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

By Brittany Luby, Kathryn Labelle, and Alison Norman

Editors note: This is the first in a two part series on the politics and practice of naming Indigenous peoples.

Over the years, Canadians have attempted to find a better word for “Indian.” We’ve experimented with “Native American.” We settled with “Aboriginal.” And now we’re flirting with “Indigenous.” Will we find a match?

Imagine each word with its own online dating profile. Indian’s profile might read “historically inaccurate, but legal.” Indigenous might write “trying to change the world one word at a time.”

Colonialism has created a need for a group term for North Americans – a word that means “the people who occupied this continent before European displacement,” a word that means “the people who violently resist, adapt, and continue to survive under colonial regimes in North America. And yet, regular changes to Canadian lexicon suggest that there is an underlying problem – a problem that a new combination of vowels and consonants cannot fix. For generations, Canadian scholars have been seeking a politically-correct label, a sensitive label, for a people who exist in the colonial imagination.[1]

There are a number of online resources to help individuals identify which collective term for “Indian” is on trend. Indigenous Foundations (2009) sub-titled their terminology page with a question: “So, which terms do I use?” Don Mark, writing for CBC News in 2014, titled his article “What’s in a name?” Both authors explained the historical origin of a number of collective terms, and they also explained the meaning implied by each collective term.

As in 2009, it is appropriate to use “Indian” in reference to the Indian Act, a piece of colonial legislation. It is currently administered by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Using “Indian” in its legal and historical context becomes increasingly important as federal administrators modify business cards and building signs. We need the word “Indian” to remind us of that the Indian Act is still active today. We need the word “Indian” to remind us of the hyper-monitoring of Indigenous lives.

“Indigenous” is a useful term if:

  1. You are referencing an organization that has adopted the term as a self-identifier;
  2. You need a word comparable to “European,” “African,” or “Asian” that means “all peoples originating from North America”; or,
  3. You are drawing attention to a colonial framework, particularly “the Other” as defined by settler-colonialists.

“Indigenous” is not a useful term if you are speaking about a specific group – a group with its own territorial boundaries, a group with unique socio-political norms. For example, if you are discussing the “Indigenous peoples of what is now known as northwestern Ontario and southeastern Manitoba,” you most likely want to use “Anishinabeg.” We do not need English words to imply that the “Anishinabeg” arrived before Europeans, that they were as connected to the territory as local flora and fauna. Anishinaabemowin does that job quite well. A member of the Anishinabeg Nation may refer to himself as “Anishinaabe.” “Ani” translates “from whence.” “Nishina” means “lowered.” “Abe” refers to “the male of the species.”[2] A female member is more likely to refer to herself as “Anishinaabe-kwe.” Both terms say, “the Creator placed us here.”

Students and Canadians in general often balk at the idea of learning specific group names. Common responses to this recommendation include “There are simply too many Indigenous groups to learn.” “I don’t have time to learn all that.” “It’s too complicated.” If those thoughts are creeping into your mind as you read, you are forming an unconvincing argument. That’s colonial logic – you are using colonial boundaries (Canada) to define your learning challenge.

You are not required to learn the name for every nation in what is now known as Canada. You are, however, responsible for learning the name of the people you want to speak about – particularly, if you are in the knowledge production industry. If you need help, contact the Indigenous Learning Centre of the nearest university to where you work or study. Staff members should be able to advise you (or, direct you to an expert who can help).[3]

Before you read further, take a moment. Can you name five European nations? Do not open a new window to search for a map of Europe. Can you name five European nations without a visual? If the answer is “Yes,” we challenge you to learn the names of five Indigenous nations and their respective territories.

What about that underlying problem mentioned earlier? The answers provided above do not get to its root. Canadians need to stop asking “So, which terms do I use?” Or, as our students have wondered, “Which term should I use in my paper?” We need to dig deeper. We need to ask “Why does it matter which term we use?” Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds readers that research is political.

Naming is political too.

Names matter. The Anishinabeg, for example, do not share lands with the Tlingit of what is now known as northern British Columbia. The Anishinabeg and the Tlingit are separated by over 3,870 kilometres (and, the Rockies). Collective terms minimize the colonial monstrosity that is Canada. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada manages “Aboriginal Land Claims.” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has publicly announced its willingness to resolve “Aboriginal Land Claims.” A map in Aboriginal History: A Reader identifies more than 80 Indigenous nations whose boundaries Canada has drawn over.[4] If each nation who launched a land claim was recognized independently, Canadians might develop a better understanding of the scale of the colonial project.

Names matter. They are attached to stories that help people make sense of their lives. They also help us to understand how peoples fought to protect (or expand) their boundaries. To demonstrate, we would like to rewrite two well-known histories:

Example 1: “The [European] catastrophe
The Great Famine in [Europe] began as a natural catastrophe of extraordinary magnitude, but its effects were severely worsened by the actions and inactions of the Whig government, headed by Lord John Russell in the crucial years from 1846 to 1852.

Altogether, about a million people in [Europe] are reliably estimated to have died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55).

Example 2: “An epic contest
In 1815 two men faced off in a muddy field in [Europe]. Wellington, with his [European] and Allied army, and Napoleon with his [European] Imperial Guard. One decisive battle could end 20 years of bloody conflict on the continent.

Resist the urge to correct these paragraphs.[5] Focus instead on the feeling this generalized history creates. Can you find the words to explain what is wrong? Ireland is technically a part of Europe. Both the French and the English are Europeans. It is difficult to explain why the collective term, “European,” isn’t quite right. Next time you see the word “Indigenous” out of context, we ask you to pause and remember this feeling.

Next time you speak about Indigenous peoples, do not focus on trending labels. It isn’t enough. Instead, consider whether the label supports (or suppresses) Indigenous territorial claims. Be attuned to the message (often implicit) of the language that you are using. And, hopefully, with more talking, we will begin to upset a Canadian lexicon that masks colonial activities, past and present, in Canada.

[Click here to read part 2]

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.


[1] For a more detailed analysis of “Indian” as a social construct, please see Constance Backhouse, “Race Definition Run Amuck: ‘Slaying the Dragon of Eskimo Status’ in Re Eskimos, 1939 (Toronto: UTP, 2007), 18-55.

[2] This is the meaning of “Anishinaabe” that is presented by Edward Benton-Benai in The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway (3). However, the breakdown of “Anishinaabe” provided by Benton-Benai is not universally agreed on by Anishinaabemowin speakers. A mentor (who at present would like to remain anonymous) shared two alternative readings of “Anishinaabe.” In all three cases, the breakdown of “Anishinaabe” describes a relationship between (wo)man and the natural world (s)he occupies. The authors would like to thank Mentor for sharing their expertise and for deepening our understanding of the many possible readings of “Anishinaabe.”

[3] Kristin Burnett and Geoff Read include a useful map inside the cover of Aboriginal History: A Reader (2016). This map helps to associate Indigenous groups with their specific territory. Group names provided on this map do not consistently reflect self-identifiers. For example, the Anishinabeg appear as Ojibwa. Nevertheless, this map provides a useful starting point for research. You can ask Indigenous Learning Centre staff at the nearest university to nuance your findings.

[4] The authors would like to extend a special thanks to Nick Higgins, an undergraduate research assistant at Laurentian University, for reviewing Aboriginal History: A Reader and for counting the nations on the map printed on the inside of the cover.

[5] The two events are the Irish Famine and the Battle of Waterloo.

4 thoughts on “(Re)naming and (De)colonizing the (I?)ndigenous People(s) of North America – Part I

  1. Daniel Rueck

    Thank you for this useful piece–I just want to take issue with your point number 2 under “Indigenous” is a useful term if” which states that the term means “all peoples originating from North America”. Indigenous peoples are not only North American but, according to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, live in at least 70 countries and represent at least 370 million people. To me, the global nature of the term is one of the reasons why it is useful compared to blanket terms that are regionally specific (like Native American)–it allows for useful global comparisons, relationships, and solidarities in the context of global colonialisms.

  2. Alison Norman

    Thanks Dan! You are totally right. We didn’t mean to imply that the word is only used in the North American context. We talk more about the UN Forum in our post tomorrow!

  3. Linda

    Thanks for launching this discussion – I’m bringing this to my first-year classroom this week! And looking forward to the next installment…

  4. Pingback: (Re)naming and (De)colonizing the (I?)ndigenous People(s) of North America – Part II – ActiveHistory.ca

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.