Language Matters – Part 1

Suzanne  -  Dec 30, 2014  -  , , ,  - 

As we near the end of the calendar year and the beginning of true winter, Dragonfly would like to call your attention to two words – “Aboriginal” and “civilization” – and how each word has recently illustrated the power relationships that so often underly the use of language in society. We’ll start this month with “Aboriginal,” and continue with “civilization” in January’s post.

“Aboriginal” came into use in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Canada, after the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian Constitution, which affirmed the rights of “Aboriginal peoples” in Section 35. According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, “Aboriginal” means “first, earliest,” especially in lands colonized by Europeans. The word originates from the Latin term “aborigines,” meaning “the first … inhabitants,” from “ab origine,” literally “from the beginning.” It has been in use as an adjective since the 1660s and as a noun since the 1760s, and it’s a handy umbrella term that includes First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. After the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reported its findings in a 4,000-page report in 1996, Dragonfly wrote many a pointed letter to the CBC asking that Canada’s national broadcaster begin using the term “Aboriginal” instead of the term “Indian,” whenever appropriate, to more accurately reflect the rights and distinct status of Aboriginal peoples in this country. Nearly 20 years later, Dragonfly has seen a sea change, wherein “Aboriginal” has become the preferred term in Canada – and rightly so.

Except some people in Abo-land (the new “Indian country”) are saying that it’s not what First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people want to be called. They’re saying that it’s offensive and inaccurate. They’re saying that the word “Aboriginal” is somehow related to the word “abnormal.” Not only that, but they’re telling non-Aboriginal people these things as if these ideas are fact. Dragonfly first heard about this in 2009, from a non-Aboriginal colleague in an educational institution, and thought it was an aberration. However, we recently heard it again, in 2014, in a public sector context. Five years, and this misinformation still has legs? Time to start talking some sense.

Dragonfly knows the old joke, about how Aboriginal peoples deliberately told tall tales to anthropologists studying our communities so that nothing they wrote would actually be true. In this case, however, supplying misinformation about the word “Aboriginal” isn’t a Trickster-inspired dig at imperialism. It seems that some Aboriginal people actually believe that it’s a bad word. (For the record: it isn’t.)

Decolonization is a messy process; Aboriginal peoples have a lot to unlearn and a lot to relearn. High on the list: unlearning blind obedience, and relearning how to think for ourselves. Fact is, colonization destroyed many traditional systems within Aboriginal societies. As a result, there are no longer many checks and balances on people who are accorded power and prestige. Many people in Aboriginal communities fear asking questions and asking those in authority to prove what they know, how they know it, and why they think it’s important to pass it along as knowledge that needs to be shared. Once upon a time, our greatest leaders were people who were respected for their words, and for their ability to bring people together through their words. The idea that the word “Aboriginal” is somehow offensive or related to the word “abnormal” is not only factually incorrect, it also feeds disconnection and discontent, when in fact it should be recognized as a positive step by non-Aboriginal people who are trying to validate Aboriginal rights and distinct status in this country.

Aboriginal people: learn your history – including the history of Section 35, and the artists, writers, and activists who spent most of the 1990s asking media to start using the word “Aboriginal” – and don’t believe everything you’re told just because it comes from an Aboriginal person. When you are told something, use your own agency to find out the facts and formulate an opinion for yourself.

Non-Aboriginal people: just because an Aboriginal person tells you something doesn’t make it true. It’s okay to ask an Aboriginal person to provide an explanation about anything they tell you. If they can’t, then it’s up to you to find out the facts and be okay with the reality that (gasp) they just might be wrong. And in that case, it’s okay for you to keep doing what you’re doing, as long as you have your information right.

For more information on what word to use and when, check Dragonfly’s Terminology section here.

In the January post, we’ll talk about what exactly was lost, and by whom, when the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa rebranded itself as the “Canadian Museum of History.”

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