Indigeneity and the Debate of Terminology

First of all, I would like to thank all the TC’s who came out to join our first Indigenous Education E-Mentoring info session. As some teacher candidates expressed yesterday, a post on Indigenous-specific terminology and it’s use in Canada would be very beneficial.

By no means is this list comprehensive, but is simply meant to be introductory and to provide us with a foundation in order to grapple with the highly complex and contentious nature of not only terminology, but identity politics more broadly.

I offer these definitions from my own position as Haudenosaunee, as well as my work and research in Indigenous education.


The term Indigenous is increasingly favoured over the term Aboriginal in Canada, for a variety of reasons. For one, the term Aboriginal is associated with the Government of Canada’s constitutional category for Indigenous peoples (see below), and consequently due to the politics at play here many Indigenous peoples prefer to use a term that has not been appropriated for legal purposes by the government. Furthermore, Indigeneity is tied to land and place, and therefore the term Indigenous recognizes this connection of being from and belonging to the land (i.e. “I am Indigenous to North America;” or “I am Indigenous to this body of water…”).

The term Indigenous, because it is tied to land, also recognizes the fluidity of Indigenous peoples over the land prior to European settlement and colonization whereby Settlers created arbitrary boundary lines and names for places that were already occupied. There are many consequences of such demarcation, but this has particularly affected Indigenous communities whose traditional territories were divided between Canada and the United States — for example, Blackfoot, Haudenosaunee, and Coast Salish communities. So here the term Indigenous allows for Indigenous peoples to be recognized as being the original peoples of a land, of whose history and identity extends well beyond constructs of the “Canadian Constitution” and “Canadian/American borders.”

Although it is not a catch-all word, many Indigenous peoples (internationally speaking as well) are increasingly preferring this word as a source of solidarity with other Indigenous peoples, and again – I can’t stress it enough – it recognizes the significance of LAND to these cultures, identities and histories.


Under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982, Aboriginal peoples includes: First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples of Canada (contrary to some confusion of the word, it is not synonymous with only First Nations peoples…it is all three Indigenous peoples!). Aboriginal peoples, according to this legal category, are the judicial responsibility of the Federal Government of Canada. Due to it’s popularity and legal status, many Indigenous peoples in Canada still identify as Aboriginal; moreover, if you use the term Aboriginal you are technically being politically correct (don’t worry, you’re not offending people if you use it!).

This being said, it comes down to a matter of preference, and yet we cannot ignore the identity politics which surround these terms. For the reasons outlined above, Indigenous peoples are increasingly moving away from this legal category of Aboriginal identity and towards an Indigenous identity.

Many governmental services and agencies still use the term Aboriginal – for example, the Ministry of Education – because they are governmental and therefore use such legal terminology.  It’s not that they’re trying to be offensive, but we cannot ignore its constitutional implications. Some Indigenous scholars also continue to use the word Aboriginal when they are trying to be specific to the Canadian context (for example, despite my personal dislike of the word Aboriginal, I still often use it in my own research because I also do work with Maori peoples of New Zealand and therefore need to use the terms Aboriginal or Maori when I need to be specific). Lastly, the term Aboriginal is also used for the Indigenous peoples of Australia.

First Nations

The term First Nations refers to the Indigenous peoples of Canada, whom were formerly referred to as Native or Indian. Similar to the terms Indigenous and Aboriginal, there are a variety of Indigenous peoples in Canada who may refer to themselves as First Nations, or they may refer specifically to their personal nation or community which they identify with (for example, Musqueam, Haudenosaunee, Cree, etc.).

Using the term First Nations is inclusive of Status Indians and Non-Status Indians (see below), and are governed by the Federal Government under the Indian Act (yes, this is still in place to this day). The term First Nations is often used interchangeably with the term Aboriginal — but let’s not forget that Aboriginal refers to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Again, it is a matter of preference how people wish to identify, but when we use the term First Nations we are often excluding Métis and Inuit peoples, which is fine when we are referring to only First Nations people.


The Inuit are also recognized as Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The Inuit are defined under the Indian Act however they are not considered legal Indians and do not have Indian Status. Such Inuit rights are legislated under territorial rights, and many Inuit peoples share political identity with other Northern Indigenous peoples around the world, such as the Indigenous peoples of Alaska, Russia, Norway and Denmark.

The term Inuit is plural, and Inuk is singular (i.e. “She is an Inuk educator” or “They are Inuit educators”).


The term Métis refers to all peoples who identify as Métis through Métis ancestors and kinship, including but not limited to the original Métis communities of the Red River Settlement. The term is not to be confused with people of “mixed” First Nations and European ancestry, but rather refers to those who have distinct Métis nationhood ties.

Below is one of my favourite quotes from Métis scholar and lawyer, Chelsea Vowel (by the way, follow her badass Twitter @apihtawikosisan), where she highlights the complexity of her Métis identity. Here Vowel (2016) is alluding to the confusion Canadians often have surrounding this idea of First Nations ancestry (i.e. having a great-grandmother who was of Cree ancestry…this does not make you Métis, this means you simply have Cree ancestry) with the notion of distinct Métis identity (which is tied with distinct Métis history, culture, language, and…you got it, land!):

“Oh,” they’d say, sounding disappointed and perhaps a little triumphant to have found a fake. “So, you’re like a quarter Indian?”As impressed as I am with the mathematical skills of all the people who have asked me this question since I moved to Quebec, my answer is no: I am full Métis. (Vowel, 2016, p. 37)

Indian (Status/Non-Status)

In all honesty, I won’t get into Status too much here in this post. There are many incredible Indigenous/non-Indigenous legal and political scholars who have taken up this work, and will do it justice (here, I would recommend checking out some blogs/editorials, such as this one on CBC and Chelsea Vowel’s much more comprehensive post here).

If you are genuinely interested in learning about Indian Status and the Indian Act, I’d love to sit down and we can have a chat about it over coffee. Especially if you’re interested in teaching about it!

What I will say, is that Indian Status is grounded in the Indian Act, which was enacted to assimilate Indigenous peoples…in contrast to the belief that it was to “protect” our rights (rights which we already had, and were then taken away). Furthermore, I also wish to highlight that having or not having Indian Status does not make one more or less Indigenous. There are many Indigenous people in Canada who have definitive Indigenous ancestry, who speak their traditional languages, and contribute to their community in invaluable ways, and yet they may not have Status for a multiplicity of reasons (again, think assimilation…as few Indians as possible). Likewise, there are some people in Canada who have Indian Status and yet maintain no ties to a community. Complex, I know!!

Native/Native American

I’ll keep this last one short. Native is increasingly disfavoured in the Canadian context, as it has been used in derogatory tropes which stereotype and demean Indigenous peoples (such as the “dirty Native” or the “homeless Native”). Personally, I have a knee-jerk reaction towards the word Native and truly prefer not to use it for that reason. This being said, it was a popular term for so long, it’s not uncommon to hear older Indigenous peoples refer to themselves as Native. And just to make things even more complicated, the term Native American or even American Indian are still widely used in the United States — even by Indigenous peoples.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought – George Orwell