Any discussion needs a certain number of terms that can be understood by all participants; otherwise, communication ends up even messier than usual. I’ve read a lot of books about Indigenous peoples, and it seems every single one spends some time explaining which term the author will use in the rest of the text, and why he or she chose that particular term. I’ve tried avoiding that sort of thing when talking to people, but it absolutely always comes up.
I find it somewhat easier to start with a list of what you should definitely not be calling us – a little housecleaning of the mind, if you will. Surprisingly, there are a great number of people who still think the use of some of these terms is up for debate, but I would sincerely like to help you avoid unintentionally putting your foot in your mouth. So, between us, let’s just agree the following words are never okay to call Indigenous peoples:
This is not an exhaustive list, and there are plenty of other slurs we do not need to mention that are obviously unacceptable. I do not intend to spend any time discussing how the above terms might not
be offensive, because engaging in a philosophical sidebar about whether words have inherent meaning tends to end in recitals of Jabberwocky
before you know it, you’ve wasted half the night trying to translate it into Cree, yet again. Or, so I’ve heard.
A lot of people who would like to talk about Indigenous issues honestly do not want to cause offence, and get very stressed out about the proper terms; so, it is in the interest of lowering those people’s blood pressure that I’m now going to discuss various terms in use out there.
First, there is no across-the-board agreement on a term. The fact that all Indigenous peoples have not settled on one term really seems to bother some people. I would like those people to take a deep breath, and chill out. It’s okay. Names are linked to identity, and notions of identity are fluid.
For example, did you have a cute nickname when you were a young child? I did. My parents called me “Goose Girl.” Twenty-five or so years later, if my employer called me “Goose Girl,” it would be awkward at best. There are terms of endearment that my friends and family call me that would sound very strange coming out of the mouth of someone I just met.
When meeting new people, we tend to err on the side of formality to avoid giving a poor first impression. So it is with identifiers for Indigenous peoples. Terms change; they evolve. What was a good term 20 years ago might be inappropriate now, or it has been worn out through constant repetition – like every hit song you used to love but can no longer stand to listen to. There is also an issue of terms becoming co-opted and changed by government, industry, or by pundits searching for new ways to take potshots at us. Sometimes, a term is abandoned because it has become so loaded that using it suggests tacit agreement to some bizarre external interpretation of who Indigenous peoples are.
Indigenous peoples are incredibly diverse; there are all sorts of internal arguments about which terms are best, what they actually mean, why people should reject this and that, and so on. What I’m okay with you calling me might really annoy someone else. If you were hoping this chapter was going to help you avoid that completely, I want to be upfront with the fact that you will leave disappointed. Be aware: no matter how safe you think a term is, someone somewhere might get upset if you call them that. No one can give you a magical pass so you never have to re-examine the terms you are using – not even your Native friend.
Be prepared to listen to what people have to say about the term you use, and to respect what they suggest you call them instead. This is surprisingly easy to do, and goes a very long way in keeping the dialogue useful. I mean, it would be a bit off to deliberately keep calling someone “Susie” when she’s asked you to call her “Susan,” right?
Here are some of the names in use:
Native American (more in the United States than in Canada)
the name of a particular nation (Cree, Ojibway, Chipewyan, and so on)
the name of a particular nation in that nation’s original language (nêhiyaw,2
Anishinaabe, Dene sųłiné, and so on)
Notice that I always capitalize the various terms used to describe Indigenous peoples. This is deliberate; the terms are proper nouns and adjectives referring to specific groups. “To capitalize or not to capitalize” ends up being a heated debate at times, but I feel it is a measure of respect to always capitalize our names when writing in English. This is my rule of thumb: if I can swap out “Indigenous” with “Canadian” (which is always capitalized), then I use the big I. I also capitalize names for non-Indigenous peoples throughout this book.
The term Indian
is probably the most contentious. There are a couple of theories about where the term originated,3
but that’s not the point. In Canada, Indian
continues to have legal connotations, and there is still an Indian Act4
; so you’ll see it used officially, as well as colloquially. There is also a long history of this term being used pejoratively – two good reasons why it doesn’t sit well with everyone.
However, it is also a term that is often used internally. Please note this does not mean it’s always okay for others to use the term. I tend to suggest that avoiding this term is probably for the best, unless someone is specifically referencing the Indian Act. There is a level of sarcasm and challenge often associated with its internal use that is easy to miss, and most likely cannot be replicated. If you are interested in avoiding giving offence, this term is one you might want to drop from your vocabulary.
NDN is a term of more recent origin, in heavy use via social media. This shorthand term has no official meaning and is very informal. If you say it aloud it just sounds like Indian, so its use really only makes sense in text-based situations. NDN is more of a self-identifier than anything.
I know Native American
is very popular in the U.S., and it is still in use as a way of self-identifying among some older people here in Canada. It’s a weird thing to hear in our Canadian context, though; and Native Canadian
is just silly.5 American Indian
is another term that is very rarely used in Canada outside of references to the American Indian Movement (AIM
) is a term of fairly recent origin, being adopted officially in the Constitution Act, 1982
, to refer generally to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.6
It has become the most common official term used here in Canada. I now tend to use this term only within its legal context because, although it is not offensive per se, its use is incredibly generic and made increasingly obnoxious by overuse – once again, like a hit song you can no longer stand to hear. If you use this term, please try to remember it is not a proper noun. Do not, for example, refer to people as Aboriginals, but rather as Aboriginal peoples. Also, please avoid the possessive. Referring to Indigenous peoples as Canada’s Aboriginals is likely to cause an embarrassed silence.
tends to have international connotations, referring to Indigenous peoples throughout the world rather than being country-specific.7
It can be both a legal and colloquial term; like Aboriginal
, it includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. At this moment, it is my favourite term to use and will be my go-to throughout this book. It is possible that...