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Today while reading my local student newspaper, I came across this description of a traditional Coast Salish pit cook that was held at UVic in honour of Congress 2013:

On June 3, a fire pit was dug for a First Nations meal, near the trees often used for slacklining. The uneaten fare was later offered free downtown.

What’s a “First Nations meal?” I’m Native, and I have no clue what that means. There are 614 First Nations in Canada total. Bannock? That’s a post-colonization food item, created out of a time of starvation and government rations. Salmon? As a Blackfoot I can tell you that fish isn’t a universally “First Nations” meal either. Corn? Nope, not everybody was agricultural before European contact. There’s no more a “First Nations” meal than there is an “Asian” meal, or a “European” meal, or an “African” meal. You can use these terms if you so wish, but it’s kind of a gross oversimplification which tends to create more, not less, confusion.

I was actually present at the meal in question, the meal was salmon cooked over a fire, and corn, clams, and carrots cooked in a pit cook. I didn’t actually get to taste any of it, even though I helped haul clams, corn, and carrots into the kitchen for preparation and shucked the corn, because my inner tightwad wouldn’t let me spend $20 on a single plate of food. I wish I’d known about the downtown portion!

I do know, however, that the food offered was a variation on what’s Coast Salish fare, and the pit cook in particular is a Coast Salish style of cooking. The University of Victoria  is on Lekwungen territory, but the term “Coast Salish” is often used interchangeably when discussing Indigenous cultures or acknowledging the territories at UVic. “Coast and Straits Salish” covers a great variety of groups, including  Esquimalt, Hul’qumi’num, Klahoose, Lekwungen (Songhees), MALAXEt, Musqueam, OStlq’emeylem, Pentlatch, Scia’new (Beecher Bay), Sliammon, Shishalh, Skxwú7mesh-ulh Úxwumixw, Stó:lo, Straits, Tsleil-Waututh, T’Sou-ke, W̱SÁNEĆ (Pauquachin, Tsartlip, Tsawout, Tseycum), and Xwemalhkwu. So “Coast Salish meal” probably would have been my choice term for this story, since these pit cooks are meant not just as a method of feeding people for Congress, but celebrating Indigenous culture at UVic and asserting the continued presence of the customs and traditions of the people whose traditional lands UVic resides upon.

When writing about issues, stories, and topics related to Indigenous peoples in Canada, it can get really easy to screw up terminology. There’s a great variety of words out there, a lot of them are used interchangeably, and oftentimes they are applied incorrectly.

So I’m putting it on myself to write a basic guide on what terms work where and why sometimes it might be better to say “First Nations”, other times, “Indigenous”, other times “Aboriginal”, and other times, “Indian”. I’m only one person, and naturally I don’t speak for all Indigenous people. Some people have preferences that differ from mine, some terms might be different from how others may use them, and by no means are these the “official” definitions. Just some food for thought. I’ll just talk a bit about these terms, how, if at all, I’d like to see them used, and their context. I hope it will at least be helpful.

First of all, before you even open the dictionary, ask yourself: What am I writing about? 

Are you writing about something that’s happening that’s happening/happened at an actual First Nation? Are you writing about something that a First Nations band council or representative group/body is undertaking? Then you are good to use the phrase “First Nation(s)” to describe this. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to write about how the Hupacasath First Nation is fighting FIPPA in court.

First Nation for the most part, refers to the legal/governmental bodies. First Nations Band Councils are, 99.9% of the time, not the traditional or “true” form of government for these Indigenous Nations, they’re a creation of the Canadian government and the Indian Act. The term “First Nations” is also a creation of the Canadian Government, and I am not 100% satisfied with it. I find it a tad on the condescending side, and a little inaccurate, since, like I said, these aren’t the true structure of governments that existed for these nations before European contact.

And, as a non-status Indian (More on the “I” word later), I and many other people who are Indigenous can’t even necessarily be called “First Nations”, since I don’t really belong to any particular First Nation, I’m not a citizen of one. So, as a rule of thumb, I don’t refer to people or cultures as “First Nations”, I see it as purely a political and legal term that’s handy for when you’re talking about governments or places, but not so much for people or cultures.

Speaking of terms that are better for the legal and governmental realm than the individual or culture, I’m not a big fan of “Aboriginal”. I used to be a big fan of it before I moved to Canada, and before I discovered my new favourite, Indigenous. Now, having learned more about the history of the term “Aboriginal”, I’m really not a big fan of it for referring to myself or other Indigenous peoples. The only time I ever use “Aboriginal” is, again, when referring to a political, governmental, or legal institution or organization. For instance, since it’s the term in vogue, when I talk about the way the legal system works in Canada, I’ll say “aboriginal law”, as in “My professor is a specialist in Aboriginal Law”. But that’s about it. I recommend using it when it’s part of an institution’s actual name, like “The Aboriginal People’s Television Network” or “Aboriginal Health Services”, but I’d try to avoid using it if I were a journalist.

The reasons I grew to dislike “Aboriginal” are complicated, mostly having to do with how it creates an artificial divide among the people of Turtle Island and in the larger sphere of Indigeneity, by dividing people within Canada between “Aboriginal/First Nations”, “Inuit”, and “Metis”, and dividing Indigenous people in Canada from those South of the Medicine Line (AKA from the United States), and those from Mexico, and South and Central America. I also became very convinced that it was a flawed term after reading Taiaiake Alfred’s argument against the mode of thinking “Aboriginalism” in his book Wasase.

The “Too long, didn’t read” version of this so far: “Aboriginal” and “First Nations” while favoured by the Canadian government, are not one size fits all terms that can be applied to any and all situations, and shouldn’t be used carelessly or sloppily. Some people (like yours truly) just plain don’t like them. But enough about that, how about some terms that you can use?

I’m a big fan of “Indigenous”. It’s your choice whether or not to capitalize it, too. I always capitalize it, but that’s just me and my writing style. It’s very broad, but lacking in those pesky little restrictions you find around “Aboriginal” or “First Nations”. Indigenous is pretty universal, in a beautiful way. You could, for instance, write “Indigenous leaders march to (name town) to demonstrate for (issue)”. Or you could talk about Indigenous healthcare, Indigenous nationhood… The possibilities are endless! And it’s not restricted to just Canada, you can use Indigenous to describe Native peoples from any part of the world, from Anishinabe  to Zulu.

There’s also “Native”. This one can be confusing, because it’s often used outside of the political realm to refer to people who were just born someplace, regardless of their ties to the land. For instance, I’m a “Montana Native”, but I’m not a “Native of Montana” since I was born in Hawaii… Dear me. I also have a problem with the term “Native American”, since it’s again, based on propping up a connection between a government and Indigenous peoples whose relationship(s) can be tepid at best and genocidal at worst. But if it’s used clearly in a context where there’s no confusion, it can be handy.

And now, for “Indian”. It’s still a legal term in the U.S and in Canada, there’s the Indian Act, there’s American Indian, used in the states, etc etc. So again, use it in that context, if it’s connected to a name or an organization. Indian Health Services, the Indian Act, or the American Indian Movement (AIM). You may also see NDN (Say it out loud) used in more casual internet spaces. But again, I’d advise against using it to address individuals.

If you want to really, really win brownie points, use the names, the actual names, of the group you’re addressing. Call me a Blackfoot blogger. Call the head of the Assembly of First Nations a Nuu-Chah-Nulth person who is heading an Indigenous organization called the AFN.

I hope this helps. This is by no means comprehensive, I just had to get this off my chest. If you have any other questions, ask in the comments. I think that use of proper language just makes things easier and less convoluted for everyone. It’s about accuracy, always.