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A Guide to Using Terms Related to Indigenous Peoples

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Traditional Mikmaw foot wear of woman traditional dancer
Traditional Mikmaw foot wear of woman traditional dancer

The language we use to refer to Indigenous Peoples is constantly evolving and can be a sensitive and complicated issue. However, using respectful and appropriate language to honour Indigenous Peoples' diverse cultures and histories is essential.


Here is a guide to some commonly used terms and how to use them respectfully:


INDIGENOUS PEOPLES


The term "Indigenous" is widely used today to refer to groups of people who are the original inhabitants of a particular region or territory. It is an inclusive term encompassing diverse cultures, languages, and histories. Indigenous communities can be found worldwide, and the term has gained significant recognition in recent years due to increased efforts to acknowledge and support the rights of Indigenous Peoples.


The term "Indigenous" is now preferred over other outdated terms used in the past to refer to these communities in a derogatory manner. The term has also replaced older terms like "Aboriginal" and "Native" in many regions, as they were often seen as too broad or too specific and not inclusive enough.


One of the significant benefits of using the term "Indigenous" is that it acknowledges these communities' unique histories, cultures, and experiences. It also recognizes that Indigenous Peoples have been colonized and oppressed throughout history, often by non-Indigenous Peoples. This acknowledgment is an essential step toward promoting social justice and equality.


Furthermore, "Indigenous" is often used in land and resource rights discussions. It recognizes the deep connections that Indigenous Peoples have to their traditional territories and the importance of these lands for their cultural, spiritual, and economic well-being. As such, the term is often used in legal and policy contexts to advocate for protecting Indigenous land rights and promoting sustainable development practices.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada - June 18, 2022: Female dancers and participants at Indigenous Arts Festival. Photo: Susan G. Enberg / Shutterstock.com
Toronto, Ontario, Canada - June 18, 2022: Female dancers and participants at Indigenous Arts Festival. Photo: Susan G. Enberg / Shutterstock.com

FIRST NATIONS


This term is used to refer specifically to Indigenous Peoples in Canada. It is a term chosen by the people it describes and is widely accepted as the preferred term for many Indigenous communities in Canada.


"First Nations" is a term in Canadian history first introduced in the 1970s. Before this, the Indigenous Peoples of Canada were often called "Indians" or "Aboriginals," which were colonial terms imposed by European settlers.


The term "First Nations" was introduced to recognize the distinct cultures, languages, and histories of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and acknowledge their sovereignty as nations. It was also seen as a way to move away from the negative connotations associated with terms like "Indian" and "Aboriginal" and better reflect the self-identification of Indigenous Peoples.


The term "First Nations" has since become widely used and accepted by Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the Canadian government. It is often used interchangeably with terms such as "Indigenous" and "Aboriginal," although some Indigenous communities and individuals may still prefer other terms.


However, it is essential to note that the term "First Nations" is specific to Canada and is not necessarily applicable to Indigenous Peoples in other parts of the world. Each Indigenous community and nation may have their own preferred terms and ways of referring to themselves and their histories. It is, therefore, crucial to always be respectful and mindful of the language used when referring to Indigenous Peoples and to follow their terminology.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada - June 18, 2022: Female dancers and participants at Indigenous Arts Festival. Photo: Susan G. Enberg / Shutterstock.com
Toronto, Ontario, Canada - June 18, 2022: Female dancers and participants at Indigenous Arts Festival. Photo: Susan G. Enberg / Shutterstock.com

FIRST PEOPLES


This term is similar to Indigenous and is commonly used in Canada to refer to Indigenous Peoples. It's a respectful and inclusive term that acknowledges the Indigenous Peoples' status as the land's first inhabitants.


INDIAN


The term Indian is outdated and inappropriate when referring to Indigenous Peoples. It originated from a mistake made by Christopher Columbus, who believed he had landed in the "Indies" (the East Indies) but had arrived in the Caribbean islands. He referred to the Indigenous Peoples he encountered as "Indians." European colonizers later adopted this misnomer, which became widespread in the Americas.


The term "Indian" was often derogatory and dehumanizing, as it was used to justify colonialism, genocide, and cultural erasure of Indigenous Peoples. It was also used to generalize and homogenize hundreds of distinct Indigenous cultures and nations across the Americas, further perpetuating harmful stereotypes and erasing Indigenous identities.


In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the problematic history and connotations of the term "Indian." Many Indigenous Peoples and organizations have advocated for using alternative terms. One of the most commonly used alternatives is "Indigenous," which is considered more inclusive and accurate in describing the diversity of Indigenous cultures and Peoples. Another commonly used term is "First Nations," which refers explicitly to Indigenous Peoples in Canada.


It is important to note that the use of the term "Indian" is not universally condemned by all Indigenous Peoples, and some individuals and communities may choose to use it as a form of reclamation or as a way to assert their Indigenous identity. However, it is essential to be aware of the term's history and connotations and respect Indigenous Peoples' preferences and choices in how they are referred to.


NATIVE


“Native” is a general term not specific enough to distinguish between different groups. It's better to use more specific terminology when referring to Indigenous Peoples.

The term "Native" has been used in various ways throughout history, but it is commonly used to describe someone born in a particular place or with ancestral ties to that place. The term has its roots in the Latin word "nativus," which means "born."


In the context of colonialism, the term "Native" was often used to refer to the Indigenous people of a particular region who were colonized by foreign powers. The term was used to distinguish these people from the colonizers, who were seen as outsiders. This term usage can be seen in the phrases "Native land" and "Native culture," which refer to the land and culture of the Indigenous people of a region.


Today, "Native" is still used to describe people who strongly connect to a particular place or culture. However, the term is also sometimes viewed as problematic because it can reinforce the idea of a binary between "Native" and "non-Native" people, and it can be seen as excluding people who may have been born in one place but have a strong connection to another. As such, some people prefer to use other terms, such as "Indigenous," "local," or "resident."


ABORIGINAL


"Aboriginal" became popularized in the 1970s to refer to the Indigenous Peoples of various countries worldwide, including Australia, Canada, and the United States. However, the term is slowly being replaced by "Indigenous," which is seen as more inclusive and respectful of Indigenous Peoples' diverse cultures and identities.


While "Aboriginal" may still be used in some contexts, it is essential to be aware of its limitations and potential to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about Indigenous Peoples. Using "Indigenous" instead acknowledges the diversity and complexity of Indigenous identities and cultures while recognizing the ongoing impacts of colonization and systemic oppression faced by Indigenous Peoples globally.


Spirit of the Drum Traditional and Educational Powwow, Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada, 11-12 June 2022 - Shawl Dancer. Photo: Fiona M. Donnelly / Shutterstock.com
Spirit of the Drum Traditional and Educational Powwow, Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada, 11-12 June 2022 - Shawl Dancer. Photo: Fiona M. Donnelly / Shutterstock.com

UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples)


UNDRIP stands for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is a document adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, which outlines the rights of Indigenous peoples worldwide.


The declaration recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures, and traditions, and to have equal rights and opportunities in all aspects of society.


It also prohibits discrimination against Indigenous peoples and recognizes their rights to their lands, territories, and resources.


UNDRIP is not legally binding but has been widely recognized as a necessary international standard for treating Indigenous peoples. It has been used to guide the development of policies and legislation worldwide and has been cited in legal cases and advocacy efforts on behalf of Indigenous peoples.


Learn more about UNDRIP here.

OTTAWA - JUN 21, 2017: Native themed banners are added to the new Centre for Indigenous people during a ceremony on National Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly known as National Aboriginal Day. Photo: Paul McKinnon / Shutterstock.com
OTTAWA - JUN 21, 2017: Native themed banners are added to the new Centre for Indigenous people during a ceremony on National Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly known as National Aboriginal Day. Photo: Paul McKinnon / Shutterstock.com

The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada was established in 2008 to document the experiences of Indigenous people affected by the residential school system in Canada. Residential schools were institutions run by the Canadian government and various Christian denominations to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society by forcibly removing them from their families and communities.


The TRC heard testimony from residential school survivors, their families, and communities across Canada. Its final report, released in 2015, included a historical account of the residential school system and 94 recommendations for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

OTTAWA - JUNE 11, 2021: Photos show memorial around Centennial Flame at Parliament Hill to honour the lives of 215 indigenous children whose remains were found in a mass grave in Kamloops, BC, Canada. Photo: Bing Wen / Shutterstock.com
OTTAWA - JUNE 11, 2021: Photos show memorial around Centennial Flame at Parliament Hill to honour the lives of 215 indigenous children whose remains were found in a mass grave in Kamloops, BC, Canada. Photo: Bing Wen / Shutterstock.com

The TRC's recommendations included calls to address the ongoing effects of residential schools, such as intergenerational trauma and the loss of Indigenous languages and cultures. It also recommended measures to improve Indigenous education, health, and economic outcomes and calls for increased recognition of Indigenous rights and sovereignty.


The TRC was an essential step towards acknowledging and addressing the harms caused by the residential school system in Canada and towards building a more just and equitable relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.


Learn more about the TRC here.


Calgary, Canada - September 30, 2022: Orange Shirt Day Ceremony. On the national day for truth and reconciliation. Sarah Broadfoot. Photo: Alberto Tolentino / Shutterstock.com
Calgary, Canada - September 30, 2022: Orange Shirt Day Ceremony. On the national day for truth and reconciliation. Sarah Broadfoot. Photo: Alberto Tolentino / Shutterstock.com

FINAL NOTE


It's important to note that many Indigenous groups and cultures may have specific terms they prefer to use. It's always best to ask and be respectful of their preferences.


In conclusion, language is powerful, and the terms we use to refer to Indigenous Peoples matter. Using respectful and appropriate language is a way to honour and acknowledge Indigenous Peoples' diverse histories and cultures. We can create a more inclusive and respectful society by being mindful of our terminology.



 


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