Jan. 25, 2018

Naming with intercultural competency and respect: an Indigenous terminology primer

Learn appropriate usage and historical origins of some common names for Indigenous Peoples living in Canada

The University of Calgary’s recently launched Indigenous Strategy, ii' taa' poh' to' p, requires deepening and increasing the intercultural capacity of everyone in the university community. One of the basic (but often difficult) tasks for many people to negotiate, and a frequently asked question in Indigenous Studies courses and workshops is, “How do I know I have used the right name for an Indigenous group?”

Naturally, most people are anxious not to offend or make a mistake. The difficulty is that there is no definite agreement on names, because Indigenous Peoples are diverse, and the history of naming often represents inadequate or inaccurate attempts to homogenize them, reflecting a history of colonization that is still ongoing. The following outlines the appropriate usage and historical origins of some common names for Indigenous Peoples living in Canada.

Generally speaking, Indigenous Peoples living in Canada prefer the name for themselves in their language and are mostly indifferent to the Canadian name accorded to them in English or French, although they may describe themselves as a First Nation to emphasize their political status and priority. The best advice is to ask the person what they would like to be described as, or research may suggest a term you can use, but be prepared to be corrected. In all cases, respect the self-ascription of the person involved.

This focus on categorizing people is a long-standing Canadian practice that originated in a mistake. The story goes that when Christopher Columbus encountered the inhabitants of the Americas he believed he had reached the lands of the East Indies — and described the inhabitants as “Indians.” The name stuck as a racial classification.  

The use of "Canadian" is deliberate. Current Canadian residents have, since Confederation in 1867, inherited the territories, resources and obligations of Britain arising from historical encounters with Indigenous Peoples, as well as incurring new obligations. They may not have participated in the history of Indigenous Peoples suppression and dispossession but they live in a Canadian society that has prospered on that history.


Historically, the Canadian government used the term “Indian” in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development that administered the Indian Act and operated the Indian residential schools in a failed and damaging attempt to assimilate Indigenous Peoples. The Indian Act focused on the protection and management of designated reserves (now one-quarter of one per cent of Canadian territory) held by Canada in trust for specific Indigenous groups and distributed benefits (and imposed restrictions) for individuals on the basis of their status as an “Indian.”

That racial status was highly gendered, as children of an Indigenous woman from a Canadian man lost their status, whereas children of Indigenous men did not. This, together with modern corrective efforts, has lead to a variety of “Indians” including status, non-status, Bill C-31 Indians, etc., which have now all been incorporated into the legal category of “Aboriginal Peoples.” “Indian” is sometimes used by Indigenous persons themselves, often humorously or sarcastically to make a point by appropriating a derogatory term used by Canadians.


The descendants of the intermarriage of early Canadian fur traders and Indigenous women were historically termed “half-breeds,” “mixed blood” or similar offensive racist categories. Historically, they formed distinct communities and often acted as interpreters and intermediaries in the fur trade while carrying on a mixed economy of nomadic hunting and farming. In R. v. Powley (2003), the Supreme Court of Canada defined Métis Peoples as people of mixed Canadian and Indigenous heritage that self-identify as Métis, and if that connection is recognized in a historical Métis community. It was careful to note that this did not exhaust the potential legal definitions.


The origin of the English term “Eskimo” as a racial category to describe inhabitants of Canada’s northern regions is unclear, although some suggest the name is Algonquin in origin and translated variously as “snowshoe-netters,” “eaters of raw meat” or simply “people who speak a different language.” At the initial meeting of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) in Barrows, Alaska in 1977, Indigenous Peoples from northern Canada, Greenland and Alaska adopted the term “Inuit” for their peoples with “Inuk” referring to a single person.

Inuit and Inuk has subsequently been used in Canada to describe descendants in and from the northern regions including Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Yukon, northern Québec, and Labrador. Inuit people in Alaska, and now Russia, prefer the designation of Yupik in their language as Inuit is not used, and will tolerate “Eskimo” although that is considered a pejorative term in Canada.

Increasing intercultural competency and respect means knowing the names of a group or nation, often in their own language. Photo courtesy Student Enrolment Services

Increasing intercultural competency and respect means knowing the names of a group or nation.

Student Enrolment Services


On April 17, 1982, Canada repatriated its constitution from Great Britain in the Constitution Act, 1982 by including, among other things, an amending formula acceptable to nine of the 10 provinces, a written Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in Part I applying to everyone, and in Part II, the recognition of Indigenous Peoples living in Canada, which defined "aboriginal peoples of Canada" as including “the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.”

Aboriginal rights, including treaty rights, were recognized and affirmed and protected from the application of Charter Rights, although Aboriginal rights were guaranteed equally to male and female persons. Aboriginal Peoples or persons are often used, particularly in legal contexts, but the term is fairly specific to Canada and Australia. It is this association with the Australian use that many consider offensive — although as a legal definition it remains useful. It is important not to use this as a proper noun, as in “Aboriginals in Canada,” “our Aboriginals,” or “aborigine.”


The preferred term currently. For example, Canada has recently renamed its ministry to Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Alberta has similarly renamed Aboriginal Affairs to Indigenous Affairs. The use of Indigenous as a descriptor originated internationally in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957. This term carried through in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is referred to as a founding document in the TRC Calls to Action. Indigenous is capitalized and the recommended use is to designate “Indigenous People living in Canada” as the original inhabitants in North America pre-dated national borders.

First Nations

A political term that rose to prominence in the late 1970s that refers to Indigenous Peoples who are neither Métis nor Inuit, usually to those defined as “Indian” under the Indian Act. It can be used as an adjective, e.g., “First Nation.”

First Peoples

A term that describes the descendants of the original inhabitants in an area. The offspring of the intermarriage of First Peoples and Canadians are usually referred to as Métis and not Second Peoples.


An older term, sometimes still used as a general designation, but often considered confusing and unspecific, e.g., Canadians born in Canada. However, it is still used in the American context — “Native American,” as is “American Indian” or “Amerindian” particularly in historical anthropology writings/descriptions.


The use of Indigenous/Aboriginal “stakeholders” or similar variants is discouraged as the relevant Indigenous group are not mere “stakeholders interested in the matter,” they are rights-bearing communities with attendant constitutional rights, at the very least, to consultation.


The use of acronyms like FNMI (First Nations, Métis, Inuit) in writings may be useful, but in discussions they should not be used.

A note on capitalization: while there is some disagreement on this as well, many suggest that just as we capitalize languages and national identities (English, French, Canadian), capitalizing words that refer to Indigenous Peoples is important.

Increasing intercultural competency and respect means knowing the names of a group or nation, often in their own language: some English names are not favoured, while others are in common use, or there will be a mixOur territorial acknowledgement to the people of Treaty 7 is a good teaching in this regard, referring to the Blackfoot Peoples (Kainai, Piikani, Siksika First Nations), the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the Stoney (Ĩyãħé) Nakoda Nation (Wesley, Chiniki, Bearspaw First Nations).

For those working with Indigenous Peoples, respecting the idea always to call people what they themselves prefer is worth the research and the effort: it helps us build relationships and to proceed in a good way.

Written in collaboration with Aruna Srivastava, co-ordinator, International Indigenous Studies Program, Faculty of Arts.

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, ‘in a good way,’ UCalgary will move towards genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.