WTF? Indigenous, Aboriginal, Native, or Indian?

Language has power. Words that you choose to write, or sing, or say, cannot be taken back; they are your thoughts put into action. Words shape perceptions and beliefs when interpreted by others; they are filtered through their own set of experiences, beliefs and perspectives.  

I began to pay a lot more attention to my own word choice during my Masters of Indigenous Education work at Simon Fraser University. By the time I wrote my thesis in 2010, I recognized how tough it was to choose the 'proper words' to suggest that many educators and policy-makers fail at bringing to light social justice issues in their classrooms and boardrooms. I knew I could slap them a few times to wake them up, but my bigger challenge would be to slap them in way that made them WANT me to slap 'em more.

I wanted to suggest that if they really see the benefits to society of creating more socially just classrooms (and hopefully students), they would need to take a tough, critical look at their own beliefs and attitudes - and how that suitcase of judgements got packed by whose versions of which stories and events.

I wanted to propose that they could start by learning about the traditional ways of teaching and 'being' of various Aboriginal people (First Nations, Métis and Inuit). I quickly found myself switching between labels like Indigenous and Aboriginal. I would sometimes refer to First Nations as a general group, or at other times as specific First Nation entities (such as the Tsawwassen First Nation or the Squamish Nation, formed when a group of 16 hereditary Chiefs signed a letter of agreement to align asvone Nation in 1923).

And although I strive to ask individuals in each community how they want to be recognized/labelled/called, in my paper and work I need to present some definitions and rationale... so here is what I wrote in my paper, "Loosening the Colonial Grip on Social Justice: Exposing Whiteness with Indigenous Pedagogies."

Though that thesis uses a lot of academic words, I hope it shows the importance of considering which words we use, as word choice is actually a political choice. We choose which views and voices we empower - or ignore - in our choice of words.

Respecting the Importance of Language

I switch between using the terms Native, Aboriginal and Indigenous. I offer as an explanation that Indigenous people in the United States of America often use "Native American,” American Indian,” "Indian,” or "Native” to refer to themselves (Barnhardt and Kawagley, 2005; Driskill, 2004). "Aboriginal” and "Native” are most commonly used in reference to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit in Canada (Battiste and Barman, 1995; Joseph, 2006).

Yet in striving to include decolonized perspectives and Aboriginal voices in my work, I follow the rationale presented by Judith Iseke-Barnes in Pedagogies for Decolonizing to use the term "Indigenous” more often. Iseke-Barnes explains the complexity and importance of language and terminology in decolonizing education:

"One source of colonial power is through naming and control of language (Smith, 1999; Iseke-Barnes, 2004). It is important to examine the language we use if we are to understand colonial oppression and the process of decolonizing. I have never taught a class with an Indigenous focus clarifying language use. I provide this section
as an example of the information I might provide students who ask about this.

The words Indigenous, Native, Indian, Aboriginal, and First Nations are all used by authors in the field and in materials presented here. Each term is a colonial creation that collectivizes distinct groups of peoples and therefore can be challenged as colonial tools.

But each term also facilitates dialogue on particular political histories and is used in particular contexts. Each term also allows Indigenous peoples with distinct heritages to work collectively. Authors in the literature cited in this article make distinctions between these terms and their use depending on the author's context. Therefore, it is a challenge to make use of the terms.

But it appears that one term with the broadest potential application and inclusiveness is Indigenous. Peoples from around the globe use this term so I make use of this term here.” (Iseke-Barnes, 2008, p.124)

So unless I deal specifically with a group that self-identifies with the term 'Aboriginal' (such as the Aboriginal Friendship Centres or the Urban Aboriginal Strategy), or a group such as the Musqueam Indian Band that chooses to keep the colonial-imposed term, I will use - and empower - the term Indigenous in my language.