The story of the Eskimo: Who is on the tail of Alaska Airlines’ planes?

To five-year-olds in Kotzebue, Alaska (and Internet surfers round the world), the question of just whose face adorns the tails of Alaska Airlines 737s is a heated one. It is an oft-asked question about the Seattle-based airline, but the truth is anything but simple.

“When I was a little kid, we all thought it was our own grandfathers,” says former Kotzebue mayor Maija Lukin. “We all thought it was our tata. Even if it didn’t remotely look like our grandfathers.”

While the argument of whose grandfather served as inspiration for Alaska’s iconic paint scheme may be lighthearted, its meaning is profound. For residents of Kotzebue, a 3,200-person city some 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and the 15 other cities inaccessible by road that Alaska serves throughout the state, air service is vital. In Barrow, North America’s northernmost city, residents joke that before construction on the city’s new hospital was completed in 2013, if you were sick, “you didn’t call the hospital – you called Alaska Airlines.”

State-of-Alaska-Map

Click to enlarge map

Alaska Airlines is embedded into the fiber of the communities it serves in the harsh, breathtaking state of Alaska in a way that can’t be replicated in the 71 destinations it serves in the lower 48. In Alaska, the airline brings the mail, the groceries and the medicine. And because it is so vital, the face on the tail represents more than just a logo. It means safety, family, community, home – and, more often than not, a grandfather, uncle or family friend.

“When I see that face, I feel proud. I feel like I’m home,” says Sallee Baltierra, a concierge in Alaska’s Anchorage Board Room airport lounge. “I love to see that Eskimo on the tail in other cities that we fly to, from Liberia, Costa Rica to Nashville, Tennessee. It makes me feel like there’s a little piece of home there waiting for me.”

who is on the tail

Looking back

Alaska’s iconic Eskimo first appeared in the skies in the early 1970s, but the airline’s history goes back much further.

alaska airlines t1 0009 e1453338984446 The story of the Eskimo: Who is on the tail of Alaska Airlines planes?The company was born in 1932 when Linious “Mac” McGee started flying his three-passenger Stinson from Anchorage to Bristol Bay. Two years later, McGee Airways merged with Star Air Service and became the largest airline in the state, with 22 airplanes. After another decade, and several more mergers, the airline found the name that stuck: Alaska Airlines.

The Eskimo first appeared in 1972, when Alaska adopted a four-logo paint scheme – a totem pole, to represent the native culture of Southeast Alaska; a gold miner, to represent the booming gold rush days in Alaska; Russian spires, to represent early Russian heritage in the state of Alaska; and a native Alaskan adorned in a traditional qulittaq (parka with ruff) to represent the Arctic region and its people. Indigenous Alaskans in the Arctic, traditionally of Inupiat or Yupik descent, commonly refer to themselves as Eskimo.

“I am from Northwest Alaska. For many of us from that part of the world, there has been a sense of pride and a feeling that Alaska Airlines is acknowledging our identity with the display of the Eskimo on the tail of their aircraft,” says Helvi Sandvik, a director of the Alaska Air Group board and president of NANA Development Corp., an Alaska Native corporation.

Infographic: Alaska by the decades

These four liveries adorned Alaska’s jets from 1972 until 1976, when the company adopted the Eskimo tail fleet-wide, and updated the face to be less stern.

The adoption of the four-logo scheme was a bold move for an airline in 1972, and a drastically different look for the 50-year old company.

“I remember this distinctly,” recalls Alaska retiree and company archivist Ron Suttell, of the first time he saw the Eskimo. “I was a freight agent in Juneau and I was just getting off shift one night. I went over to a familiar airport watering hole after work and looked over at where the airplanes were parked. It created quite a stir.”

Suttell started at the company in 1971, during a turbulent period for the airline. It struggled with a messy operation (late bags, delayed and canceled flights), a poor reputation and a cash flow problem.

The introduction of the four logos, and with them, the Eskimo, heralded big changes for the airline: new leadership, better financial oversight and a renewed focus on its operation and its customers.

“Putting such a bold visual statement on our airplanes was really pretty astounding at the time, but it didn’t take long to grow on you that what we were doing was really exciting,” said Suttell. “That was really the start of the journey to becoming the airline we are today.”

With the exception of a few color tweaks, the smiling Eskimo from 1976 has remained more or less unchanged for four decades, although discerning eyes will notice that many of the tails don’t quite match. In the early days, airplane liveries were hand-painted, and tales abound of maintenance employees who would give the Eskimos they painted a signature twist to set them apart when spotted.

In January 2016, Alaska unveiled its first major brand update in a quarter century, smoothing and modernizing the Eskimo for the digital age and adding invigorating pops of color around his ruff.

“It’s not meant to be a massive change,” said Sangita Woerner, Alaska’s vice president of marketing. “It’s the same person, the same symbol – but he is bigger, bolder and more impactful.”

But who is it?

More than 40 years after the Eskimo first appeared, Alaska’s reservations agents still take calls on weekend nights from groups of giggling friends who want to know: “Hey, we have a bet going – who IS that guy on the tail?”

Common theories over the years have included Jimi Hendrix, Abraham Lincoln, Bob Marley, a lion and Johnny Cash.

But two of the most popular involve two very real people: native Alaskans Chester Seveck and Oliver Amouak.

Seveck was an Eskimo dancer and reindeer herder in Kotzebue, who used to greet incoming Alaska Airlines flights with his wife. While residents of Kotzebue and many of Alaska’s customers and employees firmly believe that Seveck’s face adorns Alaska’s jets, many others believe it is Amouak, an Inupiat Eskimo who was hired by Alaska in the late 1950s to perform in a traveling stage show called “It’s Alaska!”

“If you’re from Barrow, you think maybe he’s from Barrow. If you’re from Kotzebue, you think maybe he’s from Kotzebue. If you’re from Nome, you think maybe he’s from Nome,” says former mayor Lukin. “I have not met an Eskimo elder who doesn’t sort of smile like that.”

(Lukin, from Kotzebue, says she has no doubt that it’s Seveck.)

“Everybody in Alaska knows who’s on the tail – they just can’t agree,” laughs Perry Eaton, an Alutiiq artist based in Anchorage.

The four-logo paint scheme was the brainchild of Alaska’s marketing department and its advertising agency at the time. The icons were designed by the agency’s artists, and the Eskimo and miner were intended to depict generic representations of a traditional Alaskan Eskimo and a Klondike gold miner.

Whether the artists were inspired by real people remains a mystery to this day – both within the company and without – as no official documentation has ever been uncovered indicating that either the Eskimo or the miner was based on a specific person.

Even Alaska’s archivists, a team of retirees and long-time employees passionate about preserving the company’s history, can’t agree. Suttell, a 40-year employee before he retired, always assumed the face was based on Amouak, while fellow archivist and retiree Danna Siverts is convinced Seveck was the inspiration (“Just look at that face! Of course it’s Chester.”)

“There’s been a lot of debate around who it could be,” says Ewan Rankin, one of Alaska’s frequent fliers. “Some people thought it was Jerry Garcia, some people thought it was Bob Marley. When I was little I used to think it was George Washington.”

“What I think it is and who I think it is, is you. I think it’s me. It’s anybody who flies on Alaska Airlines. I think it symbolizes the community and the family and the spirit of the airline … there’s really no one answer.”

Going forward

To the 15,000 employees of Alaska Airlines and its customers throughout North America, the Eskimo is more than a name or a face painted on the tail of a plane. It’s a reflection of people and their connection to the airline they love.

“This company does have a soul. It has a spirit,” says Alaska CEO Brad Tilden. “To me, the Eskimo is the personification of who we are.”

He stands for community and teamwork, the beauty of knowing there’s a big world out there to explore; the airline’s rich history, and its dynamic future.

“He’s leading the pack,” says 27-year Anchorage-based captain Russell Dunlap. “He’s been there a long time, and he’ll stay there a long time.”

84 Comments on “The story of the Eskimo: Who is on the tail of Alaska Airlines’ planes?

  1. Thanks for sharing the history of Alaska Airlines! Nicely done!

  2. I LOVE Alaska Airlines! I have had two wonderful trips to Alaska, both flying Alaska Airlines out of Chicago. My wish is that one day there will be more flights out of the “midwest”. Those of us in Kentucky have to drive to Nashville or Chicago. So make Owensboro KY a destination spot for Alaska Airlines!

    • I love the story and I hope they keep that face on the tail forever.
      When I am in an airport and see a plane with that tail, it is home.
      Love it

  3. LOL. now we know. It’s everybody’s innuit grandfather, including a female retiree, who was the model, and a guy with a mukluk hood and and attitude.

    • Except, inuit is Canadian, inupiat is Alaska. And mukluk is boot, not a parka hood.

  4. Very cool story. Although I think the eskimo is my next door neighbor. 🙂

  5. Love your new image that is refreshingly revealed in the face on the tail. Great story! Keep up the good work. Please try to keep your airfares competitive because corporate requires we use the cheapest fare, within reason, which means sometimes I cannot fly with the friendly face on the tail 😦

  6. We are now loyal customers of Alaska Airlines! You opened a hub in Raleigh, NC, and now we can fly to see our son and daughter in love in Anchorage, AK!! Trips have been great…thank you!

  7. A super, super story of an airline and the many, many people dedicated to service, to friendship, and a culture steeped in tradition. Continue to grow and to prosper while spreading the Alaska Air culture and service!

  8. My brother did the original Aleut and miner.
    Good to see the article.

    • That is really neat! I’ve always thought the native was my grandfather, Oliver Amouak. Your brother must be a great artist.

      • I would have to agree with you. Judging by the photos they included in the article it’s pretty obvious they used the same photo of your grandfather as the one show on the “It’s Alaska!” pamphlet.

  9. Too bad Bruce Kennedy isn’t around…I’m sure he knew. But, I think it was Tom Brower from Barrow…looks just like him. I first flew Alaska over Christmas in 1962 and many 1,000s of miles afterward.

  10. Thank you for the history and background of Alaska Airlines. I always wondered about how it began and why the logo. As a resident of Hawai’i, I am glad to see another entity flying to and from Hawai’i. I shy away from the larger companies due to their seemingly lack of small but meaningful personal touches, which can be uplifting to anyone. On my first login to your website and as a not so savvy IT person, I was impressed with its user friendly features with ease of navigation. Contacts with all staff has been pleasant and knowledgeable with the attitude and action of helpfulness. I hope you keep that logo, it represents your uniqueness.

    • It’s heartwarming to know the story behind the face. I love the new colors too, blue and green. Seahawks colors 💙💚 Go Hawks! 😊

  11. Alaska is my favorite airline, Horizon too. Fair prices and wonderful service. Whenever I fly anywhere I book on Ak if they fly where I am going. Bitty Rauch

  12. This adds to my appreciation of the airline. I have always appreciated its efficiency and dedication to good service, but now there is also a personal story connected to my experience–which has been going on for about 45 years.

  13. I have 3 comments: Last year my wife and I flew Alaska Airlines from SEA to ATL. We were fortunate to fly on your Boeing 737-900, and experienced the new Ricaro seats. They were the most comfortable seats of all. We connected with a competitor from ATL to CHS, our destination. WHAT A DIFFERENCE, between your seats and the competitor seats. Next: Your inflight service was the best I have experienced. Lastly, I noticed a one of your Boeing 737-900 aircraft taxiing to its gate at CHS. People waiting for their departure, went to the windows to watch the Eskimo arrive. After that flight disappeared, the onlookers returned to their seats. It was not an arrival, it was a statement, I am very pleased that a decision was made to retain Mr. Eskimo as part of your logo. Finally, this year, I and my wife are returning to the Northwest. Guess what airline, we booked?

  14. Love the story about the Eskimo on the tail! Wonderful video and read!! Been an Alaska fan for about 40 years!! 35 years ago had to fly with a sick baby from Anchorage to Seattle. The help from all the staff; agents in Anchorage, flight crew, and ground crews in Seattle, went so far above and beyond what was required, that it endeared me to Alaska for life! I now often fly to Hawaii and always choose Alaska Airlines. They have never let me down, always so positive and helpful!!

  15. I grew up Eskimo dancing & jumping on the old skin blanket toss with Chester’s group for the tourist who visited Kotzebue daily during the summers at one time…..that’s who we all believe it is……..but, in reality it represents all the last of the last frontiers native people ….ALASKA …..the former station manager Byrd Schaeffer Shrader told Ak Airlines employees that if you get rid of the Eskimo…..you are getting rid of me! This is a very unique symbol that Ak Airlines has stumbled on, wear it with pride & respect for the state & all its people in ALASKA! We Alaskans are a very PROUD People! Ak Airlines has the monopoly in Ak, so please continue the cheaper flights offered on the website. There is nothing like being thousands of miles away from home, and I see the Eskimo flying over!!!
    Reminds me of the place ide rather be!
    I love the Hawaiian Lei on the Eskimo when Hawaiian flights were added! Two of my favorite places……

  16. Beginning in 1974, I have flown into Kotzebue numerous times. I recall being met by Chester Seveck and his wife. What a cool thing–to meet a real Eskimo! She had such a maternal, cheery, welcoming face! I fell in love with her at first sight. Judging by the photos, I’d say the image on the plane tails is most like Amouak. I miss the Psalm card on the meal tray, but I understand. Alaska Airlines is humanizing the airline industry! Many thanks,

    • Rob & Sharon Mathiesen,
      January 26, 2016
      We both lived in Fairbanks, AK from 1978 thru 1997, and always flew Alaska Airlines many times on the Red Eye flight
      to the lower 48 to Sea Tac, & then onto a short hop to PDX. Your flight teams back then were FIVE STAR, and extremely
      pleasureable from checking in at the terminal to disembarking at our final destination! Keep up the excellent customer
      service and enjoyable flying experience that you proudly display ~~~

  17. Alaska is the only airline we fly in the West. We drive 100 miles to take a flight out of San Diego to Maui rather than take another airline out of LAX or ONT. Nicest people from the check in to the people on-board. When I tell them “Thank You” we really mean it!!

  18. Love the Eskimo, love the lei….miss the sunglasses!!
    Keep up the good work and spirit

  19. I have the original painting that was used to propose the design on the tails of the Alaska Airlines jets at that time (1977?). My good friend, who was the creative director of the ad agency, which I believe was Richardson, Siegle, Rols & McCoy gave me that painting for my agency office. He has since passed away. Contact me and I can send you a photo of the painting and more information on it.

  20. I still remember the richly colored cabin and Golden Samovar service when flying on Alaska Airlines as a child.

  21. This story personifies my impression of Alaska Airlines: personal and professional. Thank you for sharing the history and keep up your great work.

  22. I, apparently not alone, first considered it to be Johnny Cash. couldn’t understand why until I joined |Alaska Air, now I’m just confused – but good PR piece.

  23. A customer since ‘ 72. Have tried several times to find a reason to go somewhere else, but have been unsuccessful.
    You have a lifelong customer.

  24. LAST YEAR,2015, I GOT TO FLY ALASKA AIRLINES FOR THE FIRST TIME. I NORMALLY AM AFRAID AND NERVOUS ABOUT FLYING AND HAD ONLY FLOWN A COUPLE OF TIME IN MY LIFE, I AM 85 YRS, OLD AND HAVE A HARD TIME GETTING AROUND. MY DAUGHTER, IN CHILOQUIN, OREGON, BOOKED MY FLIGHT. I’M HARD OF HEARING AND NEED HELP GETTING AROUND.
    I CAN’T SAY ENOUGH ABOUT HOW IMPRESSED I WAS WITH THE SERVICE AND ATTENTION I GOT.. FROM THE TICKET AGENT, TO THE ATTENDANTS WHO KEPT AN EYE ON ME, THE PEOPLE WHO MET ME WITH A WHEELCHAIR, PICKED UP AND CARRIED MY LUGGAGE AND THE BREAKFAST WAS SUPERB.
    I FLEW FROM SAN DIEGO TO PORTLAND ON ANOTHER AIRLINE AND ALASKA TO MEDFORD OR. WHERE MY DAUGHTER MET ME. WHAT A DIFFERENCE IN AIRLINE SERVICE! I PLAN TO TAKE THIS TRIP AGAIN THIS SUMMER AND I WILL HAVE SOMEONE DRIVE ME TO LAX AND TAKE ALASKA STRAIGHT TO MEDFORD!
    I WAS PLEASED THAT HORIZON AIRLINES WAS A PART OF ALASKA. MY SON WORKED FOR HORIZON OUT OF FRIEDMAN AIRPORT IN HAILEY, IDAHO AND THEIR SERVICE ALSO WAS VERY GOOD.
    PARDON AN OLD LADY FOR RAMBLING BUT I COULDN’T MAKE THIS ANY SHORTER AND SAY ALL THAT I WANTED. I FEEL LIKE ALASKA IS AN OLD FRIEND.
    SALLY TAPIA

  25. Lived in The Fairbanks area for 19 years and never heard this story till now. I don’t’ think were suppose to know who face, it is. Just that it’s represents Alaska and some of it’s native peoples!
    However it’s the best Air lines I have ever flown on going to and from Alaska.

  26. Lived in the Fairbanks area for 19 years. Don’t’ think were suppose to know who’s face it is! Just that it represents Alaska and it’s Native peoples.
    Will say it’s the best, Air Lines, I have ever flown on. Flew out and back several times and once so far up and out. Hope they keep the Eskimo on the tail for ever.

  27. “But who is it?” I thought that question was answered by this article in 2013 by Vic Warren: http://www.vicwarren.com/fly-with-a-happy-face He writes that he was the art director for the Airline’s ad agency in the 1970s, and was responsible for the Eskimo design. He said the image was loosely based on Chester Spivik, a greeter for the airline whose story sounds just like Chester Seveck’s. Undoubtedly they are the same person.

  28. Alaska Air for long distance and Horizon for regional travel has been our only choice for so long, we can’t remember having another. Our experience in making arrangements with or flying with Alaska has been consistently good. The only times we have ever had to wait was a couple of times in Alaska, due to dicey weather, and waiting in an Alaska terminal is like old “home week” with the personnel and the other passengers. We loved reading about the history of your “family Icon” on the tail. We think of you as family.
    Sincerely, Tom and Kathy

  29. I have been flying Alaska airlines for years and it is my preferred Airline. I am glad every time I see a new city added to make the flying experience better and better

  30. In 1978 I was told who the the model was for the icon, by the mans nephew. I will never tell who it was because it is so neat to keep the mystic alive.

  31. Love Alaska! When we fly, we always fly Alaska if we can! Friendly Staff great planes with more room than the competition. I feel like a person not a number!

  32. I enjoyed the story behind the Eskimo on the tail very much. I have flown Alaska Airlines for over 50 years. I can’t recall a disappointing experience with ticket counter, gate agents, baggage claim, or flight crew on any of the flights. I love the Low Fare Calendar and the Mileage Plan. I do miss the tiny Psalm leaflet that used to come on the food tray. I wrote to express my appreciation and got a personal reply from Bruce Kennedy when he headed up Alaska Airlines. Wow!
    Sherry Innes
    Kenai, Alaska

  33. Whether flying to Alaska for great fishing or travelling to Northern CA, Portland OR, or Seattle WA. I have always enjoyed flying Alaska Airlines.

  34. Can you please look start a direct service SJC to MLM, I’ve flown Alaska on SJC to GDL and I love the service.
    Thanks
    Carlos

  35. Thank you for sharing your story.
    I love flying with you!

  36. My first flight on Alaska was in 1996. Now, 20 years later, it is still my preferred carrier. I have flown many times on Alaska in the last 20 years: our daughter attended UAS; I have attended WhaleFest in Sitka every year since 1997, and I was thrilled when Alaska began service between Denver and Seattle…no more flying the big, uncaring carriers to Seattle to connect! I have never had anything but an enjoyable and comfortable experience with Alaska. I was happy to see on my flights in November, 2015, that the seats had power outlets. It just gets better and better! As for the face on the tail, I really don’t care if it is a real person or not, but I vote for Oliver Amouak. The picture of him in the story is exactly the same as the tail painting. I do like the new color graphic, although the old one was fine. As for the new printing of the word “Alaska”, I don’t care for it so much. The old signature’s letters were, to me, uniquely Alaskan, and I will miss them. Change for change’s sake sometimes isn’t better, it’s just different. But as long as the company philosophy and manner of doing business remains the same, I’m good. I will always fly Alaska when I can, and I always look forward to it. No other airline has such consistency in great service, great employees, and great quality of product. I just cannot say enough nice things about Alaska Airlines! Oh, and I have a friend in Phoenix whose young daughter calls Alaska “the Abe Lincoln airline”.

  37. We started flying with Alaska Airlines because a nephew is a pilot with them.
    Such good service–have flown with them ever since.

  38. Thanks for sharing a great at story around your brand heritage and a nod to Alaska’s indigenous people. I fly Alaska nearly every week and it is by far the best airline in the world. From your service to your mileage plan I’m always impressed. Having had the opportunity to meet several companies executives, I feel Alaska is a company that is connected to it’s customers and guided by strong core values and an appreciation for the business of flight. Keep up the good work and great job on the brand update.

    • Did you read Vic Warren’s article that I referenced earlier on the creation of the image?
      He writes, “Back in 1973, when I designed the Eskimo, an elderly Eskimo gentleman in Kotzebue was working as a greeter for the airline on its Arctic Tours. You got off the plane in Kotzebue and he was one of the folks who came up and helped you into a fur-trimmed parka to protect you from the cold. It was sort of an Eskimo version of the Hawaiian lei….We had photos of him and others during the welcoming procedure. I used one of those photos as the basis for the art. His name was Chester Spivik.”

      This first-person report by the art director of the Airline’s ad agency sounds more credible than the story of someone who, as a child, was told he “will soar farther than eagles,” and now “knows” the face is his image as a young man.

  39. My first job was with Alaska Airlines. I loved the company then. I still do.

  40. I’ve ruled out Stewie Griffin and Bart Simpson. The head shapes are far too different. I’ll keep thinking about it.

  41. The designer of the original logo I believe is a little known Oregon writer named Larry Leonard. He could tell you who the inspiration was for the original one.

  42. When I see the plane with the Eskimo pull up to the gate, I know that I am going home. No other airline can give that feeling, that sense of place.

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