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  • Writer's pictureJen Greenway

Call Us By Our Names - Which Names Are Appropriate and Inappropriate to Call Indigenous Peoples

This blog post is inspired by chapters 1 and 2 of Indigenous Writes - A Guide to First Nations, Metis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel, which is available in Paperback, ebook and audiobook (links below). I've recommended her book before in our Top 10 Book Recommendations blog post and I still believe it's currently the best primer to start with for those looking to begin or broaden their Indigenous-Settler history education. Every chapter is isolated and provides plenty of references at the end to dig deeper into each topic.

Names are tricky, and confusing for a lot of people because what was acceptable one moment is offensive the next, right? Well, it's more complicated than that actually. Who was it acceptable to? Who was it a different time for? In reality, all the name changes and terminology updates are the results of reversing colonially imposed titles upon Peoples who already had long-established names and identities. As each generation gains more and more ground with identity recognition, our names are bound to change to reflect that. They will move back to those that don't rely upon a relationship with colonialism to inform/define our identities.

I understand that navigating this period can be confusing and intimidating for individuals who may have been taught old terminology, or no terminology at all! It can be especially intimidating for individuals who want to be allies to Indigenous Peoples, and obviously don't want to offend or upset Indigenous individuals, communities or Nations by using a racist or colonial name. Regardless of that fear or discomfort, these conversations are essential and will only increase during the decolonization process and LandBack. So, let's talk about names.

In case it wasn't obvious, most old terms aren't acceptable now. Racist terms (Squaw, Redskin, Eskimo (still used in Alaska), savage, Red Indian, etc.) were never acceptable to us. We're glad that mainstream "Canada" is finally starting to catch up to the dehumanizing and colonial aspects of these names. Another term that falls squarely in the Do-Not-Use category is Indian. This one, however, requires unpacking. Unlike Red Indian, which is a derogatory slang, the term Indian is still in use as a legal term in the Indian Act - a piece of (literal) colonial legislation that is still in use to govern "Canada's" relations with First Nations. You will hear the term Indian in legal jargon because it's "Canada's" colonial, homogenizing legal name for First Nations Peoples....even as I write this. They refuse to update their colonial legislation...

But, did you catch what I just wrote there? Because at this point, maybe you're thinking, "but I've heard many First Nations people call themselves an Indian, so how can it be that bad if they still use the word"? Well, how about I address the acceptability of this word by some after I address why it's unacceptable to most? What words did I just use to describe the term Indian? Colonial, homogenizing, Canadian and legal. Notice how none of those descriptors are either positive or related to Indigenous Peoples? The term was forcibly given to us, and thus relies upon a relationship with Colonials to be valid. Its acceptance varies, largely by location and by generation (with older generations being more accepting of the term, but upcoming social media generations seem to be reclaiming it phonetically with #NDN). In most instances, the word is offensive and derogatory, especially when used by a Settler because it denotes Indigenous Peoples as Others in a painful, colonial way. Regardless of whether or not you encounter a First Nations person who is comfortable with this word, its usage reinforces colonialism. As an ally, refrain from using it outside of legal jargon or official titles like the Penticton Indian Band.

Interestingly enough, the term Aboriginal has largely fallen out of acceptance as well. This is one you're still going to hear, mostly interchanged with its newer counterpart, Indigenous, but it only came into usage in 1982 with the Constitution Act. Because Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 references Aboriginal Peoples and affirms Aboriginal Rights and Title, the term itself is said to be legally important. Unlike "Indian" however, Aboriginal now includes all Indigenous Peoples in "Canada" rather than just First Nations like the term Indian. While it's not necessarily a taboo word, the fact that "Canada" gave it to Indigenous Peoples, paired with the prefix "ab" being inserted before "original" makes this term unfavourable in current discussions. Many interpret the word to mean “away from the Original Peoples” (akin to abnormal meaning away from normal), rather than the intended from-original. Most Indigenous Peoples refrain from its usage outside of legal jargon and Section 35 discussions. In its place, "Indigenous" has stepped up, though still not without critique.

The term Indigenous, while both better than Aboriginal and largely supported by Indigenous Peoples due to the 2007 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), isn't a perfect solution. For starters, it's still homogenizing and not just across "Canada." The term Indigenous has no specificity, so one can be Indigenous to Northern BC or Indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa and saying "I'm Indigenous" is as correct as it is vague. Second, in order to be Indigenous to a place, there has to be a relationship with colonization or outsider settlement, thus the term still leads back to colonialism and Indigenous Peoples' relationship with it. As such, there are already people refusing to identify as "Indigenous." However, in 2021 there are still instances where it is appropriate to use the phrases Indigenous Peoples or Indigenous Nations when specificity isn’t suitable and “Indigenous” remains the best word we have in those instances.

The main takeaway is that "Canada" is massive. All the countries of the European Union can fit inside our landmass with room for more. To refer to a Kaska person (Southern YT or Northern BC) and a Mi'kmaq person (Maritime provinces) both simply as Indigenous is to homogenize us. We are our own Nations, and we have our own names. These are the names we want to be called.

I can practically hear your sighs of exasperation across Turtle Island as you read this and realize the undertaking ahead, but that's the point. This is what colonization has done. Each homogenizing name change in the past has been an attempt to overwrite our identities and lump us together so we can be treated like one group. "Canada's" colonial government and colonization process has attempted to hide and erase over 600 distinct Indigenous communities that represent about 50 distinct Nations. I say "about 50 distinct Nations" because I know that the Canadian government purposefully legislated the Sinixt First Nation out of existence in 1956 despite them being very much alive and asserting their sovereignty. How many more Nations have they erased without our knowledge? If you're frustrated with this process, sit with that frustration, but do not direct it at those Indigenous Peoples changing names and remembering identities outside of the ones that require a relationship with colonization.

Indeed, be angry that you don't know our names. Be angry that "Canada" tried to kill us off and hid it from you. Lament the difficulties that the colonial government insists on putting in our way to keep us apart. We should have known each other all these years, growing and building together. And the process of learning who each Indigenous Nation is never should have been a fight in the first place.

I hear you. You are upset, you say. You do want to know us. You want to call us by our names, but you don't know them...You don't know where to start. You don't want to be rude. (How very Canadian of you :) )

But you already started, my friend, just have to ask.



Further Reading:

Click here to purchase Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel

Read About the Sinixt First Nations and their fight to have Canada recognize that they exist despite the government declaring them extinct in 1956

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