People are often unsure about word usage when discussing or studying Aboriginal peoples. Because Indigenous peoples have been named by their colonizers and have had derogatory descriptors applied to them as a result of racism and stereotyping, it is important that terms are used accurately and in the appropriate context. Accurate language empowers Indigenous peoples and validates their experiences, perspectives, beliefs, and histories. Using appropriate terminology also avoids the misunderstandings that can arise from inaccurate word usage.
There is no single vocabulary to refer to Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Usage varies from country to country, region to region, and among Indigenous peoples themselves. In Canada, the terms “Aboriginal” and “Native” are both used, although “Native” is now used less often and “Aboriginal” is more common. In the United States, “American Indian” and “Native American” are used. The term “Indigenous,” which the United Nations popularized in the 1970s, was once used only by academics and non-governmental organizations, but is now becoming the preferred term in Canada within all sectors and by Indigenous peoples themselves. Terms that originated as legal definitions – such as “status Indian” – are still necessary in Canada because that is the language used in legislation and courts of law. Whenever possible, identify people by their specific identities (e.g., “Cree painter Allen Sapp” or “Mohawk athlete Waneek Horn-Miller”) and identify nations by the names they use in their own languages, as many Aboriginal peoples now prefer those designations (e.g., Kwakwaka’wakw instead of the former Kwakiutl).
In Canada, three distinct peoples are recognized in the Constitution: Indians, Métis, and Inuit.
- status Indians, who are registered with the federal government and are entitled to rights and benefits;
- non-status Indians, who are part of a First Nation group but are not recognized by the government for a variety of reasons including enfranchisement (a series of legal processes through which Indians lost status, such as entering the Armed Forces), the rejection of treaty with the Crown (such as the Rocky Mountain Cree, who still exist as a people but are not recognized as a band), and the loss of status through discriminatory practices (such as First Nations women losing their status when they married white men); and
- treaty Indians, who are status Indians belonging to a First Nation that signed a treaty with the Crown.
Many Aboriginal peoples consider “Indian” an offensive term, especially when used by non-Aboriginal peoples, as it was a name applied to them by their colonizers. “First Nations,” “Aboriginal,” and “Indigenous” have replaced “Indian” as the preferred terms in Canadian society.
Other general guidelines include:
- Do not use language that implies ownership, such as “Canada’s Aboriginal peoples” or “our First Nations.” Aboriginal peoples do not belong to anyone; they are autonomous, self-determining nations, not children or wards of the state. Canadians would not say “our Ukrainians,” so they should not say “our Aboriginal peoples.” The use of “our” reflects a paternalistic attitude.
- The term “custom” is used to describe traditional practices, such as marriage or child-rearing, and should not be used to imply that these practices are less developed or backward or only applicable to the past.
- Terms such as “huts” and “camps” should be avoided – this implies that Aboriginal people do not have homes and communities like other ethno-cultural groups.
- Do not use the term “costume” to describe traditional dress, as this implies that Aboriginal clothing is not integral to Aboriginal culture but is something that can be worn by anyone. Dance outfits and regalia are considered sacred; they are also not to be referred to as “costumes.”
- When referring to sacred or spiritual practices, avoid the terms “rituals” and “rites,” as this implies that these practices are not equal to the sacred or spiritual practices of other ethno-cultural groups.
- Avoid using terms such as “scattered” or “roaming” to describe Aboriginal peoples, as this implies a bias toward communities or peoples that are not settled in the same way as European communities or peoples.