Native Issues Newb? Definitions You Need to Know

If you have no background knowledge on Indigenous Issues this is the post for you. Find out what words like “Turtle Island” and “Indian” mean to me.

Words for First Peoples

Remember, if you are referring to an Indigenous person or group, it is always, always, always, better to use their specific nation instead of one of the blanket terms below.

Indigenous: A blanket term for the First Peoples of any given nation.

Aboriginal: Another blanket term for the First Peoples of a nation. However, I think this is used more specifically to refer to Aboriginal Australians and Aboriginal Canadians.

Native: A slang term for Indigenous people in Canada and America. In America it is the short form of Native American . I think this is a popular one we use amongst ourselves. This should never be used in academic or formal writing.

First Nations: This is a blanket term for Indigenous people. In Canada, it specifically refers to all Indigenous groups other than the Metis and the Inuit.

Metis: Metis means mixed in french. This term refers to a specific culture/ethnic group originating from the Red River, Manitoba area. This culture group was created when (mostly) French fur traders had children with (mostly) Cree women. The descendants of these children began to see themselves as distinct from both their Indigenous and European families.  Their culture group was solidified after the Battle of Seven Oaks in which Metis families fought against Scottish Settlers to protect their lands. There has been a bit of controversy recently as the Metis term has been adopted by other mixed-heritage groups that come from other areas of the country.

Inuit: The Inuit are the First Peoples of Northern Canada, Alaska and even Greenland. I have no idea how they could have survived in that climate, but they did. Inuit is the plural form and Inuk is the singular. They are not included as First Nations or eligible for status.

Other Words That Are Good to Know

Turtle Island: Another word for North America. Refers to a creation story in which Sky Woman fell from the sky onto the back of a turtle in the middle of the ocean. Ultimately, with the help from some animals, Sky Woman creates North America (or maybe the world) and all of its beauty. At least, that’s the short version.

Treaties: Legal documents signed between the Crown or the Government of Canada and Indigenous Peoples. These were agreements for use of land in exchange for annuities, supplies and other supports. Also important related to treaties are treaty rights which are the rights given to Indigenous Peoples defined by the treaties they signed into. Generally these refer to the right to hunt/fish/gather in a specific area.

Reserves: Also known as Reservations or simply as “the Rez”. Reserves are the lands allocated for First Nations people through treaties or simply the lands that Indigenous Peoples were forced to occupy after being overtaken by Indigenous settlers.

Unceded Territory: Although many Indigenous groups signed treaties with European settlers, many did not and were forced into reserves anyways. In these cases, those of us who care about the issues will refer to these lands as “unceded” or otherwise not surrendered. There is a modern-day treaty process attempting to get all of these issues solved, but it’s not going so well.

Aboriginal Rights and Title: Aboriginal Title refers to Indigenous Peoples rights to the land simply because they were here first. Aboriginal rights are an Indigenous person’s rights to continue their traditional/cultural practices. These are separate from treaty rights and separate from the Indian Act. They are recognized and affirmed in the Canadian Constitution, but they were never defined so people in general don’t really know what to do about them.

Status: Usually used in tandem with other terms, (status Indian, status First Nation, status Cree etc.) this term refers to people who are eligible to be acknowledged as Indigenous by the federal government. Indigenous people with status pay all taxes unless they shop at specific locations on reserve or gain all of their income from employment on reserve.

Non-Status: Usually used in tandem with blanket terms, (non-status Indian, non-status First Nation, non-status Cree etc.) this term refers to people who have Indigenous heritage, are likely just as involved in their culture as anyone else, but who have been denied Indian status under the Indian Act. Perhaps I will have to do an entire post on the issues surrounding status later.

Band + Band Membership: First Nations groups are organized into bands or communities. They are usually headed by an elected or hereditary chief and an elected council. Band membership allows an Individual to vote/run for chief and council or live on the reserve. Band membership is no longer tied to status – meaning that you don’t have to be a federally recognized First Nations to be a member of a band or vice versa.

Words We Shouldn’t Use

Indian: An old slang term for an Indigenous person. Apparently dates back to when colonizers first landed here looking for India and could not tell the difference between them and us. In Canada, the word Indian is used legally when referencing those identified as status Indians under the Indian Act (1876). Don’t use this word unless you are talking about the Indian Act or you’ll end up sounding like a doofus.

Half-breed: an old slang term for someone of mixed Indigenous and European descent. Please don’t use this word to refer to mixed heritage people. It makes them sound like dogs.

Eskimo: A word that used to refer to the Inuit. I believe this term is still used in America/Alaska. However in Canada we have switched to using the word the Inuit use for themselves.

Squaw: a horrible, horrible slang word for an Indigenous woman. From the beginning it was used to imply that Indigenous women are promiscuous or engage in prostitution.

Redskin: This is a derogatory term for Native people, used especially in America. It is apparently meant to describe the colour of Indigenous people’s skin. It has also been linked to scalping practices that were used by some First Nations groups when they fought amongst themselves. However, scalping was also used by American colonists when they received payment for proof that they had killed Indigenous men, women and children.

Are there any important terms that I forgot in this list? Any definitions you see differently? Or any other terms related to Indigenous people that you are curious about? Let me know in the comments!


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