About the Author

Chelsea Vowel

Chelsea Vowel is Métis from manitow-sâkahikan (Lac Ste. Anne) Alberta where she and her family currently reside. She has a BEd and LLB and is mother to three girls, step-mother of two more. Chelsea is a public intellectual, writer and educator whose work intersects language, gender, Métis self-determination and resurgence. She has worked directly with First Nations researching self-government, participating in constitutional drafting and engaging in specific land claim negotiation settlements and valuation of claims over a 200 year period. She is passionate about creating programs and materials that enable Indigenous languages to thrive, not merely survive. Most recently an educator in Québec, she developed and delivered programs to Inuit youth in a restorative justice program. She is a heavily cited and internationally respected commentator on Indigenous-State relations and dedicates much of her time to mentoring other young activists. Chelsea blogs at apihtawikosisan.com and makes legendary bannock.

Books by this Author
Indigenous Writes

Just Don’t Call Us Late for Supper

Names for Indigenous Peoples

Any discussion needs a certain number of terms that can be understood by all participants; otherwise, communication ends up even messier than usual. I’ve read a lot of books about Indigenous peoples, and it seems every single one spends some time explaining which term the author will use in the rest of the text, and why he or she chose that particular term. I’ve tried avoiding that sort of thing when talking to people, but it absolutely always comes up.

I find it somewhat easier to start with a list of what you should definitely not be calling us – a little housecleaning of the mind, if you will. Surprisingly, there are a great number of people who still think the use of some of these terms is up for debate, but I would sincerely like to help you avoid unintentionally putting your foot in your mouth. So, between us, let’s just agree the following words are never okay to call Indigenous peoples:

  • savage
  • red Indian
  • redskin
  • primitive
  • half-breed
  • squaw/brave/buck/papoose

This is not an exhaustive list, and there are plenty of other slurs we do not need to mention that are obviously unacceptable. I do not intend to spend any time discussing how the above terms might not be offensive, because engaging in a philosophical sidebar about whether words have inherent meaning tends to end in recitals of Jabberwocky; before you know it, you’ve wasted half the night trying to translate it into Cree, yet again. Or, so I’ve heard.

A lot of people who would like to talk about Indigenous issues honestly do not want to cause offence, and get very stressed out about the proper terms; so, it is in the interest of lowering those people’s blood pressure that I’m now going to discuss various terms in use out there.

First, there is no across-the-board agreement on a term. The fact that all Indigenous peoples have not settled on one term really seems to bother some people. I would like those people to take a deep breath, and chill out. It’s okay. Names are linked to identity, and notions of identity are fluid.

For example, did you have a cute nickname when you were a young child? I did. My parents called me “Goose Girl.” Twenty-five or so years later, if my employer called me “Goose Girl,” it would be awkward at best. There are terms of endearment that my friends and family call me that would sound very strange coming out of the mouth of someone I just met.

When meeting new people, we tend to err on the side of formality to avoid giving a poor first impression. So it is with identifiers for Indigenous peoples. Terms change; they evolve. What was a good term 20 years ago might be inappropriate now, or it has been worn out through constant repetition – like every hit song you used to love but can no longer stand to listen to. There is also an issue of terms becoming co-opted and changed by government, industry, or by pundits searching for new ways to take potshots at us. Sometimes, a term is abandoned because it has become so loaded that using it suggests tacit agreement to some bizarre external interpretation of who Indigenous peoples are.

Indigenous peoples are incredibly diverse; there are all sorts of internal arguments about which terms are best, what they actually mean, why people should reject this and that, and so on. What I’m okay with you calling me might really annoy someone else. If you were hoping this chapter was going to help you avoid that completely, I want to be upfront with the fact that you will leave disappointed. Be aware: no matter how safe you think a term is, someone somewhere might get upset if you call them that. No one can give you a magical pass so you never have to re-examine the terms you are using – not even your Native friend.

Be prepared to listen to what people have to say about the term you use, and to respect what they suggest you call them instead. This is surprisingly easy to do, and goes a very long way in keeping the dialogue useful. I mean, it would be a bit off to deliberately keep calling someone “Susie” when she’s asked you to call her “Susan,” right?

Here are some of the names in use:

  • Indian
  • NDN
  • Aboriginal
  • Indigenous
  • Native
  • First Nations
  • Inuit
  • Métis
  • Native American (more in the United States than in Canada)
  • the name of a particular nation (Cree, Ojibway, Chipewyan, and so on)
  • the name of a particular nation in that nation’s original language (nêhiyaw, Anishinaabe, Dene suliné, and so on)

Notice that I always capitalize the various terms used to describe Indigenous peoples. This is deliberate; the terms are proper nouns and adjectives referring to specific groups. “To capitalize or not to capitalize” ends up being a heated debate at times, but I feel it is a measure of respect to always capitalize our names when writing in English. This is my rule of thumb: if I can swap out “Indigenous” with “Canadian” (which is always capitalized), then I use the big I. I also capitalize names for non-Indigenous peoples throughout this book.

The term Indian is probably the most contentious. There are a couple of theories about where the term originated, but that’s not the point. In Canada, Indian continues to have legal connotations, and there is still an Indian Act; so you’ll see it used officially, as well as colloquially. There is also a long history of this term being used pejoratively – two good reasons why it doesn’t sit well with everyone.

However, it is also a term that is often used internally. Please note this does not mean it’s always okay for others to use the term. I tend to suggest that avoiding this term is probably for the best, unless someone is specifically referencing the Indian Act. There is a level of sarcasm and challenge often associated with its internal use that is easy to miss, and most likely cannot be replicated. If you are interested in avoiding giving offence, this term is one you might want to drop from your vocabulary.

NDN is a term of more recent origin, in heavy use via social media. This shorthand term has no official meaning and is very informal. If you say it aloud it just sounds like Indian, so its use really only makes sense in text-based situations. NDN is more of a self-identifier than anything.

close this panel
This Place

I have never liked the phrase, “History is written by the victors.” I understand the idea behind it – that those in power will tell and retell stories in whatever ways flatter them best, until those stories harden into something called “history.” But just because stories are unwritten for a time, doesn’t mean they’ll be unwritten forever. And just because stories don’t get written down, doesn’t mean they’re ever lost. We carry them in our minds, our hearts, our very bones. We honour them by passing them on, letting them live on in others, too.

That’s exactly what this anthology does. It takes stories our people have been forced to pass on quietly, to whisper behind hands like secrets, and retells them loudly and unapologetically for our people today. It finally puts our people front and centre on our own lands. Inside these pages are the incredible, hilarious heroics of Annie Bannatyne, who refused to let settlers disrespect Metis women in Red River. There’s the heartbreaking, necessary tale of Nimkii and Teddy, heroic youth in care who fight trauma and colonialism as hard as they possibly can in impossible circumstances. And there are many more—all important, all enlightening. All of these stories deserve to be retold, remembered and held close.

As I was reading, I thought a lot about the idea of apocalypse, or the end of the world as we know it. Indigenous writers have pointed out that, as Indigenous people, we all live in a post-apocalyptic world. The world as we knew it ended the moment colonialism started to creep across these lands. But we have continued to tell our stories, we have continued to adapt. Despite everything, we have survived.

Every Indigenous person’s story is, in a way, a tale of overcoming apocalypse. The Canadian laws and policies outlined at the beginning of each story have tried their hardest to beat us down, to force us to assimilate and give up our culture, yet here we are. We have survived the apocalypse. When you think about it that way, every Indigenous person is a hero simply for existing. The people named in these stories are all heroes, inspired by love of their people and culture to do amazing, brave things—but so are the unnamed people who raised them, who taught them, who supported them and stood with them. Our communities are full of heroes.

That’s why this anthology is so beautiful and so important. It tells tales of resistance, of leadership, of wonder and pain, of pasts we must remember and futures we must keep striving towards, planting each story like a seed deep inside of us. It’s our responsibility as readers to carry and nourish those seeds, letting them grow inside as we go on to create our own stories, live our own lives, and become our own heroes. As you read, consider: how are you a hero already? And what will your story be?

—Alicia Elliott

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
Contacting facebook
Please wait...