Tuesday, September 28, 2021

On Using Correct Terms

"Indigenous Peoples", "First Nations", "Native Americans", "Aboriginals", "Indians": What Terms Are Correct?

Guest Editorial Guest by Arinn Dembo

This discussion came up with a large mailing list of professional colleagues recently. When referring to the first human inhabitants of the western hemisphere, what terms are correct?

There were many responses to this, all of them illuminating. The short answer is that when you're addressing an individual, the preferred mode of address is whatever they tell you it is!

Different people prefer different labels, and they will have their own reasons for their preference. Not everyone belongs to a Nation, Tribe, or some formally organized group. And many people prefer not to be lumped in with all Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and will identify with no label except their specific heritage--Mi'kmaq, Inuk, Métis etc..

That being said, there are some general rules that everyone can follow to be as courteous and respectful as possible.

  1. "Indigenous Peoples" is probably the most inclusive and respectful term presently available, as it covers people with many different affiliations and personal histories. Whether it is your preferred term or not, however, the word “Indigenous” should always be respectfully capitalized when referring to human beings. This is also true of any other term you may use in its stead.
  2. Most people agree that the word “Indian” has a long and troubled history, bound to an ongoing legacy of racism and genocide. That said, many Indigenous People do use the word “Indian” or “NDN” in their own daily lives--ironically, defiantly, proudly, etc.. They have the right to reclaim racist terms that have been historically used against them in any way they wish, just as Black people and other racialized people do. However, the fact that they reclaim those terms for their OWN use has no bearing on whether non-Indigenous people can use those same terms in public or in private and still be considered civilized.
  3. Many, many people have wisely pointed out that Indigenous People are not a monolith. They do not all belong to a Nation, they are not all enrolled into any government-recognized political unit, they do not share a single language or culture, and they have widely various religious beliefs and personal values. They will not all agree on ANY subject, including how non-Indigenous people should behave toward them and around them.

    If you are fortunate enough to have friends who tell you how to address them privately, that is wonderful for you. But please don’t assume that their personal choices will always put you in line with current standards of public courtesy or "correct" terminology. No individual person could bear that weight, and no one should be asked to do so.

    I can tell you for a fact that I would not be comfortable trying to teach anyone the One True Way to be inoffensive to all Jewish people, to all LGBTQIA+ people, or even to all women—even though I belong to all those categories. All I can tell you is what I personally prefer, and explain why some terms will make a lot of people in my communities uncomfortable.

    Example: many LGTBQIA+ people do not like the word “Queer” to be used by anyone, but particularly not by straight people. They find the word offensive because it is a slur that was used historically to harm them. I personally do use "Queer" myself, however, and I find it more comfortable than other terms that might be more clinically specific descriptions of my sexuality. That's a personal choice for me, and I can reserve the right to use the label myself without granting blanket permission to anyone else.

  4. Finally...this topic is an important one, and professional writers should recognize that use of respectful terms is an issue of craft, not just "political correctness". We should all be familiar with the basic resources on this subject that are currently available to non-Indigenous writers, agents and publishers. Here’s a few that I have looked at:
    • Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous Peoples, by Greg Younging, is a textbook that has been recommended to me many times. I own a copy, and it has been helpful, but no single reference volume is complete.
    • The Canadian Press (CP) Style Guide for Reporting On Indigenous People can also be read for free at this link: http://jhr.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/JHR2017-Style-Book-Indigenous-People.pdf
    • Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate American Indian Content can be read for free at this link: http://writernity.blogspot.com/2017/02/questions-agents-and-editors-can-use-to.html. It's a long and comprehensive blog post written to help non-Indigenous agents, editors and publishers evaluate content that has Indigenous characters or themes, but by extension it can also help non-Indigenous writers realize that writing about Indigenous Peoples is not a casual undertaking.

      I would also encourage everyone to make use of the free resource links and inexpensive webinars that are provided at the Writing the Other website. I watched this webinar from author Debbie Reese and found it accessible and valuable. It is worthwhile both as a chance to educate myself further, and as an opportunity to support Reese's work as an educator.


    There are many other websites, essays, blogs and videos on this topic that are educational as well. If you've found something that was eye-opening or helpful, why not share the link in the comment section?

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