Image by K. Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #12: Indigenous Identity and Terminology


The terminology around Indigenous identity is fraught with misconceptions and colonial undertones. Given that Canada is built on the lands of diverse Indigenous Nations and communities (for example, Vancouver is situated on unceded Coast Salish Territory and UBC is situated on Musqueam Land), it is important to be conscious of terminology when discussing Indigenous issues. Terminology is pertinent because it frames relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups.

For those of us as settlers, conversations about Indigenous identity should not reach a paralysis because of lack of knowledge; we can all learn to create safe(r) dialogues.  This segment of Social Justice Synonyms will address different aspects of Indigenous identity and terminology.

As a settler myself, I write this piece to an audience of other settlers in an effort to contribute to settler self-education. Here, I should note that it is most important to respect a person’s agency in how they choose to identify. It is also important to remember that self-identification can depend on context – who is asking, who is being asked, and where/when someone is being asked [1]. As well, this article will be addressing Indigenous identity in the Canadian context only, as naming/terminology differs across various Indigenous groups around the world.

When we (settlers) use terminology around Indigenous identity, it is important to acknowledge our positionality and relationship to this land – ie. whether we are a settler of European descent, an immigrant, a temporary worker, a person Indigenous to another land, etc. For example, while writing this article I initially failed to recognize Indigenous agency. I want to thank Matthew Ward and Justin Wiebe for bringing this to my attention.


So, what does it mean when we use the terms Indian/Aboriginal/Indigenous/People[s]? What are the implications behind the terminology around Indigenous identity? For a more thorough explanation of terminology, please refer to the Indigenous Foundations website.

The term “Indian” refers to a legal identity under the Indian Act (Canadian Statute created in 1876  that governs registered Indians, reserves, and bands). Thus, the term is usually used when referring to a First Nations person with status under the Indian Act; it functions under a specific legal context in relation to the state. The use of the word “Indian” to refer to an Indigenous person today reflects colonial and racist practices, as it invokes images of savagery and barbarism. Thus, the term “Indian” is usually considered problematic. However, as mentioned above, it is important to respect individual agency and the terms that Indigenous peoples choose to identify with, as some Indigenous peoples do self-identify as Indians.

The term “Native” refers to a place or thing that has originated from a particular place. It does not refer to a specific Indigenous group and also carries negative connotations. It is more often used in the US, where “Native American” is a commonly used and accepted phrase. Note that this term directly imposes American nationality on Indigenous identity. If speaking from a settler role in the Canadian context, the term “Native” should generally be avoided.

In efforts to move away from these terms (where appropriate), let’s examine some alternatives. Of course, each term has specific connotations and must also be critically examined. The aforementioned Indigenous Foundations website addresses these connotations more fully. Ultimately, there is no harm in asking how a someone identifies, and we need to respect their choice.

Aboriginal: This term encompasses First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people. In Canada, the term Aboriginal or Indigenous is preferred to Native or Indian. However, Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel (both of whom are prominent Indigenous scholars at the University of Victoria) suggest that even in using the term “Aboriginal”, Indigenous Peoples are situated solely by their political-legal relationship to the state rather than by any cultural or social ties to their Indigenous community and culture. Essentially, Aboriginal is a state construction and was never a term that Indigenous peoples identified with previously. The term may also problematic because it homogenizes various nations and diverse communities. Ultimately, this term is a development from “Indian”, but in some situations (though not all), its use is not always preferred.

Indigenous: The word “Indigenous” encompasses a variety of Indigenous groups, and is used in the international, transnational, global context. It is used to refer to people who have been affected negatively by colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism. For example, there are Indigenous groups in Turtle Island (what is now known as North America), Australia, Iceland, and Brazil, to name a few [2]. Presently in Canada, the term “Indigenous Peoples” is preferred when referring to Indigenous folks from different nations, or when one is unaware of an individual’s Nation or community. However, when possible, the preferred terminology is still by one’s specific Nation or community [3].

Peoples: The plural of Peoples is a political denotation and it indicates recognizing the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is a mark of respect to address Indigenous Peoples with the plural ‘s’; moreover, the plural form holds greater political unity for the status of Indigenous Peoples on the international stage.


The table below will briefly outline different terminologies and identities. As previously discussed, it is most important to respect how a person chooses to self-identify.

Term Alternative
Indian, Native, Aboriginal (sometimes) Indigenous Peoples/People (ie. The Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island have been here since time immemorial.)→ but if you can be more specific:

First Nations, Métis, or Inuit (ie. First Nations communities in Canada have distinct traditions, languages, systems of governance, and social structures.)

→ but if you can be more specific:

By an individual’s Nation or community, ie. “Cree”, “Musqueam”, “Squamish”, “Mohawk”, etc. (ie. My friend is Musqueam and speaks hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓.)

S.M. is a fourth year Political Science and FNSP major at UBC. Special thanks to the editors at The Talon, particularly Matthew Ward, Justin Wiebe, Sarah King, and K.Ho, for their contributions and insights.


[1] Thank you to Harlan Pruden for your contributions here.

[2] Additionally, the term “Indigenous” is used in international documents such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, no UN body has an official definition with the understanding that any formal universal definition will be over or under inclusive. The UN working definition can be found here.

[3] Thank you Justin Wiebe for this clarification.

Edit (April 3, 2015):

In this article I suggested that settlers should refrain from using  the term “Native”. However, Teresa Nieman suggests that Native is being reclaimed as a mobilizing term especially for young people and for displaced Aboriginal people (those who do not know their tribe or nation, who grew up in adoptive or foster homes. She illustrates the difference between academic application versus the academic applications of these terms. Indeed, “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” may sound distant and clinical while Native is still used by many Indigenous peoples and “cultivates a community that feels more shared and inclusive than other options.” This piece I hope to be flexible to change, and I encourage readers to join the dialogue. Thank you to Teresa for providing this valuable insight.