Indian, Indigenous, Native… What’re The Right Terms?
By: Farrah L, Milton Youth Action Team
June 18, 2020
***Trigger Warning: Racial slurs included in paragraph 2
Many people, myself included, do not know the culturally-correct terms when it comes to use in addressing a person of Indigenous identification. In response to this lack of knowledge and in honour of National Indigenous History Month, I wanted to dive in and learn. Here is what I
It is paramount to address labels that are NEVER okay to call an Indigenous-identifying person: “Savage,” “spirit animal,” “Indian,” “redskin,” “primitive,” “half-breed,” and “timber-n*****,” and squaw.” Many Indigenous peoples also find the terms “native,” and “aboriginal,” offensive. Though helpful as a baseline, this is not a definitive list.
Indigenous people have not settled on one term that is appropriate to call them by and that's
okay. Each unique name is linked to an ongoing evolving identity. Names change and what
was an "appropriate" term years ago may now be considered offensive. I also read a lot about
how some terms are often abandoned because society, governments, industries, etc, have
taken a name and given it a new and incorrect meaning.
To be clear: There is always the possibility someone may find offense in a given term. It is
important to be attentive to what a person has to say about the word you used and respectfully open to what they alternatively would like to be called.
Commonly used terms:
Indigenous is a broad term that includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. It is frequently
used in an international context and seems to be more widely accepted. But again this could
change with time and some people don't like the term.
First Nations refers to a diverse group of peoples who are neither Inuit nor Métis. Considering
many First Nations share solidarity in their struggles (reserves, statues, intergenerational
trauma), it's an acceptable general term. The following resource can be helpful List of First
Nations in Canada: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_First_Nations_peoples
Inuit is a more appropriate term to be used when regarding specific Indigenous groups in
the far north of Canada. Society used to frequently use the word Eskimo instead, which is not
accepted. However, the term Eskimo is still used in parts of Alaska.
This term Métis is not universally agreed upon, and it resulted from the union between
Indigenous and European people in Canada. It is used both as a general term that denotes
people with a hybrid ancestral identity and for legal purposes to acknowledge descendants from distinctive historical communities.
Outdated/Terms No Longer In Use:
In Canada, the term Indian is controversial. It was considered a legal identity for those
registered under the Indian Act. You may hear some Indigenous people refer to themselves as Indians, but it's best to just avoid using this outdated term altogether (unless you are specifically referencing the Indian Act).
Native American: Although this term is more often used in the US, it is still used among some
of the older generations in Canada for self-identifying purposes. While less offensive than
simply “Native,” it is largely not used today.
A fairly recent term, Aboriginal is a settler-term referring to the first inhabitants of Canada and
includes: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. It was defined under Section 35 of the
Canadian Constitution in 1982. It is considered offensive by many Indigenous peoples, largely
as the Canadian Government continues to co-opt the term.
Native is a problematic term that some use to only reference First Nations and for others, it
encompasses a broader set of terms. I don’t want to suggest that this is a term you can’t use.
However, it is linked to some negative historical connotations that are best to avoid. Also
considering this is a very general term, it doesn't do justice for the diversity between various
Indigenous groups. It is best to just not use this term and use others that specifically reference a particular group.
You can probably distinguish between the names of Indigenous origin and European. However, some names are more difficult to recognize as Indigenous or European and some are utilized incorrectly. For example, Ojibway/Ojibwe, Anishinaabe, and Algonquin are used to refer to the same group, even though the groups are not by definition the same. The Ojibwe and Algonquin are both distinct groups of Anishinabe. Some names sound similar but refer to very different peoples, like the Chipewyan (Dene) and Chippewa (another name for Ojibwe). Additionally, the spelling and meaning of terms alter over the years.
Names and terms continuously evolve, especially as more and more Indigenous communities desert names of European descent. With that, I knew my intention was not to simplify the names or give you some rule book, but rather make you more aware of how complex, detailed, and significant names can be. There are so much history and culture to learn
with many people willing to share. So speak up, be curious, and ask questions.