It’s confusing these days. When I was little, the Eskimos lived in Alaska in igloos. In Lyra’s world, it seems to be used in general terms for indigenous peoples of the North.
Now, in our world, Eskimo is widely seen as a derogatory term, since some linguists say that Eskimo means “eater of raw meat,” and I guess the offense here is that in the division of raw and cooked as uncivilized vs. civilized. To me, you may as well complain about the low rates of veganism among coastal peoples of the Far North.
But there are some peoples for whom Eskimo remains a valid term.
Inuit is the plural of inuk, which means human, and is also used to refer to the languages spoken by these indigenous peoples.
However, not all Artic indigenous peoples speak languages with a common root. Inuit works for peoples of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, but Eskimo covers non-Inuit native Arctic speakers. In Alaska and Siberia, the languages are Inupiaq and Yupik.
Lord Asriel uses Eskimo when he tells Lyra he will bring her back a carving from the North. Later, a Nova Zembla bartender speaks of the Inuits of Beringland (Alaska).
Skraeling does seem a derogatory term. When Lord Asriel presents what he claims to be the scalped head of a once-time Jordan Scholar, the faculty is aghast at scalping patterns they associate with Tartars and “aboriginals of Siberia and Tungusk” (GL/NC 26), which they claim to have “spread into the land of the Skraelings,” but is now banned by New Denmark (presumably Greenland).
Skraelings are also said to be able to snatch demons away from children by hand, (273) and to use poisonous arrows in battle (315).
The word Skraeling is found in Norse sagas about the attempted conquest of Vinland. They were described as “short people with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. . . .large eyes and broad cheeks” by Ari the Wise. Around 1000 AD another historian noted in Historia Norvegiae that in Northwestern Greenland Skraelings “have no iron at all; they use missiles made of walrus tusks.”
The old Norse word Skraeling means “to glide,” but is usually used with derision for “small people” who seem “scared or scruffy.”
The Magisterium’s censor at the Nova Zembla observatory is known only at “the Skraeling,” (SK chapter 6) and one of Mrs. Coulter’s victims, Tony Makarios, a London street kid, is half-Skraeling (NL/GC chapters 3, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 21, 23; AS 19 passing).
The ivory carver–Nunivak. Curtis, Edward S., Created / Published 1929.
Featured: Inupiat in a kayak, Noatak, Alaska, c. 1929 (photo by Edward S. Curtis)