“Not That Kind of Indian:” The Problem with Generalizing Indigenous Peoples in Contemporary Scholarship and Pedagogy

By Daniel Sims

As a recent hire at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, the student newspaper, The Dagligtale, interviewed me. Upon reading the printed story – and much to my surprise – I found that my home community of Tsay Keh Dene had become Tsay Keh Dane, but that it was also a reserve. The first error, I attributed to autocorrect. But since I did not refer to reserves during the interview, I was left wondering if this characterization was based on the assumption all First Nations communities in Canada are, in fact, located on reserves. The editing of interview transcripts is a laborious and complicated task, riddled with complexities, including the adoption of editorial assumptions, biases, and beliefs, which, for instance, were recently seen in an Edmonton Metro article on Rhodes scholar-elect Billy-Ray Belcourt. Inversely, it can also lead to generalizations that cast interviewees as unwitting proponents of a cause or belief. Given the large readership that online and printed media outlets offer, authors and editors harness considerable power over how they and their readers portray indigenous peoples. These generalizations about indigenous peoples in Canada must stop!

Recently, academic debates have centred around the question of whether or not Indigenous Studies courses should be required for all undergraduate students. Almost immediately, some responded against this proposal arguing their field either did not need to know about such things or that the provincially-controlled primary and secondary school systems were already doing a sufficient job at covering this material. Yet in my experience as an instructor, I have repeatedly encountered not only students, but also staff with limited to no knowledge of indigenous peoples or colonialism. These individuals are the best, I find, because they know they tend to acknowledge their knowledge gaps and are – at the very least – willing to listen, if not learn. The worst are those individuals who think they know about the topic, when in fact their knowledge is composed of generalizations. Therefore they judge everything they hear with a confirmation bias based on misinformation that hinders the education process. This is especially troubling when one considers that many of these generalizations, although cloaked as well meaning, are based on the racist belief that indigenous peoples in Canada are all the same.

“Currently there are 617” federally recognized First Nations in Canada, not including the Inuit and Métis.[1] The key word when examining this number is “recognized,” as the number does not included unrecognized First Nations that exist in Canada. Often for simplicity’s sake, these 617 are categorized according to the regional environment of their traditional territory, although – depending on whom you ask – the number and name of these regions are subject to change.[2] Moving away from political and environmental approaches, in 2011 StatsCan found that there were more than 60 indigenous languages used in Canada, (including Inuktitut and Michif), falling into 12 language families.[3] When one considers the number of federally-recognized First Nations, adds in the number of excluded First Nation communities, and factors in differences and similarities in environment and language one is left with a complex understanding of the diversity of groups and individuals that historically fell under the category of Indian (based on Indian Act legislation).

Now one might successfully argue that the number of recognized First Nations is inflated due to the divide and conquer tactics of colonialism, but this argument does not mean diversity does not exist. Yet this diversity is not always recognized in contemporary scholarship and pedagogy in Canada. Granted, the term “Indian” is no longer acceptable on anything other than a federal Status Card, but the replacements (i.e. Aboriginal, Indigenous, Native, Amerindian, First Nations) are equally problematic when they are simply used to replace the concept of ‘Indian.’ This is because the concept of ‘Indian’ suggests a lack of diversity and a false homogeneity that willfully ignores all the evidence to the contrary. It can be used, or modified with adjectives in ways that reflect this diversity, but this has not always been the case. When replaced with new terms, problems remain. As a result language perpetuates not only the lack of recognition of diversity among indigenous peoples, but also stereotypes.

The great diversity in First Nations in Canada can be easily seen in three areas that are often generalized: treaties, reserves, and voting rights. It is often said that “We Are All Treaty People.” Yet in 2013, Aboriginal Affairs[4] estimated that only around 59% of First Nations were part of at least one of roughly seventy historic treaties.[5] Since 1975, 26 comprehensive land claims (modern treaties) have been signed between Canada and various indigenous nations.[6] Still many of the roughly 198 recognized First Nations in British Columbia have not signed treaties.[7] The same is true for the Innu of Labrador.[8] This simple fact means that statements like “We Are All Treaty People” demands clarification.

In my home province of British Columbia, First Nations (such as my own) have never had a treaty relationship with government: past or present. There never was, therefore, an agreement to surrender or share our lands, allow for settlement, or do anything really! Yet it still happened. “We Are All Treaty People” suggests that an agreement exists, thereby legitimizing colonial state power, when there is no such agreement. This generalization makes me dread the prospect of sending my future children into an education system where misconceptions are taught as absolute truths. Here the words of my elders “You’re not that kind of Indian” ring true.

Nor does the existence of reserves indicate that a treaty has been signed. In British Columbia, most reserves were established without a treaty. Furthermore, it is often assumed by many individuals (including both indigenous and non-indigenous) that each First Nation has one reserve. This is false! In other areas, such as the Northwest Territories, reserves were, with a few exceptions, simply not created.[9] Inversely in other locations like British Columbia and Saskatchewan, it is the norm that a First Nation has more than one reserve.[10] And just because a First Nation has a reserve, or rather reserves, does not mean anyone (Status/Non-Status, band member, indigenous/non-indigenous) lives on them. My First Nation, Tsay Keh Dene, has three: Police Meadows No. 2, Tutu Creek No. 4, and Parsnip River No. 5, yet everyone lives off-reserve in the village of Tsay Keh Dene. As a result, by stating that you are from Tsay Keh Dene does not mean you are from the Tsay Keh Dene reserve, because it is not a reserve.

Finally, the fact that Status Indians voted prior to 1960 comes as a shock to many. Rather, 1960 marked a new era when Status Indians were granted the federal franchise.[11] Two adjectives in the preceding sentence are often overlooked by individuals: status and federal. First, a Status Indian is an individual who meets the criteria, determined by Indigenous Affairs, to be registered as an “Indian.” Historically, the rules have been fluid but, in theory, anyone who is unregistered is therefore not a Status Indian regardless of ancestry, or anyone who gave up their Status – willingly or unwillingly – could vote prior to 1960 in a federal election.

There were also provisions for Aboriginal veterans, although it is not entirely clear that they were fulfilled in any meaningful way.[12] Second, the federal right to vote is different than the provincial right to vote. British Columbia had granted the provincial right to vote to status Indians in 1949, followed by Manitoba in 1952, Ontario in 1954, and Saskatchewan in 1960.[13] “P.E.I. (1963), New Brunswick (1963), Alberta (1965),” and Québec (1969) did not grant the provincial right to vote until after 1960.[14] The generalizing statement that “Aboriginal people did not have the right to vote until 1960” ignores those provinces that granted it prior to 1960 as well as those that withheld it until after 1960. It also ignores Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador where no clear legislation preventing voting existed, and that in the other provinces clear legislation only emerged between 1874 and 1922.[15]

Indigenous people in Canada are not all the same. Not all First Nations signed treaties, have a reserve, or started voting in 1960. Yet many generalizations would suggest otherwise. Making matters worse these generalizations are all too often presented as absolute truths, without exception. This must end! Perhaps at no other point in time have we had as much information freely available about the hundreds of individual First Nations that exist in Canada. It is time that we treat generalizations about them for what they are: vague, superficial, stereotypical, and albeit at times racist.

Daniel Sims is a member of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation. He is faculty at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta. He has previously taught in the Faculty of Native Studies and Department of History & Classics at the University of Alberta.



[1] Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), “First Nations,” https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100013791/1100100013795 (accessed 15 December 2015).

[2] Olive Dickason and William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); INAC, “First Nations in Canada,” https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1307460755710/1307460872523 (accessed 15 December 2015); Zach Parrott, “Aboriginal Peoples,” Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people/ (accessed 15 December 2015); Arthur Ray, An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People, rev. ed. (Toronto: Key Porter Books Ltd., 2010), 6-20;

[3] INAC only recognizes around fifty.   INAC, “First Nations;” Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal Languages in Canada,” 2011 Analytical Products, http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/as-sa/98-314-x/98-314-x2011003_3-eng.cfm (accessed 15 December 2015).

[4] Aboriginal Affairs was the name of the Indigenous Affairs prior to the Liberal victory in the 2015 federal election.

[5] INAC, “Pre-1975 Treaties and Treaty First Nations in Canada Infographic,” http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1380223988016/1380224163492 (accessed 15 December 2015).

[6] INAC, “Comprehensive Claims,” https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100030577/1100100030578 (accessed 15 December 2015).

[7] BC Treaty Commission, “Nations List,” Negotiations http://www.bctreaty.net/files/first_nations.php (accessed 15 December 2015); BC Treaty Commission, “Treaty Negotiations in British Columbia,” http://www.bctreaty.net/nations/nation_maps/Treaty-Negotiations-in-British-Columbia-Map.pdf (accessed 4 January 2016); INAC, “About British Columbia First Nations,” https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100021009/1314809450456 (accessed 15 December 2015).

[8] Newfoundland and Labrador, “Land Claims,” http://www.laa.gov.nl.ca/laa/land_claims/ (accessed 15 December 2015).

[9] INAC, “NWT Plain Facts on Land and Self-Government,” https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100025943/1100100025945 (accessed 15 December 2015).

[10] INAC, “List of First Nations: British Columbia,” http://pse5-esd5.ainc-inac.gc.ca/fnp/Main/Search/FNListGrid.aspx?lang=eng (accessed 15 December 2015); INAC, “List of First Nations: Saskatchewan,” http://pse5-esd5.ainc-inac.gc.ca/fnp/Main/Search/FNListGrid.aspx?lang=eng (accessed 15 December 2015).

[11] Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), “Voting Rights,” http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/en/browseSubjects/votingRights.asp (accessed 15 December 2015); Canadian Human Rights Commission, “The Politics of Inclusion: Granting Aboriginals the Vote,” http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/en/timePortals/milestones/85mile.asp (accessed 4 January 2016).

[12] CHRC, “The Politics of Inclusion;” Canadian Museum of History, “Aboriginal People and the Franchise,” http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/elections/el_038_e.shtml (accessed 15 December 2015); Wendy Moss and Elaine Gardner-O’Toole, Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws http://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/BP/bp175-e.htm (accessed 15 December 2015);

[13] Moss and Gardner-O’Toole.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Wendy Moss and Elaine Gardner-O’Toole, Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws http://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/BP/bp175-e.htm (accessed 15 December 2015);

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2 thoughts on ““Not That Kind of Indian:” The Problem with Generalizing Indigenous Peoples in Contemporary Scholarship and Pedagogy

  1. J.R. Heywood

    Thank you so much for stating so clearly and concisely what has been bugging me for years. Miigwech!

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