IndigNation | by Bev Cardinal
Here’s a quiz: How many official terms, words, definitions and classifications exist in Canada to describe this land’s original peoples?
The answer: oodles (fancy technical term that means “an awful lot”). Here’s just a few: Aboriginal, First Nation, Indigenous, Indian, Métis, Treaty Indian, Status Indian, Non-Status Indian, Bill C-31 Indian and Inuit.
And these don’t include the more colloquial or offensive, hurtful, and outright racist language applied to Indigenous peoples — “Balfour Red Men”, anyone?
Who knew talking about the first peoples of this vast territory could be so damn complicated?
Now take the Americans, those wacky Trumpsters. They’ve narrowed it all down to one definition: Amerindian. This definition is based solely on blood quantum and it keeps Indigenous peoples neatly separated from mainstream America (i.e. white, privileged, Trump-voting settlers).
Amerindian is uncomplicated. Straightforward. More than a little simplistic. Which seems to be the American way — simplicity in all things. Especially their current president.
But I digress.
The truth of it is that we who reside on this territory now known as Canada are not Americans, a fact we should celebrate every day. Especially us Indigenous peoples, because we’re as delightfully diverse as we are sexily similar — which is why the words we use to describe ourselves need to represent our differences as well as our similarities.
Do Words Really Matter?
Of course they do. Duh. Language is a powerful thing. Language can respect and honour, or hurt and offend. This is especially true in Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations. But let’s start slowly and not get too bogged-down in the complexity of it all. What should you call your Indigenous neighbours? Here’s some easy guidelines to start with.
THE GOOD: What’s good? Indigenous is good. Use it as the umbrella term for this land’s three distinct groups of first peoples: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Speaking of “good”, it’s good to avoid Aboriginal. Yes, it’s a legal term that appears in the Canadian Constitution, but it’s fallen out of favour with Indigenous peoples and communities. Its prefix, “ab”, can mean “not” or “away from”, and it’s considered to have negative overtones.
THE BAD: The word Indian is very tricky in 2019. Again, although it is a legal term used in federal legislation (The Indian Act), EXTREME CAUTION is advised using it. Many Indigenous people consider Indian derogatory and outdated, while others take enormous pride describing themselves as Indians. But that should be left up to them — not you!
THE FUGLY: Please, please, please for the love of all that’s socially acceptable, just STOP using the word Native. It’s not cool. It’s derogatory. And it’s colonial. There’s still a fringe group or two — such as the police and military — who might still use Native when “checking the boxes” to identify members of the public. But I put that down to pure laziness and the fact Native is easier to spell than Indigenous (“ge”, not “gi”).
This is just an introduction. Th-th-there’s lots more, folks! But don’t be discouraged or intimidated. It’s a new language. A new way of thinking. Try it out! One step at a time. We’re all on this learning journey together.