Friday, June 29, 2007

Verbal Chaos -- Naming the Original Inhabitants of Canada

In a BBC News story on an uprising by the original inhabitants of Canada, the headline read "Canada natives in day of protests." In the first paragraph, the term "aboriginals" was used. In the second paragraph, we find both "indigenous people" and "First Nations," which I will cheerfully admit has me baffled. There is a later reference to "native protesters" and then "First Nations groups." Then comes another reference to "First Nations" and "indigenous groups."
The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an umbrella group representing Canada's indigenous groups, has called for peaceful and non-disruptive protests.
Reading down further we find a use of "native protester" and then "aboriginal ancestry."

So, the first inhabitants of Canada (that we know about) are alternatively "natives," "aboriginals," "indigenous people" and members or citizens of "First Nations." This verbal blizzard cannot be a good thing. It suggests that journalists are in deadly fear of the PC police. Sadly, what these uses of language signal most is that there exist for Canadians a set of people who are seen as "not one of us." Perhaps that is how the native, aboriginal, indigenous members of First Nations in Canada feel about the rest of the Canadian population -- they are "not us."

I came to reading this story after reading another on violence between the Lebanese army and "protesters" who claim that all they wanted to do is get back to their "refugee camps." Quite remarkably, it seems that
Lebanon has 12 refugee camps housing more than 350,000 Palestinians. They are people who fled or were forced to leave their homes when Israel was created in 1948, or their descendants.
I am guessing that by now that we have some three generation families in these camps where one could speak of first generation refugee, second generation refugee, and etc.

In the case of the Palestinian refugees there seems to be just one name but the situations between the native, aboriginal, indigenous members of First Nations in Canada and the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is quite similar. Both seem to live in camps. And both are groups of refugees. I suspect that the the native, aboriginal, indigenous members of First Nations in Canada could leave their reservations if they wanted to and go to live wherever they wanted. I don't know whether or not this is true of the Palestinian refugees though it is clear they can leave the camps if only temporarily.

In 2003, the BBC had a web story on American Indians in which we do not find quite the same level of linguistic variation. In this story, the people in question were called Indians or American Indians or Native Americans. In 1999, the BBC web site had a story titled "North American Indians to pool resources." In this story, reference is made to a meeting of what collectively are called "North American Indians." Of some interest is that the BBC makes reference to "indigenous people" who came from elsewhere around the world and it was observed that "aboriginal leaders" from around the world hoped to form political partnerships. I suspect the writer(s) didn't have a clue how exactly to refer to these others.

It is clear that Americans (i. e., the people of the USA) have settled on an agreed term for referring to the original inhabitants of the country, namely "Indian" and that this term is used by both Indians and non-Indians. I have no way of knowing who writes the Canadian stories for the BBC but I would imagine Canadians do this. The question I would raise is why there is so much variation in the linguistic references. Does it reflect a lingering guilt by other Canadians or what?

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Blogger Unknown said...

Being Canadian, I hope I can shed some light on this subject (though I couldn't be considered an expert). This is just my take on this.

Back when I was in elementary school (20 years ago), Indians were called "Indians". However, during our unit on Native Culture, we learned that the accepted nomenclature was "Native Canadians" or "Native Americans". So then "Natives" or "Native people" stuck, as well as "Inuit" for Natives living in Northern Canada (instead of "Eskimos").

The federal government still had a department known as "Dept. of Indian Affairs", though. Never really made sense to me...

Sometime later, about when I was in high school, we were told that the new term was "First Nations". As I remember it, this was because it described them as being on this land before European immigrants arrived, and it used "Nations" as a way to lump together many disparate (yet similar) groups of people. That way, we recognize that all of the Nations are indeed unique from each other, as well as being part of a similar race.

The thing is, I remember hearing that this nomenclature was agreed upon by the tribes and the government, which meant that the school curriculum should adopt it. Since I'm not taking classes these days, I can't comment on what term is being used.

I work at a college with a high First Nations enrollment, and terminology tends to be interchangeable. For example, our programs designed for First Nations students use the term "Aboriginal" (Aboriginal Policing and Security, Aboriginal Community Support Worker, etc.).

Commenting on the article you mention, I don't think it's a need to be PC, as much as it's a question of "flow". To Canadians, who are used to hearing all of these terms, one is as good as another, though one may sound better next to other words ("indigenous" next to "groups", and "aboriginal" next to "ancestry", for example). One you won't see *published* very often these days, though, is Indian.

2:53 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks for the input and I think you may be onto something with your "flow" argument. This may have to do with very long term specific usages that have imprinted more or less permanently.

4:43 PM

Blogger Sarah|BHood said...

Gosh, there's no problem with having a few different words for the same people. When I was working for the federal government back in the '80s, the term Indian was becoming problematic, because some Native Canadians are not "status" Indians, and some Métis people didn't count themselves as Indians either. Also, there were differences in usage between provinces.

The latest CP Stylebook says "In Canada, there are status (or reserve) Indians, non-status Indians (living outside reserves), Métis (people of mixed white and native origina) and Inuit. Collectively, they are known variously as Aboriginal Peoples, original peoples, aboriginals, indigenous peoples, the First Nations and other variations (...) Use native advisedly. Aboriginal and First Nations are more specific and are preferred by many in the community."

I personally tend to cap Native Canadian (in the sense of Aboriginal) to distinguish it from native Canadians who were born here but are of e.g. Asian or European heritage...

2:57 PM

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4:28 AM


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