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.
- Red Indian
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
- First Nations
- 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 Métis 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 Métis 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 Métis 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.
Métis 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 Métis, 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 Métis 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.
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
So there are often multiple names in use. One person can call herself Assiniboine, Stoney, Nakota Sioux, Stone Sioux, Nakoda, and Îyârhe 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.