Thursday, May 19, 2011

Words & Meanings Part III: What's in a Name?

Yesterday, the Federal Government changed the name of the Minister of Indian Affairs and the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and non-Status Indians to Minister of Aboriginal Affairs.  This change also means that the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, will now be known as the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.  The Prime Minister’s Office, reportedly says that this is so that it is a more modern name, more inclusive.  As such, the legal and fiduciary obligations of the government will not change with regard to Status Indians, non-Status Indians, Métis or Inuit.  I hope this is the case, secretly I worry that using the all-inclusive name is a quiet means of assimilation, a one-size-fits-all term that would permit the government to forgo their obligations to the various groups, because they don’t recognize those groups individually but the tent-pole term Aboriginal.

While it is true that Aboriginal is the term used in the Constitution, it is also a catchall term that just sort of grates on me.  I am aware that, as Chair of the BCTF Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee, I have sort of bought into and accepted it as the most inclusive term available for the needs of our parents and students of British Columbia.  This is true, but I do so grudgingly.  I am always after a better term.  I truly prefer the term ‘Indigenous’, but it does seem to be more scholarly and less universal in its application as a result.

This is an ongoing struggle.  Am I an Indian?  Am I Aboriginal?  Indigenous? First Nations?  Well, technically, I am a Status Indian, registered under the Indian Act and a member of the Peters First Nation.  That would make me Stó:lō, if you like, but I do not belong to either of the tribal councils that represent the Stó:lō in Canada, my Band is an independent and I am fiercely proud and protective of that.  A whole other layer, right?  Wild.  Through my paternal lineage, I am also Saulteaux.  They also go by the name Anishnaabe, Nakawe (I think, but am not sure), or Plains Ojibwe.  As I was granted my traditional “Indian” names from this particular side, another layer is invoked. 

I call myself Indian.  Usually amongst other Indians.  Many don’t like the term.  Almost everyone hates it when a non-Aboriginal person uses the term to identify us.  It’s an empowerment thing.  I am told that the Native peoples in Saskatchewan are okay with the term and are offended if you use any of the others.  I cannot comment on the veracity of that claim.

I call myself Aboriginal, grudgingly.  It is inclusive, yes.  It is also the term my students have grown up with and are comfortable with.  They don’t care for the term Indian.  They don’t mind ‘Native’ (and I don’t either), but I feel uncomfortable wearing my Native Pride cap because many Native people view me as not Native enough, because of my skin colour or my lack of language or lack of practice of traditional things.  I have already addressed this in previous posts, but I do want to point out that, as a reminder, I do not believe that makes me less in any way.

I call myself First Nations.  I realize that this is somewhat exclusionary, but only in the legal sense.  Non-Status Indians may not have membership in a Band or Nation, but that does not mean that they are not First Nations.  The legal terms are arbitrary and imposed from outside.

The problem with these words are complex and simple all at the same time.  They are just words, you can argue, but they have meaning that can be harmful on everybody.  Your classification, in the legal sense can have ramifications on what sort of services you are eligible to receive.  I am happy that self-identification is the way we go with our students, but any Principal can tell you that the category is also divided by the fact that they also have look at and sign a nominal roll from Bands, the purpose of which is to determine which students get extra funding from the Federal Government to provide extra services.

The problem with these words is that they are used to divide, to categorize, and, at the same time, to lump together disparate groups.  I was recently outraged at a meeting I attended when a speaker reminded us to remember that his particular group had a special relationship that had to be honoured, the implication being his group was more important to the other Aboriginal groups present.  There needs to be equal honouring of the different groups present, all are important, all have a special relationship.

When I use the term ‘Indian’, it is a term of empowerment, but I have noticed that when a non-Native uses it, it is usually to disparage.  I wonder if the name change is a means to end that, or if it is a way to remove the empowerment I have taken from the word.

Please accept my apologies if this post is confusing.  I am confused right now and trying to figure it all out.  I am just thinking out loud.

1 comment:

  1. We grew up with the Indian term. I still use it as who I am. However, I can see how it the younger generation or the Born agains, may see it as an ugly term. I am not used to the term Aboriginal and not too fond of First Nations. I would prefer Anishinaabe Nation for our area.