(Re)naming and (De)colonizing the (I?)ndigenous People(s) of North America – Part II

By Kathryn Labelle, Brittany Luby, and Alison Norman

Editors note: This is the second in an two part series on the politics and practices of naming Indigenous peoples. [Click here to read part 1]

The term “Indigenous” is not new to Canadians. “Indigenous peoples” was used by anthropologists and ethnographers in the 19th century to describe a people united by culture, traditions, and kinship; who have a common language and beliefs; and generally are politically organized. By the 1970s and 80s, the term began to be used specifically to describe groups affected by colonization, and it was a self-descriptor. Indigenous peoples from around the world began working together to demand recognition at the United Nations, and in 1982, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations was established. They began drafting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. UNDRIP sets out the collective and individual rights of Indigenous peoples around the world, as well as their rights to culture, language, health, and identity. Canada only recently committed to fully implementing UNDRIP, and exactly how it will do so remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it is clear that the use of the term by international activists has influenced activists and academics in Canada. The term “Indigenous” is trending in Canada right now.

On November 4, 2015, Carolyn Bennett was sworn in as the new minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, and it marked a significant departure from the previous federal government who used the term “Aboriginal” to describe Canada’s Indigenous people, in both the name of the federal department, and in all of their communications. The Assembly of First Nations approved of the new terminology, suggesting it is the more “preferred and accepted” term.

In May, 2016, Ontario changed the name of the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs to the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, as part of Ontario’s Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Public servants see using “Indigenous” as a step towards reconciliation, and in reconciling relationships with Indigenous peoples (a slew of new programs and funds is also associated with reconciliation by administrators). Both the provincial and federal government still use the term “Aboriginal” when talking about Aboriginal rights because those are protected and recognized by the Canadian Constitution Act (1982), and so the term “Aboriginal” will not go away. But it seems to be on its way out, as more and more governments, organizations, and groups change their name and their language.

Outside of governments, other Canadian institutions have implemented similar decisions. Recently, CBC Aboriginal became CBC Indigenous, after consulting with Indigenous staff, and recognizing the trend that was taking place. They say “while we understand that there is no truly all-encompassing term, Indigenous is fast becoming the preferred way to refer to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.” Their website features a short video “What’s in a name? From redskin to Indigenous.”

Universities have also changed their Aboriginal and Native Studies departments and programs to “Indigenous” Studies. The University of Saskatchewan and University of Toronto have both done this in the last year. Commenting on the change at U of S, Dr. Sarah Nickel (Assistant Professor, Indigenous Studies Department), explains that although “the shift has historical and political motivations that obviously aren’t consistent or entirely agreed upon within the discipline (and elsewhere)… the shift to Indigenous allowed greater international inclusivity – something that “Aboriginal” lacks, and more importantly, from an Indigenous sovereigntist perspective, sidesteps a problematic constitutional straightjacket. Aboriginal, while specific and clearly defined, is set within settler-colonial frameworks of political recognition, whereas Indigenous draws meaning internally from Indigenous understandings and categories.”

Tellingly, even The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the most recent “national” report on what we would have once called “Native-Newcomer” relation in Canada, uses both Indigenous and Aboriginal in its Calls to Action. According to the TRC, “Indigenous” (capitalized) refers to Indigenous lands, peoples, law, spirituality, Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous history, Indigenous artists etc., while “Aboriginal rights” refers to Aboriginal children, Aboriginal Canadians, Aboriginal families. The message is confusing to say the least.

Capitalization is also an issue when it comes to using the term Indigenous. Although the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (and the general reference for journal editors) maintains that indigenous should not be capitalized, academic journals such as, the Canadian Journal of Native Studies and the Canadian Journal of History have revised their guidelines to incorporate the capitalized Indigenous. Rilla Friesen, managing editor of the CJH, explains the journal’s decision in the following way: “Since working on our special issue on Indigenous history, we have updated our internal style guide so that we capitalize Indigenous, Native, Aboriginal, Indian, First Nations, and Métis. While a shift in capitalization may seem like a minor thing, a capital c in Canadian makes it clear this is an official designation…We want to honor and respect the nationhood of Aboriginal peoples.” Capital “I” is important because it suggests that the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are on equal footing with Canadians. It is a formatting demand for equality – it allots similar space on the page to both groups

The printed word holds considerable power in a society that tends to privilege literary over oral traditions. Students, teachers and the general public will incorporate the terminologies they know. Textbooks and university courses offer another point of contact for this debate. “Aboriginal” is still the most widely used term in Canadian history textbooks (see Geoff Read and Kristin Burnett’s excellent book Aboriginal History: A Reader), and history courses often reflect the terminology from when they were first created. Trent University, for instance, still offers a course on the “History of Indians of Canada,” and PhD students at the University of Saskatchewan can complete a Comprehensive Field in “Native-Newcomer North America.”

French terminology does not seem to be experiencing the same transition. “Autochtone” or “Aboriginal” is still the most popular term. The Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation in Ontario, for instance, remains the Ministère des Relations avec les Autochtones et de la Réconciliation. Likewise, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, is still “Affaires autochtones et du Nord Canada.” The University of Ottawa has kept its “Aboriginal Studies/etudes autochtones” and the University of Laval offers a certificate in études autochtones. This difference may rest in the meaning of the cultural distinctions of French translation of Indigenous (Indigènes). In France French, the connotation is more derogatory and insinuates “savage” and “wild” characteristics. Amérindiens, which combines “Indiens” with “Amerique,” is another option. The term is more widely used abroad than it is in Canada.

Kathryn Labelle is an Associate Professor in Indigenous North American History at the University of Saskatchewan.

Brittany Luby is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Laurentian University.

Alison Norman is a Research Advisor in the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and a Research Associate in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies at Trent University.

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