Sunday, 8 February 2009

Indians? Nyet

Toronto theatre critics encountered negative feedback recently in reviewing Melanie J. Murray's play, A Very Polite Genocide.

The Toronto Star used "Indian" in its review. The Sun and Globe used "aboriginal."

What is respectful and politically correct today?

Grassroots News offers a helping hand with this "very complex issue" in a new blog posting and their bottom line is:

"Presently, the most acceptable word to describe the original inhabitants of the Americas is 'First Nations.' The term gets around the pitfalls associated with Indian, aboriginal, native, indigenous and so on, and we just have to be careful not to lump the Metis nation in with it."


  1. I think "First Nations" is a particularly Canadian usage. If you use it in the US, no one will know what you mean. The preferred term in the US is native American.

    BTW, I know lots of First Nations people who routinely use "Indian" among themselves. But maybe it's just one of those things....

  2. First Nation = those who can show origins with a First Nation, which in the past was also labeled as Indian Band. These include non-status Indians who also recognize their heritage and blood lines specific to a First Nation reserve. The Métis is less defined since even the Métis organizations across Canada still tend to argue what constitutes the requirements to claim Métis status/membership. Inuit is also another "category".

    The Union of Ontario Indians has begun calling itself the Anishinabek Nation, lending the perspective that they are an independent nation like any nation and subject to claiming their own self-categorization.

    For media, in Canada, if one is addressing all categories of Aboriginal people, the term Aboriginal with a capital A is as I understand the most correct label. They could also be referred to as Indigenous peoples.

    In the big picture, people categorize themselves too. I am an Edmontonian, an Albertan and a Canadian. I don't see my ethnic heritage as something I identify though working in the Aboriginal community I am asked often "what nation are you?" and I know what they are asking. I am not of any First Nation and though I'd like to respond I am Canadian, I know that's not what I'm being asked. I will joke; I am of northern European descent of those pale skinned nations.

    Ultimately I believe the issue with how Aboriginal peoples in Canada are labeled is that traditionally these people have found they are discriminated against as a group and they resist labels that they believe leads to such racist/discriminatory perspectives attached to those labels.

    The biggest problem with writers in mainstream is they don't seem to know or understand these points nor do they know the actual definitions of the words.

    When in doubt, Aboriginal as a term works and is all-inclusive. But you risk offending people by using the wrong terminology, especially when dealing with a specific category or nation. For example, this lesson came home to me as an ignorant Canadian when I once when I used the term "Band" as in Indian Band (it was a long time ago) when speaking with a representative at a Métis Settlement in Alberta. I quickly learned the difference.

    The resistance of the term Indian is because everyone knows the term was one deriving from the idea of East India way back when. It is the same with the term Eskimo, rather than Inuk/Inuit, etc. And the offense to the people being labeled is because those old labels were usually originating from ignorance or convenience of a term (often from a competing source with those people being labeled) also originating from ignorance.

    People expect that the writers in media are writing out of a position inclusive of knowledge... and the editor that changed the terms to Indian was demonstrating their ignorance and then fell back to some archaic resource which is clearly dated to justify their use of terminology that is was made out of ignorance. The offense is the editor using the word Indian should have known better and by doing what they did shows that they are not qualified to edit materials pertaining to Aboriginal peoples who self identify in a variety of ways. And as I've learned, a defining word in Aboriginal culture is "respect" and the editor in question failed the "respect test".

    Regarding the American term - Native American - my own experience is that the identity of being American has required that nation to change the terminology of many common terms worldwide into exclusive term within the U.S. to set them apart from the whole. What terms of used in the U.S. has no bearing on Canada or any other country since they certainly don't dictate the correctness of any labels.