Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Catch-22s of First Nations Depictions: What's In A Name?

Continuing with my series leading up National Aboriginal Day on June 21....

If you haven't had a chance to read the previous installments of this series, please do. The first one looked at historical preconceptions of the First Nations in Canada, most notably the "myth of the Noble Savage". The second one took those ideas a step further by examining how the stereotypes we hold today fell under a similar model.

So now that the stereotypes - both good and bad - have been established, the next broad subject I would like to look at, which will encompass the remaining posts in this series, is some practical ways that someone can approach their cultures, histories, and identities in a respectful manner.

But before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I, Kita Inoru, am NOT a person of First Nations descent. What this means is that the perspective and the opinions that I express here are solely my own. If there is anyone here who is of First Nations descent and/or is directly affected by the issues discussed in this series, please feel free to shed further light on them in the Comments, and please be patient with me in regards to any errors I might make. Thanks!

What better place to start in discussing how to address First Nations issues with respect than, well, actual terms of address? I am speaking here of all the various names and terms people use to refer to the First Nations. Over the years, both acceptable and offensive terms have emerged - and some things that were once acceptable now might no longer be. For someone from the outside looking in, it can get very confusing: how do I talk about the First Nations while A) preserving some element of historical/contextual accuracy, and B) not offending anybody?

I will say, first of all, that the explanations I give here are, to the best of my knowledge, distinctly Canadian. First Nations communities in the United States are distinctive from those in Canada and, because of that, a different set of conventions has evolved on both sides of the border.

1. Indian and its derivatives (ex. Native American Indian, NDN, etc.)

This term is one where the use does vary between Canada and the United States. I think the story is familiar to many of us from our elementary school days: Columbus mistook his arriving in the Americas as having found a western ocean route to the Orient, and wound up calling the indigenous peoples that he found "Indians", after which point the name stuck.

In Canada, at least, the term "Indian", in reference to the First Nations, is seen as very offensive. From childhood, we are told again and again, "Don't say 'Indian' - they're not from India." Where the sense of offense comes from is not entirely clear - my theory is that there is something of the name that simply smacks of colonialism and imperialism and Eurocentric views, so it's just been phased out over the years here. Because of that, I will confess that, as a Canadian, I've found American First Nations people's use of the term "Native American Indian" or the abbreviated "NDN" as a form of self-address has always caught me off guard. I end up thinking, " isn't offensive?" and that ends up confusing me quite a good deal.

However, regardless of its use in other parts of the world, the term "Indian" in Canada is seen as offensive in referring to the First Nations with two notable exceptions. The first is when one is actually making a historical reference, such as when quoting from a historical text or when wanting to consciously point out that the term was used in the past for negative purposes (ex. when speaking of the "Indian residential schools"). The second is when referring to the Department of Indian Affairs: the government board that deals with the First Nations and their needs in Canada. The name of the department now appears antiquated and politically incorrect to many Canadians, but until it is actually changed, there's little choice but to call it what it is.

2. Native Peoples/Americans/Canadians

Generally speaking, this is seen as an acceptable, albeit somewhat neutral term. You're not winning any brownie points with it, but no-one's going to get upset either, as this is probably the most common name used in everyday discourse and parlance.

I have seen some people express concerns: "Everyone born in Canada is a 'native' Canadian, so this can't refer specifically to the First Nations, can it?" Well...yes, and no. For the most part, I have yet to see any actual confusion result from the use of the term "Native Canadian" (note that, in writing, the upper- and lower-case 'n' makes all the difference) - and if something does arise, it's usually sorted out readily enough through looking at the context.

3. Red Indians, Redskins, etc.

This one goes without saying - it's definitely seen as offensive in both Canada and the United States. The reasons why are things that I don't necessarily want to unpack here, but the simplest answer would be that it's associated with straight-up racism based on physical appearance. Also, if you didn't know that these terms were offensive before, you'd probably know now with all the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins and their right to use the name and its associated logo. For more on how First Nations people see this issue, watch the video below:

Personally - and this is very much my own opinion here - I make one exception to this. The only people I've actually seen and heard using these terms in reference to the First Nations were more elderly folks who, among other things, still refer to Germany as "West Germany". In that case, I think it's possible to cut them a little bit of slack, as I think this comes less from racism and more from force of habit.

4. Aboriginal, Indigenous, or First Peoples

In Canada, these are the "official" terms that are used. I know that I've been using the term "First Nations" all this time, but "Aboriginal" and "Indigenous peoples" make up an even broader category: the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis. The unfortunate thing is that the word "Aboriginal" does make one think of the primitive, so outside of official or academic discourse, it's not used all that often.

Nowadays, there is a slow, but gradual, shift to the term "First Peoples" instead. I think that will take some time to catch on, though, as there is still the risk of mistake the phrase "First Peoples" as a reference to an earlier state of human evolution - not what anyone's intending here!

5. First Nations

For the majority of Canada's First Peoples, this is the term that is used and has gained the most acceptability and respectability in recent years. It's an acknowledgement of two core facts about the Native peoples in Canada: A) that they were here "first" (i.e. prior to Europeans); and B) that they are not a singular ethnicity/culture/etc., but are actually incredibly diverse in and of themselves.

This map of the First Nations languages spoken in Canada and the United States gives at least some idea as to how diverse they actually are.
6. Inuit vs. Eskimo

Now for one that, once again, differs in terms of acceptability between Canada and the United States. In Canada, the word "Eskimo" is outright offensive - it's on par with using the term "Indians" in reference to the First Nations. How this was taught to me as a kid was that the word "Eskimo" originated as a derogatory term used to refer to the Inuit in Canada's Arctic, and that it literally means "eaters of raw meat" - trust me, that will spur enough children's innate "ick" factor to warn them off using the term ever again.

However, the term "Eskimo" is not only acceptable in the United States, but is a term of self-address. The reason for this is that, as with the First Nations, the Native peoples in the Arctic regions are incredibly diverse. The Yu'pik in Alaska, for instance, see themselves as ethnically and culturally distinct from Canada's Inuit, and the term "Eskimo" is used in reference to the Yu'pik as an acknowledgement of this difference. But, in Canada, that still doesn't work - you'll need to contextualize what you are saying in order to get away with using the word "Eskimo" here.

7. Métis

The Métis have been relatively late in receiving recognition from the Canadian government as one of the First Peoples. Historically, the term refers to people who were descended from First Nations women and French(-Canadian) and Scottish(-Canadian) fur traders. This term is now an acceptable form of self-address, and has replaced the earlier "Half-breed". No need to say why that ended up being seen as offensive, I reckon!

However, a word of caution: I am of the opinion that we shouldn't start patting ourselves on the backs for using "Métis" anytime soon. Why? Because the word "Métis" is - literally - the French word for "half-breed". Am I saying that we shouldn't use "Métis", then? No. It has, after all, become a form of self-address. But I urge you to at least be conscious of what you are really saying when you use it - don't let a pretty-sounding "foreign" word give you a false sense of security.

8. Specific Nations' Names

Again, this is generally acceptable. Each Nation in Canada has a distinctive culture, language, and name; and it is perfectly all right to use those terms. However, once again, it is important to realize that there is, in fact, a great deal of complexity here. Not all the names that have become common parlance were self-determined by the First Nations peoples they refer to - a bit of research reveals that many of these names originated from descriptors used by European settlers, or even derogatory terms used by rival Nations.

So now it is not unusual to see multiple terms referring to the same group of people: one that has become common usage historically (and is retained for understandability), and a self-determined name from the Nation in question. Examples for this would be Iroquois vs. Haudenosaunee; Huron vs. Wyandot/Wendat; Nootka vs Nuu-chah-nulth, Ojibway vs. Anishnaabe; etc. The older terms are still seen as "okay", but it is worth learning some of the more prominent self-chosen names now in use.

So there you have it: some of the more common words used to refer to the First Peoples in Canada and an explanation as to which ones are acceptable or offensive, and why. Of course, this is not a comprehensive list, by any means. But I hope it sheds at least some light on what might otherwise be a rather complex subject.

In the next installment of this series, I will continue to examine how one could approach and engage with First Nations cultures in a respectful manner, particularly when it comes to fashion and aesthetics. When is "borrowing" an element of First Nations culture okay - and when is it not?

Image Credits

Map of First Nations languages (c) ish_ishwar on Wikimedia Commons, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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