A rose by any other name is a mihkokwaniy.

It is always eye-opening to go outside the comfortable confines of this blog and read what questions (or assertions) people are releasing into the ether. As frustrating (and sometimes hilarious) as it can be to surf around, reading these questions and assertions, it does help to clarify for me the kinds of information that people lack. One of my many weaknesses is the unfair assumption I often make that people already know this stuff.

A question that comes up again and again is “what should we call you?”

*mumbles the ‘don’t call me late for supper’ joke*

Okay. It’s a fair question usually, unless it’s phrased in that “I’m so annoyed with all this politically correct bullshit, why can’t I just call them the old-fashioned racist term I’m familiar with anyway?” way I just love so much.

What not to call us

Let’s just start with things is it is never okay to call indigenous people.

  • savage
  • Red Indian
  • redskin
  • primitive
  • half-breed
  • squaw/brave/buck

This is not a definitive list.  There are plenty of other slurs we don’t need to mention that are on the ‘don’t you dare’ list.  We are not going to discuss how any of these terms might not be offensive, because I’m not willing to engage in that kind of pseudo-intellectual dishonesty (where words alone have no meaning blah blah freakin’ blah).  If you use these terms, you are being a massive jerkface, and I’m not going to be your friend.

A lot of people honestly do not want to cause offense, 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 the various not-intentionally-racist terms in use out there.

We don’t all agree on the ‘best’ term.

The fact that all indigenous people have not settled on one term that is appropriate to call us by, 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.  They change, they evolve.  What was a good term twenty years ago might be inappropriate now.  There is also the issue of how terms become co-opted and changed by government, industry, or other sneaky racists.  Sometimes we have to abandon a term because it has become so loaded, using it means we’re tacitly agreeing to some sort of bizarre external interpretation of who we are.

Native people are incredibly diverse, and there are all sorts of internal arguments about which terms are best, what they actually mean, and why we should reject this and that and so on.  What I’m okay with you calling me might really piss someone else off.  If you were hoping this post was going to help you avoid that completely, I want to be up front with the fact that you will leave disappointed.  Be aware that no matter how ‘safe’ a term you pick, someone somewhere might get upset if you call them that.  Be prepared to listen to what that person has to say about the term you used, and to respect what they suggest you call them instead.

Names you’ll hear us using

  • Indian
  • aboriginal
  • indigenous
  • native
  • First Nations
  • Inuit
  • MĂ©tis
  • Native American (more in the US than Canada)
  • the name of our particular nation (Cree, Ojibway, Dene, etc)

The term Indian is probably the most contentious.  There are a couple of theories about where the term originated, but that’s not the point.  In Canada, ‘Indian’ continues to have legal connotations because of the Indian Act, 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’s also a term we use a lot internally to talk about ourselves.  Please note that this does not mean it’s always okay for you to use the term.  I tend to suggest that avoiding this term is probably for the best, unless you are specifically referencing the Indian Act. There is a level of sarcasm often associated with its internal use that you probably don’t notice, and probably can’t replicate…so if you are interested in avoiding giving offense, this is a name that you might want to drop from your vocabulary.

I know that Native American is very popular in the US, and is still in use as a way of self-identifying among some older people here in Canada.  It’s a weird thing to hear though in our Canadian context, and ‘Native Canadian’ is just silly.  (Sorry Robert J. Sawyer, I know you like the term and I’m still going to read your books.)

Aboriginal (not to be confused with aborigine) is a term of fairly recent origin, being adopted officially in the Constitution Act of 1982 to refer generally to First Nations, Inuit and MĂ©tis peoples.  Anymore I try only to use this term in the legal sense, where it has a specific meaning.  Some people hate this term because it is increasingly becoming co-opted. I have become one of them. It’s not offensive, per se but it is incredibly generic and increasingly obnoxious as the Canadian government wholeheartedly signs on to its use.

Indigenous tends to have international connotations, so you will hear it used this way ‘officially’ sometimes.  Like aboriginal, it is a general term that includes First Nations, Inuit and MĂ©tis peoples.  I like this term better right now, but that may change.  Again, some people really despise this term, but so far it’s not too widely rejected.

Native is another tricky term.  For some people it only refers to First Nations, and for others (like myself) it’s another ‘catch-all’ term, but a much more informal one than aboriginal or indigenous.  I don’t want to suggest that this is an internal term you can’t use…but it does have some historically pejorative connotations that you may wish to avoid.  A lot of people also contest our use of this term because they want to use it as well (native of Alberta, native to Canada) etc.  I’m not going to argue the point because I just wanted to point out that a lot of us use this term and are okay with it…but it’s a bit like ‘Indian’ in that you are more likely to step on toes if you choose this as the ‘term you’re going to use’.

First Nations refers specifically to that group officially known as ‘Indians’, and does not include Inuit or MĂ©tis peoples.  Because many First Nations share similar issues related to reserves, Status and so forth, it’s a good general term for a very diverse group of indigenous nations.  Just remember that you’re leaving other indigenous groups out when you use this term.

Inuit has pretty well replaced eskimo in regular parlance, here in Canada.  Using eskimo here is probably going to get you dirty looks.  Eskimo is still used in Alaska however, and I was lectured once by an Inupiat woman about this, so it didn’t make it onto the “never say this” list.

MĂ©tis is not a term you’re going to hear much in the US, and as such is sort of a uniquely Canadian name.  I dealt previously with identity issues related to the term MĂ©tis, and its definition is not universally agreed upon.  However, it tends to refer to a specific cultural group rather than people who are of mixed-blood, as native people of mixed-blood often identify as First Nations, or Inuit rather than MĂ©tis these days.

These are some of the general terms out there, so pick your poison.

Specific names and the great confusion

Here is where some people get really confused, and honestly I don’t blame them!  Over the years, various groups of Europeans have given us specific names and sometimes a single group of people can be known by two or three or more different names!  If you aren’t aware that all these terms refer to the same group of people, then it can be incredibly difficult to sort out.

In this list of First Nations in Canada, you can see that some of the names are obviously of aboriginal origin, while others are obviously European.  There are some that you might not have been aware are names given to us by Europeans rather than names we call ourselves by.

I do not have the patience to detail every nation’s internal name and the various names given to them by Europeans.  Just be aware that this is an issue.

For example, Ojibway/Ojibwe, Anishinabe and Algonquin are often used to refer to the same people, despite the fact that these terms should not necessarily be interchangeable.  As pointed out below, the Ojibwe and Algonquin are both distinct groups of Anishinabe.

Then you have names that sound similar but refer to very different peoples, like the Chipewyan (Dene) and Chippewa (another name for Ojibwe).

To muddy the waters even more, if you are reading historical texts, you’ll see the terms (and spellings) shift over the years and you may not even realise that the same group of people is being discussed under up to six different names over time.  If you’re an average Canadian, trying to figure this out, it can be incredibly frustrating. I’m not even going to get into the way linguists muss the issue up even further, assigning us names according to our (sometimes contested) linguistic group :D

So there are often multiple names in use.  One person can call herself Assiniboine, Stoney, Nakota Sioux, Stone Sioux, Nakoda, and ĂŽyârhe Nakoda…all names for the same group of people.  A member of this group of people probably has even more specialised names depending on which specific area or community she comes from.

In addition to the ‘group’ name, people will also often identify themselves by what community they come from.  The person above might be from Alexis (First Nation/Band/Reserve).  Our communities have undergone many name changes too, so depending on what generation you are in, you may use different names for the same community.

Changing terms…get used to it!

The names are going to continue to change.  Many aboriginal communities have discarded their European-language names for original aboriginal place names.  The eastern James Bay Cree, for example, have all but finished ridding themselves of old colonial names, but if you didn’t know that the same town used to be called something else, you can get pretty turned around when you encounter the different name.

Much as these place names are changing, the names we call ourselves are changing as well.  If you get confused, don’t be scared to ask!  You just might get an interesting history lesson of the area you are in, because names are so inextricably linked to that history.

I hope this helps.  My intention was not to simplify the issue for you, but rather make you more aware of how complex and sometimes confusing names can be.  I think if you keep this in mind, you’ll be more likely to avoid getting hopelessly messed up, because you won’t expect things to be simple.

mihkokwaniy is the Plains Cree word for ‘rose’, in case you didn’t guess.

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26 Responses to A rose by any other name is a mihkokwaniy.


  1. Thanks for the breakdown!
    I’ve seen “NDN” (say it out loud) used a lot by natives on Tumblr, as a sort of declaration of solidarity and pride with one another, from the top North of Canada and Alaska to the tip of South America, any thoughts on its usage?

  2. Great post as usual!

    I just wanted to note that this passage is a bit off:

    “For example, the Ojibway/Ojibwe, Anishinabe and Algonquin are often used to refer to the same people, despite the fact that these terms should not necessarily be interchangeable.”

    The Ojibwe and Algonquin nations are distinct from each other, though they are both Anishinaabe. Think of how both an Oneida and a Mohawk person are Haudenosaunee, or a Newfoundlander and an Albertan can be considered Canadians.

    Signed,
    An Anishinaabekwe Ojibwe that loves her Algonquin cousins

    • Absolutely true, which is why I noted the different terms should not necessarily be interchangeable. They get muddled up together, in great part because people often don’t know any better. Yours is an excellent clarification, thank you:)

  3. Rhoda says:

    I respectfully mention that sometimes Europeans used a pejorative term for a newly met tribe that they got from a previously met tribe (I think that’s how they started using, for instance, the term ‘Eskimo’ and there was another instance of an Eastern tribe named pejoratively by Europeans, possibly unwittingly.

    • Not only did they use pejorative terms used by the enemies of that nation, they also managed to mangle descriptive (non-pejorative) terms used by their allies, and depending on whether they performed this mangle in English or in French, you can end up with different pronunciations of what was originally an aboriginal name.

  4. Rhoda says:

    I should add that, in first contact or prolonged contact, it would have been more respectful if the Europeans or their agencies, ie. trading companies, had taken steps to correct their mistaken assumption that a name of a tribe was one the said tribe called itself. But, sometimes at beginning contacts there was a lack of literacy and a laissez-faire attitude as concerns were more focussed on business and recordkeeping of same and not actually building a system of mutual respect, cooperation or cohabitation.

  5. Fiona says:

    I’ve been reading quietly for a while now, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate the time you take to explain these issues. I know what an investment writing is. I’m from a European background myself, and I have pretty much no understanding of Canadian aboriginal culture, and I don’t want to continue to be so ignorant. And I definitely don’t want to give offense where none is intended. Thank you for your patient explanations and generosity. This was another great post, as usual.

  6. Lynda Vanhorne says:

    Lynda
    I agree with Fiona. A lot of people don`t know your history and have not had the opportunity to learn.it. I am interested in learning and I think a lot of others would also. We should have learned this in public school we ignorant other Canadians would have much much more respect your peoples. But who would taught us the truth?

  7. Emo says:

    Re: “The eastern James Bay Cree, for example, have all but finished ridding themselves of old colonial names…”

    And, by contrast, a glance at any map of Saskatchewan and Alberta will tell you that out west we’ve barely started (indeed, there seems to be no sincere interest around here in reverting to indigenous names, nor even in providing sign-posting in indigenous languages…). Would it really be so difficult for white people to pronounce kistapinânihk, etc.?

  8. steffen58 says:

    You could have titled this post “Pick Your Poison.”
    I understand that collective terms have a purpose, and as a new (and avid and appreciative) reader (and first-time commenter), I appreciate the service you’re performing here.
    I find it easier to refer to “Bill,” “Mary,” “Joe,” or “Nakodan.”
    My point is that true engagement relies less on labels, and more on personal communication.
    Keep on keepin’ on. You’re doing fantastic work.
    Signed,
    A first-generation “German-Canadian.”

  9. e.a.f. says:

    A lot of this confusion could be dealt with if all schools started the history lessons with the history of this country with the history of the people who lived here before the europeans showed up.

    We spend years learning about each european country, their language, etc. but we fail to learn anything about our own country until we get to the part where europeans show up. We learn french, english, spanish, german, mandarin, etc. in the school systems but we never got to learn the language of the people who lived here first.

    I would much rather have learnt how to speak the language of the Salish peoples, when I was in school than french. I learnt about european history at home. It would have been much more interesting to learn about the cultures, before europeans, of the land I live in.

    • Heather says:

      I can’t speak to other provinces, but learning about Aboriginal Peoples in Canada – pre and post contact, are all through the Social Studies curriculum at the Elementary and Secondary level and a number of our secondary schools offer First Nation Language classes as well. So there is education happening in Ontario that addresses Aboriginal culture and political situation.

      That being said, after reading Apihtawikosisan’s most recent blog post “Don’t Give Up on Attawapiskat”, Ontario sounds like it has the furthest way to go in terms of fairness and understanding *sigh*…
      :) Heather

  10. Joan says:

    A question that teeters on over-simplification:

    So if I wanted to refer to indigenous people collectively in the most non-contentious way possible, would saying “First Nations, Inuit and MĂ©tis people” cover all my bases?

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  12. semonte says:

    Actually, I’m usually offended when aboriginals are called ‘Indians’, simply because my ancestry lies in India, and I dislike it when the name is applied to others. I know that it’s the name that has been used for centuries (THANK YOU, WHITE PEOPLE, FOR BEING SO BLOODY IGNORANT) but you wouldn’t call someone the name of someone else just because they have similar appearances, would you? Just because they both have brown skin? Like you wouldn’t call a Vietnamese person Chinese, because “they have small eyes and pale skin or whatever”.

    But yeah, that’s my reason why I call aboriginals ‘Native Americans’ because they are native, and why should they have to share an identity with another when they should have their own?

  13. Barry O'Regan says:

    Geez, I always call however I interact first by knowing their name. then call them by their first name, or refer to them as buddy, pal, (unless they’re a politician, then I call em *%$@#). A persons background never enters into it.

  14. Rhonda says:

    Just found your site and this is the first full post I have read – and I enjoyed the reading. So, thank you! As a Status Indian raised off-reserve and a military family, I am woefully undereducated in many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit matters but am trying to teach myself and sites such as yours are quite helpful! I look forward to reading more.

  15. Joseph Gold says:

    These posts, and this dialogue are extremely important and a wake up call for me. I have a website called The Story Species and I would love to share links with you. I believe that Idle No More is precisely about such learning and talking and sharing. It is not about where we meet and march it is about what we say and how we listen and about not being silent. Thank you with all my heart.

  16. Joseph Gold says:

    further to this last comment I must say that since I came to Canada in 1960 this kind of dialogue has never been possible. I think a national discussion about Native/Non Native relations is the genii that is now out of the bottle and I want to run out into the snow and celebrate screaming Idle No More at the top of my old lungs. Thank you, Thank you and thank The great spirit that I lived to witness this.

  17. Joseph Gold says:

    I have had no luck contacting the Idle No More website. I want to ask them to start a national Legal fund to support all treaty claims and defend against those violations of land, air and water that are being perpetrated against Native values, assets, life support systems and Reservations as well as the Treaties themselves. How do we start such a fund, how to administer it and how to promote it? I suggest we approach one of the national charter banks to assist us to set up such a venture and turn this into a national campaign with promotion at every branch of such a bank. We can elicit international support as well and provide membership, logo and pin to where with pride. I am committed to supporting such a fund and will offer to approach a bank if authorized by Native chiefs and friends. Joseph Gold

    • ramona says:

      Joseph, unfortunately a legal fund might not be the best way to support IDM right now. As a law student with friends working as legal professionals, I know of too many instances where Nations have been offered full legal support for treaty processes, protections of resources, etc., but that support has many times not been accepted. I have also lived on reservations and seen the treaty process breakdown many times because Nations haven’t alway agreed within themselves. It was not from a lack of legal funds or resources (although that may of course be the case in some instances). There is not always internal harmony within nations or between nations, as is true for any group of people. That is not a criticism, just an observation. There are also many First Nations people who are not supportive of treaty processes generally, with good reason. The best thing, in my estimation, of IDM is that it is bringing unity amongst indigenous peoples and their allies, from what has been, and still is, a very fractured reality. I think the best way to contribute is to join in the IDM dialogue, invest with your time, your heart, your ear, your energy, and change will come.

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