Indigenous Terminology

I have learned over the years that little things show respect and other little things can show disrespect so I’ve learned to try my best to be careful and hope that my sincerity will show when I screw up. Here is something that I hope will help bring clarity into your lives, like it has mine. Click here to learn more or read an excerpt below.



So, which terms do I use?

Terminology, particularly as it relates to Indigenous peoples, can be tricky to navigate. A term that might be acceptable to some might be offensive to others. Because of this, many people do not feel confident using certain terms when referring to Aboriginal peoples. Fear of using the “wrong” word should never stifle important dialogue and discussions that need to be had.

By taking a moment to consider the history of certain terms, it is very possible to learn and be comfortable with which words to use in which contexts. We have compiled this guide to help inform your decisions on terminology.

Why does terminology matter?

The history of relationships between the Canadian state and Aboriginal peoples is complex, and has oftentimes been paternalistic and damaging. As a result, terminology can represent something more than just a word. It can represent certain colonial histories and power dynamics. Terminology can be critical for Indigenous populations, as the term for a group may not have been selected by the population themselves but instead imposed on them by colonizers. With this in mind, one might understand how a term can be a loaded word, used as a powerful method to divide peoples, misrepresent them, and control their identity—what we can see today in Canada with “status” and “non-status Indians,” the legally defined categories of people under the Indian Act.

On the other hand, terms can empower populations when the people have the power to self-identify. It is important to recognize the potential these words may hold— but it is also important and very possible to understand these terms well enough to feel confident in using them and creating dialogue. We have included several of these general terms below, although many Aboriginal people may prefer to identify themselves by their specific cultural group. As you will see, the most respectful approach is often to use the most specific term for a population when possible.


The term “Aboriginal” refers to the first inhabitants of Canada, and includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. This term came into popular usage in Canadian contexts after 1982, when Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution defined the term as such. Aboriginal is also a common term for the Indigenous peoples of Australia. When used in Canada, however, it is generally understood to refer to Aboriginal peoples in a Canadian context. This term is not commonly used in the United States.

Terms in this section:

First Nations | Inuit | Metis | Indian | Inuit | Indigenous | Native | Peoples (plural)
To capitalize or not to capitalize?


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