Identity and Terminology

In this section, you will learn about the intricacy of identity and terminology as it relates to Indigenous peoples of Canada.

Introduction

In Canada, Indigenous Peoples are defined by two systems, one based on kinship and culture and the other in federal law and legislation enforced by the government. First Nations, Métis and Inuit terms and identity can be complex. Indigenous lawyer and activist Pam Palmeter says, “Indigenous identity is so bound up in culture, language, territory, family, community, and history that the denial of any one of these factors can have traumatic effects on an individual’s identity and sense of self.1

Terms defined by the government exist to control land, resources, and rights. Palmeter explains that the terminology embedded in The Indian Act of 1985 “reduce[d] the government’s financial obligations to Indigenous Peoples, and their methods were far from benign. From scalping laws to forced sterilizations, to residential schools and the Indian Act’s registration provisions, the methods chosen to achieve those policy objectives have focused more on eliminating Indians than assimilating them.”2 While the term Indian is no longer used in general conversation, it is rooted in the legal terminology of the Indian Act and so remains the legal term for Indigenous Peoples.

Legal Recognition

Palmeter explains why legal representation of Indigenous Peoples is important: “In roughly five hundred years, policies that define and control Indigenous People have managed to nearly wipe us out  physically, culturally, and legally.”3 For example, the government decided through the enforced Indian Act that any Indian woman who married a non-Indian man would no longer be considered an Indian even though their kinship and culture was rooted in being Indigenous. Even if an Indian woman married a Métis man, her status as an Indian was revoked. These policies have shifted due to pushback over the years, yet complexities remain. To this day there are conflicts about who the federal government legally recognizes as a Status Indian, non-Status Indian, and Métis person. 

Until colonization, Indigenous identities did not encourage divisions. That changed when European conceptions of race separated Indigenous Peoples from Europeans and created internal divisions within Indigenous groups. These actions were deliberate and, according to Palmeter, were undertaken “to restrict the number of status Indians so as to ensure their extinction over time [and have] evolved outside the scope of the legislation, through internal policies created by INAC [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada]. Although the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) found the Inuit to be “Indians” for the purposes . . . of the Constitution Act, 1867 . . . Canada amended the Indian Act to specifically exclude them from registration. . . . Similarly, Métis People who took scrip are also excluded from Indian registration.”4

Developing Identity

The Saddle Lake First Nation says that it is important for Indigenous Peoples to develop their identity outside of the Indian Act’s parameters. “We are constantly developing our identity, from birth to the end of our lives. We build it based on our relationships with relatives, friends, community, geography, language and other social factors. When a child feels a sense of belonging to family, community, and peers he or she is better able to deal with adversity. Prior to contact, First Nations had their own histories and methods of determining our identity. We had matriarchal, patriarchal, clan and kinship systems. Before Europeans came to North America, First Nations communities or nations were sovereign nations, that is, we were self-governing.”5 In recent years, Indigenous Peoples across Canada are demanding their right to return to self-governance principles that are at the core of Indigenous identity. 

Shifting Terms

Terms that label Indigenous Peoples such as Status, non-Status, halfbreed, squaw, and Indian were created by settlers and the federal government. While they have shifted throughout Canadian history, they continue to contribute to our sense or loss of identity. The University of British Columbia says that “Identity negotiations produce categories that can exclude as much as include particular groups of People. These categories create blanket assumptions and stereotypes accepted as natural by outsiders and may also be internalized by members of the group in question.”6

It can sometimes be difficult to keep up with terms that describe Indigenous Peoples because they continue to shift. Yet, nations have always had their own language and words to describe themselves and other nations. As Indigenous Peoples increasingly reclaim their identities, they are also reclaiming traditional terminology. Leaders must respect changes to terminology. To better understand how terms can change for Indigenous Peoples, please watch Audrey Weasel Traveller’s video in the Walking Together Digital Resource.  

Many Distinct Nations

Although the term Indigenous is a common collective term, there are many nations within Alberta — Niitsitapi (Blackfoot Nation); Ahpikuni (Peigan); Southern Ahpikuni (Montana Blackfeet); Ahkainah (Bloods); Siksika (Blackfoot); Iyiniwok or Ininiwok, meaning “the People,” or Nehiyawak, “speakers of the Cree language” (Cree); Dene, Denesuline; Itsa Ĩyãħé, “The Pure People” (Stoney Nakoda); Anishnabe (Saulteaux, Ojibway). Each Nation is distinct and within Nations, there are many reserves that are associated with either Treaty 6,7, or 8. Reserves were created to keep Indigenous Peoples separated and isolated from each other. As settlers increasingly demanded the most productive land, Indigenous Peoples were forced onto reserves so they could be controlled. There are 140 reserves throughout Alberta with unique histories and contemporary realities. To learn more about the First Nations across Alberta, build relationships with First Nations People, local reserves and their schools, and Indigenous organizations.

Métis

Distinct from First Nations are the Otipemisiwak (Free People), also known as Apihtawiksisan (halfbreed), commonly called Métis who are Indigenous yet were excluded from Treaty negotiations. Many believe that to be Métis simply means to have mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous blood. Yet this is not necessarily the case. According to Rupertsland Institute “The Métis are distinct people, separate from First Nations and Inuit. Often, the Métis are miscategorized as simply being people of mixed blood (primarily First Nations and European). The Métis have a distinct culture, traditions, language, and government. Their ancestral homelands extend from Ontario through to British Columbia. To be Métis, one must self-identify, have a proven ancestral connection to a traditional Métis community within the Métis Homeland, and be recognized by the Métis community. The Métis Nation has been a political force in  Canada’s past and these efforts continue today.”7 Within Métis communities, there are altering definitions of what it means to be Métis.  

 “During the fur trade era, long before Canada became a country in 1867, Métis People developed a unique culture, language, and identity. Specialized knowledge provided skills necessary for survival in an unforgiving wilderness.”8 Métis People fought hard to secure lands and rights, yet the government at the time violently pushed back. Later, scrip was introduced to deal with Métis land rights, yet the process was fraught with fraud and malice on the part of settlers and government. Today, Métis People live throughout Alberta with some residing on one of the 8 Métis Settlements unique to Alberta. To learn more connect with Métis People,  Métis locals, the Métis Nation of Alberta, the Rupertsland Institute and refer to the resources listed below. 

Inuit

Often misunderstood and rarely referenced in Alberta are the Inuvialuit (Real People), the Inuit of Canada’s western Arctic. They are distinct from other Indigenous Peoples. Their presence in the province of Alberta is significant because many were sent here for tuberculosis treatment at the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton.

Inuvialuit is the plural of Inuvialuk and Inuvialuktun is the language of the Inuvialuit. Inuit Nunangat is considered the homeland, and includes the Arctic lands, water, and ice that are integral to their way of life.9T hey call their homeland Inuit Nunangat, which is the traditional territories of all four northern regions. For more information about the Inuit language see the Inuktitut Tusaalanga website.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK)  is a national organization that protects and advances the rights and interests of Inuit in Canada. ITK states: “We have lived in our homeland since time immemorial. Our communities are among the most culturally resilient in North America. Roughly 60 percent of Inuit report an ability to conduct a conversation in Inuktitut (the Inuit language), and our people harvest country foods such as seal, narwhal, and caribou to feed our families and communities.”10 To learn more, connect with Inuit organizations such as the Inuit Edmontonmiut Working Group and refer to the resources listed below. 

Original Family Names

To further this dialogue, it is important to acknowledge that many families have been disconnected from their original Indigenous names, which further disconnected Indigenous People from an inherent sense of self. Policies such as “Project Surname” and the “Eskimo Tag System” attempted to erase Inuit naming, kinship and spiritual beliefs that were traditionally given at birth and passed on through generations.

Indigenous names hold stories, lineage, and strengths that help nurture a strong sense of identity. Valerie Alia says that “Names are the cornerstones of cultures. They identify individuals, represent life, express and embody power. When power is unequal and people are colonized at one level or another, naming is manipulated from the outside. In the Canadian North, the most blatant example of this manipulation is the long history of interference by visitors with the ways Inuit named themselves and their land.”11 It wasn’t only the Inuit who had their names taken from them — in Residential Schools, children were often referred to as numbers, names were forcibly assigned, and original family given names were often eradicated.

Meaningful Relationships

Navigating through terms in relation to ‘what do I refer to them/you as’ is only one small step in understanding and valuing ‘who a person is’. When leaders build meaningful relationships with a Nation, community, or person they will begin to acknowledge, understand, and value how to respectfully refer to or describe the nation, community or individual. 

To gain further insight into the various terms and identity conversations happening in relation to Indigenous People refer to the resources listed below.

Reflection                                                      

  • How can leaders support students and all staff to address and eliminate negative stereotypes and labels that are put on Indigenous Peoples so to advance reconciliation and opportunities for positive relationship building? Why is this important?

  • How does legislated identity affect Indigenous Peoples?

  • How can leadership support Indigenous students to better understand and be proud of their Indigenous identity?

  • How is the relationship between names and identity important and how can you contribute to uplifting the value of naming?

Related Resources

There are many terms that are used to describe First Nations, Métis and Inuit in Canada. This document provides some guidance and clarity in relation to terminology.

This map features various distinct nations, Treaty areas, Métis Settlements and zones within Alberta.

Informative resource on key topics relating to the history, politics, and cultures of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. This link features an academic overview of identity, Terminology, Identity & the Classroom and Identity & Terminology.

This video was created in collaboration with Northern Lakes College. Please join Dylan Turner and Jerome Chabot talking about Métis Identity and Métis Culture and Reconnection.

This website features authentic ancestral Ĩyãħé Nakoda language and insights into culture and identity of Ĩyãħé Nakoda.

A print and web version of this resource includes contemporary and historical photography, maps and written descriptions on a variety of topics written by Indigenous Peoples. This page speaks to Métis Identity.

This interactive lesson plan speaks to Métis Identity and is grade level appropriate for K-3.

A downloadable book about Canada-Inuit relations to help educate and inform policy development.

The primary objective of early Indian policy was to ensure the eventual disappearance of Indians – a goal which has not changed in hundreds of years…

A print and web version of this resource includes contemporary and historical photography, maps and written descriptions on a variety of topics written by Indigenous Peoples.

This pdf is a slideshow summary of a presentation by Leroy Littlebear on the concept of land being the source of identity.

This portion of the digital professional development site that feature foundational knowledge content from Elders across the province speaks to identify and terminology.

Inuit History and Heritage

This video features Traditional ceremonies as a place where you can learn about who you are and where you come from.

Understanding Aboriginal Identity explores the complex issue of self-identification for Aboriginal People.

Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin has a friendly how-to guide on how to use terms when referring to Indigenous Peoples.

ASBA Indigenous Advisory Circle members provide an overview and some insight into Inuit culture.

ASBA Indigenous Advisory Circle Members talk about an overview and some insight into Métis culture.

ASBA Indigenous Advisory Circle Elders talk about the importance of the family in Indigenous culture; how it facilitates the passing on of values, traditions and ceremony.

An advocate for Indigenous worldviews, the author discusses the fundamental issues the terminology of relationships; culture and identity; myth-busting; state violence; and land, learning, law and treaties along with wider social beliefs about these issues.

This book is a concise history of government-sponsored interference with Inuit identity.

Anderson discusses what “Métis” means… From its roots deep in the colonial past, the idea of Métis as mixed has slowly pervaded the Canadian consciousness until it settled in the realm of common sense. In the process, “Métis” has become a racial category rather than the identity of an Indigenous People with a shared sense of history and culture.

Through the discussions of traditional life, importance of language as a vehicle of culture and identity is stressed in this book.

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Using a sweeping narrative focusing on the lives of the students, award-winning investigative journalist Tanya Talaga delves into the history of this small northern city that has come to manifest Canada’s long struggle with human rights violations against Indigenous communities.

Marilyn Dumont’s Métis heritage offers her challenges that few of us welcome. Here she turns them to opportunities: in a voice that is fierce, direct, and true, she explores and transcends the multiple boundaries imposed by society of the self.

Tagaq moves effortlessly between fiction and memoir, myth and reality, poetry and prose, and conjures a world and a heroine readers will never forget.

A historically accurate and completely engaging account of the Metis Nation.

Footnotes

1 Palmater, Pamela. “Genocide, Indian Policy, and Legislated Elimination of Indians in Canada.” Aboriginal Policy Studies. Vol. 3, no. 3, 2014: 27–54. https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/aps/index.php/aps/article/view/22225/pdf_22.
2 Neu, D. and Therrien, R. Accounting for Genocide: Canada’s Bureaucratic Assault on Aboriginal People (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2004); Palmeter, Pamela. “Stretched Beyond Human Limits: Death by Poverty in First Nations.” Canadian Review of Social Policy No. 65–66, 2011: 112–27. https://crsp.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/crsp/article/view/35220
3 Palmater, Pamela. “Genocide, Indian Policy, and Legislated Elimination of Indians in Canada.” Aboriginal Policy Studies. Vol. 3, no. 3, 2014: 27–54. https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/aps/index.php/aps/article/view/22225/pdf_22.
4 Ibid.
5 5 Saddle Lake Cree Nation. “Reclaiming Our Identity Band Membership, Citizenship and the Inherent Right National Centre for First Nations Governance.” http://www.saddlelakecreenation.ca/assets/reclaimingouridentity_paper.pdf
6University of British Columbia. Indigenous Foundations. Website. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/identity/.
7Rupertsland Institute. Teaching and Learning. Website https://www.rupertsland.org/teaching-learning/
8The Métis National Environment Committee. “Métis Traditional Environmental Knowledge.” https://www.metisnation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Metis-Traditional-Knowledge.pdf
9 Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. “Inuit are an Indigenous people living primarily in Inuit Nunangat.” Web Page. https://www.itk.ca/about-canadian-inuit/#nunangat
10Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. “About Canadian Inuit.” Web Page. https://www.itk.ca/about-canadian-inuit/
11Alia, V. Names, Numbers, and Northern Policy: Inuit, Project Surname, and the Politics of Identity. (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1994).