I ought to be thinking about whether this is true or not.

A few weeks ago, when my sister flew East to represent the California contingent of our family at the funeral of a cousin in New York, she returned with a story we’d never heard:

A cousin who died a few years ago had revealed to two of the other cousins on this side of the family that our grandmother was adopted. One of these cousins, it should be pointed out, has a Ph.D. in history, a fact he flings around to verify almost everything he says, on any subject. He’s a man not easily dissuaded from his opinions.

Upon learning of our grandmother’s adoption — which he accepted as fact, although he was somewhat fuzzy about the two sources we journalists know are necessary for publication — the historian said he examined the face of my grandmother in photographs. She was somewhat dark-skinned (since most of the photos are sepia, it’s hard to see whether her complexion is olive or cinnamon) and she had high cheekbones.

We know, he told my sister, that she was raised by a family of peddlers in Bialystok, a city that was part of Russia then, but is now in Poland. We also know, he said, that there is an established community of Orthodox Jews in northern Alaska, where they do business as traders.

Therefore, after much research (he wasn’t too specific on what research), he has determined that my grandmother was acquired by the Jews in Alaska as part of some kind of swap — one infant for a center-fielder, perhaps — with the Eskimos, and that they, in turn, swapped or sold her to the Bialystok clan. Therefore, we, her grandchildren, are part-Eskimo.

My mother, a spectator since this has to do with my father’s family, was more or less listening to this as my sister related it to me. Hogwash, she said, or something much stronger.

Probably, we said, but why not believe it? We were brought up with the most garden-variety Eastern European background. Not a tinge of blue was in our blood; not a book on our shelves had been written by a forebear; there wasn’t even an abandoned farmhouse silhouetted against the sky to remind us of generations who once worked the Earth.

So why not be Eskimos? It was romantic; it was colorful; it was unusual; it was dramatic. Bah, said my mother, obviously envious of our special heritage.

My cousin told us that his brother’s children had used the Native American designation when they applied for college scholarships. Aha! said my mother, making it known she thought that explained everything. They were trying to gyp the colleges.

That’s our family you’re talking about, huffed my sister and I, comparing notes on our very Eskimo- ness:

Although neither of us is into hunting or fishing, we both like dogs. I pictured my sister’s 30- pound shepherd mix valiantly leading a team across the Iditarod finish line.

My sister volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center, where she has a special affinity for sea lions, which are mighty like seals. One even bit her in the arm, which, if you’ll think about your own family, is just the kind of thing that indicates a special closeness.

Just a few months ago, I took up ice skating. Sure, you say, that’s more a Sonja Henie fantasy than Nanook of the North; I say ice is ice.

I’d grown up hearing about serious class distinctions between Littwaks and Galitzianers, the former being higher on the totem pole — I find those phrases creeping into my conversation now — than the latter. I was shocked to realize, upon visiting the region, that the areas from which both kinds of people came were geographically so close. In fact, the differences seemed to be only in people’s minds, in their need to hold themselves higher than someone else.

So I’m of Eskimo heritage, which I think is pretty special, and I guess I’ll just have to explain that in full the next time someone asks me what kind of name Garchik is (actually, it’s my husband’s, and he’s got nothing to do with this at all).

I’m trying to forget a conversation I once had with a Russian, in which I asked him which people were the butts of ethnic humor in Russia. You guessed it. I’m pulling my fur-trimmed hood right over my face.


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