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Indigenous Writes

A Guide to First Nations, Métis, & Inuit Issues in Canada

By Chelsea Vowel
Categories: Social Science, Indigenous Studies, Discrimination & Race Relations, Political Science, Colonialism & Post-colonialism, Law, Indigenous Peoples, Essays
Imprint: HighWater Press

Paperback : 9781553796800, 291 pages, September 2016
Ebook (PDF) : 9781553796848, 240 pages, August 2016
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781553796893, 240 pages, January 2017
Ebook (MobiPocket) : 9781553797043, 290 pages, February 2017
Audiobook : 9781553799146, November 2020
Audiobook - Unavailable


Just Don’t Call Us Late for Supper

Names for Indigenous Peoples

Any discussion needs a certain number of terms that can be understood by all participants; otherwise, communication ends up even messier than usual. I’ve read a lot of books about Indigenous peoples, and it seems every single one spends some time explaining which term the author will use in the rest of the text, and why he or she chose that particular term. I’ve tried avoiding that sort of thing when talking to people, but it absolutely always comes up.

I find it somewhat easier to start with a list of what you should definitely not be calling us – a little housecleaning of the mind, if you will. Surprisingly, there are a great number of people who still think the use of some of these terms is up for debate, but I would sincerely like to help you avoid unintentionally putting your foot in your mouth. So, between us, let’s just agree the following words are never okay to call Indigenous peoples:

  • savage
  • red Indian
  • redskin
  • primitive
  • half-breed
  • squaw/brave/buck/papoose

This is not an exhaustive list, and there are plenty of other slurs we do not need to mention that are obviously unacceptable. I do not intend to spend any time discussing how the above terms might not be offensive, because engaging in a philosophical sidebar about whether words have inherent meaning tends to end in recitals of Jabberwocky; before you know it, you’ve wasted half the night trying to translate it into Cree, yet again. Or, so I’ve heard.

A lot of people who would like to talk about Indigenous issues honestly do not want to cause offence, and get very stressed out about the proper terms; so, it is in the interest of lowering those people’s blood pressure that I’m now going to discuss various terms in use out there.

First, there is no across-the-board agreement on a term. The fact that all Indigenous peoples have not settled on one term really seems to bother some people. I would like those people to take a deep breath, and chill out. It’s okay. Names are linked to identity, and notions of identity are fluid.

For example, did you have a cute nickname when you were a young child? I did. My parents called me “Goose Girl. ” Twenty-five or so years later, if my employer called me “Goose Girl,” it would be awkward at best. There are terms of endearment that my friends and family call me that would sound very strange coming out of the mouth of someone I just met.

When meeting new people, we tend to err on the side of formality to avoid giving a poor first impression. So it is with identifiers for Indigenous peoples. Terms change; they evolve. What was a good term 20 years ago might be inappropriate now, or it has been worn out through constant repetition – like every hit song you used to love but can no longer stand to listen to. There is also an issue of terms becoming co-opted and changed by government, industry, or by pundits searching for new ways to take potshots at us. Sometimes, a term is abandoned because it has become so loaded that using it suggests tacit agreement to some bizarre external interpretation of who Indigenous peoples are.

Indigenous peoples are incredibly diverse; there are all sorts of internal arguments about which terms are best, what they actually mean, why people should reject this and that, and so on. What I’m okay with you calling me might really annoy someone else. If you were hoping this chapter was going to help you avoid that completely, I want to be upfront with the fact that you will leave disappointed. Be aware: no matter how safe you think a term is, someone somewhere might get upset if you call them that. No one can give you a magical pass so you never have to re-examine the terms you are using – not even your Native friend.

Be prepared to listen to what people have to say about the term you use, and to respect what they suggest you call them instead. This is surprisingly easy to do, and goes a very long way in keeping the dialogue useful. I mean, it would be a bit off to deliberately keep calling someone “Susie” when she’s asked you to call her “Susan,” right?

Here are some of the names in use:

  • Indian
  • NDN
  • Aboriginal
  • Indigenous
  • Native
  • First Nations
  • Inuit
  • Métis
  • Native American (more in the United States than in Canada)
  • the name of a particular nation (Cree, Ojibway, Chipewyan, and so on)
  • the name of a particular nation in that nation’s original language (nêhiyaw, Anishinaabe, Dene sųłiné, and so on)

Notice that I always capitalize the various terms used to describe Indigenous peoples. This is deliberate; the terms are proper nouns and adjectives referring to specific groups. “To capitalize or not to capitalize” ends up being a heated debate at times, but I feel it is a measure of respect to always capitalize our names when writing in English. This is my rule of thumb: if I can swap out “Indigenous” with “Canadian” (which is always capitalized), then I use the big I. I also capitalize names for non-Indigenous peoples throughout this book.

The term Indian is probably the most contentious. There are a couple of theories about where the term originated, but that’s not the point. In Canada, Indian continues to have legal connotations, and there is still an Indian Act; so you’ll see it used officially, as well as colloquially. There is also a long history of this term being used pejoratively – two good reasons why it doesn’t sit well with everyone.

However, it is also a term that is often used internally. Please note this does not mean it’s always okay for others to use the term. I tend to suggest that avoiding this term is probably for the best, unless someone is specifically referencing the Indian Act. There is a level of sarcasm and challenge often associated with its internal use that is easy to miss, and most likely cannot be replicated. If you are interested in avoiding giving offence, this term is one you might want to drop from your vocabulary.

NDN is a term of more recent origin, in heavy use via social media. This shorthand term has no official meaning and is very informal. If you say it aloud it just sounds like Indian, so its use really only makes sense in text-based situations. NDN is more of a self-identifier than anything.

Table of contents



Introduction: How to Read This Book 

Part 1. The Terminology of Relationships 

  1. Just Don’t Call Us Late for Supper Names for Indigenous Peoples
  2. Settling on a Name Names for Non-Indigenous Canadians

Part 2. Culture and Identity

  1. Got Status? Indian Status in Canada
  2. You’re Métis? Which of Your Parents Is an Indian? Métis Identity
  3. Feel the Inukness Inuit Identity
  4. Hunter-Gatherers or Trapper-Harvesters? Why Some Terms Matter
  5. Allowably Indigenous: To Ptarmigan or Not to Ptarmigan When Indigeneity Is Transgressive
  6. Caught in the Crossfire of Blood-Quantum Reasoning Popular Notions of Indigenous Purity
  7. What Is Cultural Appropriation? Respecting Cultural Boundaries
  8. Check the Tag on That “Indian” Story How to Find Authentic Indigenous Stories
  9. Icewine, Roquefort Cheese, and the Navajo Nation Indigenous Use of Intellectual Property Laws
  10. All My Queer Relations Language, Culture, and Two-Spirit Identity

Part 3. Myth-Busting

  1. The Myth of Progress
  2. The Myth of the Level Playing Field
  3. The Myth of Taxation
  4. The Myth of Free Housing 
  5. The Myth of the Drunken Indian 
  6. The Myth of the Wandering Nomad
  7. The Myth of Authenticity 

Part 4. State Violence

  1. Monster The Residential-School Legacy
  2. Our Stolen Generations The Sixties and Millennial Scoops
  3. Human Flagpoles Inuit Relocation
  4. From Hunters to Farmers Indigenous Farming on the Prairies
  5. Dirty Water, Dirty Secrets Drinking Water in First Nations Communities
  6. No Justice, No Peace The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

Part 5. Land, Learning, Law, and Treaties

  1. Rights? What Rights? Doctrines of Colonialism
  2. Treaty Talk The Evolution of Treaty-Making in Canada
  3. The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same Numbered Treaties and Modern Treaty-Making
  4. Why Don’t First Nations Just Leave the Reserve? Reserves Are Not the Problem
  5. White Paper, What Paper? More Attempts to Assimilate Indigenous Peoples
  6. Our Children, Our Schools Fighting for Control Over Indigenous Education


Delgamuukw. Sixties Scoop. Bill C-31. Blood quantum. Appropriation. Two-Spirit. Tsilhqot’in. Status. TRC. RCAP. FNPOA. Pass and permit. Numbered Treaties. Terra nullius. The Great Peace…

Are you familiar with the terms listed above? In Indigenous Writes, Chelsea Vowel, legal scholar, teacher, and intellectual, opens an important dialogue about these (and more) concepts and the wider social beliefs associated with the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada. In 31 essays, Chelsea explores the Indigenous experience from the time of contact to the present, through five categories—Terminology of Relationships; Culture and Identity; Myth-Busting; State Violence; and Land, Learning, Law, and Treaties. She answers the questions that many people have on these topics to spark further conversations at home, in the classroom, and in the larger community.

Indigenous Writes is one title in The Debwe Series.


  • Winner, Manuela Dias Design and Illustration Awards, Book Design 2017


Indigenous Writes is a timely book…and contains enough critical information to challenge harmful assumptions and facilitate understanding. This is a book for everyone—but particularly for non-Indigenous people wishing to better understand their own place in the history of violence against Indigenous peoples, and to find ways to move toward true solutions and right relationships.

- Daniel Rück

A convincing case for rejecting the prevailing policies of “assimilation, control, intrusion and coercion” regarding aboriginal people.

- Kirkus Reviews

[Chelsea Vowel] punctures the bloated tropes that have frozen Indigenous peoples in time, often to the vanishing point. Reading Indigenous Writes, you feel that you are having a conversation over coffee with a super-smart friend, someone who refuses to simplify, who chooses to amplify, who is unafraid to kick against the darkness. . . What this book really is, is medicine.

- Shelagh Rogers, O.C., Broadcast Journalist, TRC Honorary Witness

Chelsea attacks issues head on, with humour and wit, sarcasm and cynicism and clear, concise and well-organized information. She makes further research easy, as every chapter includes copious endnotes with links to her curated resources. She explains the terminology of identity — status, non-status, registered, membership, Métis, Inuit, cultural appropriation and two-spiritedness.

- Nancy Adams-Kramp

Vowel’s voice and personality remain present throughout each essay. Her use of vernacular, humour, and at times, sarcasm add layers of meaning, underscore arguments and carry her and her readers through discussions of infuriating facts and difficult, often painful issues.

- Rosalind Hampton

While subtitled A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada, it would be a mistake to see Indigenous Writes as a book primarily about Indigenous people. Instead, it is much more about all of us—our relationship as non-Indigenous and Indigenous Canadians, and how it has been shaped (and misshaped) by the historic and contemporary governance of these issues.

For any Canadian who wishes to have an informed opinion about the country that we share—or, more to the point, publicly share that opinion—Indigenous Writes is essential reading.

- Michael Dudley