In Canada “Aboriginal” is a government term. While government officials as well as some Indigenous people use this term, it is offensive to many Indigenous people as it implies off-centre.
In Canada “Indian” is a term Canada applies and relies on in the federal legislation known as The Indian Act. An “Indian” is a person who is registered under The Indian Act. Some people are offended by this term, and others use it due to its place in The Indian Act. In addition to this, other people have claimed “Indian” as their own, ascribing their own meaning to the term.
“First Nations” is a term that Indigenous people created. Despite this origin many people do not like it as it implies a hierarchy where other people are second. In addition, “First Nations” specifically references “First Nation” members/citizens. Many people not registered as an “Indian” under The Indian Act are for the most part excluded from being “First Nation” members/citizens.
Although many people are not familiar with “Indigenous,” it is a preferred term. It must be remembered though that we are all “Indigenous” to the earth and so a geographic location is best stated as an important qualifier.
“Native” is a term that is less politically laden and is therefore somewhat useful.
Indigenous Nations have their own names. For example, through colonization the people in the Ottawa River Valley of Ontario and Quebec Canada have been named the “Algonquin.” Traditionally and historically the Algonquin of the Ottawa River Valley relied on totems and geographic names such as the Beaver Nation or the Kiji Sìbì Anishinaabe (People of the Great River). While today some Indigenous people remain with the term “Algonquin,” others have opted to return to their traditional titles. In some situations people are making a conscious choice to remain with “Algonquin” due to the fact that sometimes the cultural hegemony is good to work with rather than against. The point here is that the use of the term “Algonquin” is not always a sign of an oppressed mindset.
The term “squaw” has Indigenous origins where the meaning was descriptive of a young woman and not derogatory in nature. While the process of colonization has ascribed a negative meaning to this term some women such as Sharon McIvor are reclaiming it from the oppressor’s filthy, racist, and sexist mindset and practices as in “I am an old squaw”. Me too. Thank you Sharon!
Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter and section 35 Constitutional challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process, and she recently published a book titled Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts. You can reach her at email@example.com and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.
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