Indigenous woman dancing

Key terminology

Indigenous, Aboriginal, Indian

What term should I use? Like most words used in socio-political life, Indigenous Studies terms evolve. Indigenous has become the main term used to refer to a wide variety of societies and nations that have been on these lands since before Canada existed. Aboriginal became popular after the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, but is a term that stems from a Canadian legal context (the Constitution). Indian is no longer used widely. The term now is primarily used in connection to the legal classification of Indians for the purposes of the Indian Act, and not much beyond that. Hint: Being Indigenous can be a reference to many different peoples. If you can specify the people (Blackfoot, Stoney, Métis, Maori, etc.), then do that.


I hear a lot of people talking about treaties, what are they? Treaties are not land surrender documents. The historical record is full of evidence that Indigenous peoples did not agree to “give up their land.”  Rather, treaties are relationship documents. Indigenous peoples entered into them to create a way to live alongside newcomers in Indigenous territories. Treaties still have all the ingredients to help Indigenous peoples and Canadians live well together. Sign up for an Indigenous Studies course and find out more!

Métis as Mixed

Are Métis an Indigenous people? Yes, the Métis are an Indigenous people. They are also a post-contact Indigenous people, meaning they became a socially and politically distinct people after the arrival of Europeans. This is also true of many other peoples you might have heard about. For example, the Comanche are a post-contact people. Scholars and Indigenous peoples are moving away from an emphasis on what was called racial mixing to define different peoples. Instead, we are embracing an appreciation of the history, sociology, and politics that make up different nations.


My family has been here since the 1930s, why am I still a settler? One of the shifts in how we understand Canada has been an appreciation of what settlers do as an intergenerational process. Yes, the project of building Canada has been about attracting settlers. The thing we understand more about is those settlers are involved in an ongoing process of taking, and holding Indigenous land to the exclusion of Indigenous peoples. This process doesn’t stop when the first generation of settlers pass away. Their children take it up, as do their kids. That’s why you might hear the term settler used along with the word colonialism. Settlers colonize the land, and hold it for the exclusive benefit of subsequent generations of settlers. The “ism” part of colonialism tells us there are a body of ideas that are used to try and justify this.


Is this a project that gets us out of major Indigenous-Canadian conflicts? No, the term reconciliation became used commonly after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report. The idea behind the word is that Canada must engage in a process to heal the wounds Canadians inflicted on Indigenous peoples. Like many ideas in Indigenous Studies, this is contentious. Some people think there can be no reconciliation without returning land to Indigenous nations. Others believe that reconciliation has the potential to change parts of the way Canada and Indigenous nations interact. Others still are calling for a process of decolonization of Canada where Canada throws out its political and legal traditions to build an entirely new relationship with Indigenous peoples from the ground up. Sign up for an Indigenous studies class and find out more!