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This article is a part of Animikii’s #MakingIndigenousHistory series. This series is a response to National Aboriginal History Month. Our goal with #MakingIndigenousHistory is to recognize important Indigenous events and leaders from our past, while also amplifying the actions and voices of Indigenous innovators today. Indigenous history didn’t start or end with Contact; we’re still here, so let’s make history.

Tomorrow marks the first day of National Aboriginal History Month, during which Canadians celebrate the unique and diverse histories of Indigenous Peoples.

But, as with much of the language surrounding Indigenous Peoples in Canada, using the term “Aboriginal” in National Aboriginal History Month is a somewhat flawed construction.

Don’t get us wrong. The premise behind National Aboriginal History Month is a good one; the 94 Calls to Action emphasize the importance of educating Canadians about Indigenous history. But…

It’s also important to make sure that we remember to think about Indigenous people in the present, not the past tense. Using the term “Aboriginal” in National Aboriginal History Month rather than “Indigenous Peoples” reflects an archaic understanding that fails to recognize Indigenous Peoples in Canada as distinct, separate Nations. This is why – here at Animikii – we’ve chosen to use the word phrase, “Indigenous Peoples” or “Indigenous” instead of “Aboriginal.” It’s also why we’re choosing to celebrate #MakingIndigenousHistory month this June.

We’re also not the only ones updating our terminology. Organizations, businesses, and universities across the country are shifting the language that they use to describe Indigenous Peoples. Specifically, there’s a definite trend away from “Aboriginal” and towards “Indigenous Peoples” – largely in response to calls coming from within the Indigenous Communities themselves. One of the most noteworthy debates surrounding this shift occurred in 2008 when Chiefs from the Anishinabek Nation campaigned against being called “Aboriginal.” According to Chief Patrick Madahbee of Aundeck Omni Kaning “Referring to ourselves as Anishinabek is the natural thing to do because that is who we are. We are not Indians, [N]atives, or [A]boriginal. We are, always have been and always will be Anishinabek.”

Understanding Self-Identification

This perspective is not a unique one. Often members of a Nation prefer to be called by their self-chosen names, but respecting self-identification becomes complicated when naming a Canada-wide celebration – like National Aboriginal History Month, for example. It poses a challenge because these country-wide celebrations need to be dedicated to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. We can’t call it “Inuit History Month” or “Anishinabek History Month” because then the celebration would only recognize these specific communities. But at the same time, using “Aboriginal” falls short in recognizing all Nations in a respectful way. So, what do we do?

Where Does The Word “Aboriginal” Come From?

To break down the differences between using the “Aboriginal” instead of “Indigenous Peoples,” let’s look at some etymology, peppered with a healthy dose of good old-fashioned common sense.

As stated in an article posted by the CBC in 2014, the word “Aboriginal” is not only an English word but also has a curious etymological backstory. The “ab” in Aboriginal is a Latin prefix that means “away from” or “not,” so in that sense, Aboriginal can actually mean “not original” – not exactly what we’re trying to convey with the term.

Furthermore, by using one English word – Aboriginal – to describe a large and diverse group of people we’re not fully recognizing the diversity within the Indigenous Communities in Canada. “Aboriginal” is an umbrella term used by Canadians and Canadian institutions for convenience. It’s used to categorize all Indigenous Peoples from across Canada as one big homogenized group. ”Aboriginal” is an oversimplification that hides more meaning than it conveys. Just as one province differs from the next province, Indigenous Peoples and communities vary dramatically from coast to coast to coast in regards to culture, language, and traditions.

Rather than relying on the language of the past, we at Animikii choose to replace the word “Aboriginal” in Aboriginal History Month with “Indigenous Peoples.” We think this phrasing is better aligned with the experiences and understanding of Indigenous Canadians as well as the international community.

A Shift In Language

Several national organizations in Canada are changing their names from “Aboriginal” to “Indigenous.” Most notable is the change of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in 2015. This change, according to Minister of INAC Carolyn Bennett, “came from [I]ndigenous [P]eoples in this country” and, according to Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, better represents all the First Peoples of this country. International organizations like the UN have used the term “Indigenous” for many years to refer to Indigenous communities across the globe. Through the UNs foundational declaration, The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they have set a global standard in terminology.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde
Justin Trudeau and Perry Bellegarde after Addressing AFN Congress in 2015. After the election his government changed “Aboriginal” Affairs and Northern Development Canada to “Indigenous” and Northern Affairs Canada.

Since organizations like INAC and the UN are using “Indigenous” to better represent Indigenous Peoples around the globe, it begs the question: if both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada are switching from “Aboriginal” to “Indigenous,” what’s stopping us as a country from making the same terminology shift for national celebrations? National Aboriginal Day falls each year on June 21st; this year Animikii will celebrate the day as a staff – as we always have – and we look forward to the day that it is recognized across the country as National Indigenous Peoples’ Day – hopefully as a statutory holiday.

While, “Indigenous Peoples” is still an English phrase that attempts to encompass Indigenous Peoples across the globe, it succeeds in many ways that “Aboriginal” does not. First, by including “Peoples” after “Indigenous” it recognizes that there is more than just one group of Indigenous people. We’re not a monolith community, we’re a collective made up of many, separate, sovereign, unique, and wonderful Nations. Second, the etymological meaning of this term is internally consistent. Indigenous comes from the Latin word indigena, which means “sprung from the land; native.” Therefore, using “Indigenous” over “Aboriginal” reinforces land claims and encourages territory acknowledgements, a practice which links Indigenous Peoples to their land and respects their claims over it. However, we recognize that “Indigenous Peoples” is not a perfect term. It’s still an umbrella term for a large group of people and it should only used in situations where you are addressing all Indigenous groups as a collective. If possible, you should always use Nation-specific terms, particularly for territory acknowledgments. For example, if you are on Musqueam territory, you should acknowledge the Musqueam people of the Coast Salish Nations.

Language Matters

As we prepare to recognize and celebrate the numerous accomplishments and efforts of Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous individuals here in Canada, we at Animikii want to think critically about the language we use and about the way that we frame this month-long, national celebration. Language is important and it frames the ways in which we think about the world. By intentionally calling out the antiquated language associated with this month, we hope to encourage more Canadians to consider the ways in which they think about Indigenous Peoples in this country. Are you harbouring old stereotypes? Do you need to update how and what you think about Indigenous Canadians? We hope that the conversation we’re starting here with #MakingIndigenousHistory month will continue on long after June turns to July, when many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians will celebrate Canada Day together.

This article was republished with permission from Animikii Inc. 

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About The Author

MUSKRAT Magazine

MUSKRAT is an on-line Indigenous arts, culture magazine that honours the connection between humans and our traditional ecological knowledge by exhibiting original works and critical commentary. MUSKRAT embraces both rural and urban settings and uses media arts, the Internet, and wireless technology to investigate and disseminate traditional knowledges in ways that inspire their reclamation.

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1 Comment

  1. Rick Kelly

    Aboriginal; From the Latin phrase ab origine ‘from the beginning’; Oxford English Dictionary.

    E.g Ab initio is a Latin term meaning “from the beginning”

    While other meanings can be attributed to ab it depends on the context and usage. It is not, to my reading, what is meant and has been intended in the use of “aboriginal”.


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