Communicating Positively: A Guide on Terminology
One of the first steps toward becoming engaged in the work of Indigenization (whether it’s for a course or a department or an institution), requires building our awareness of the various key terms associated with this important process.
The following are working definitions of several of the most contextually significant terms, as informed by Centre for Teaching and Learning staff and members of the broader Trent University community:
The term “Indigenous” comes from the Latin word “indigena,” which means “sprung from the land; native.”
Now used commonly in a global context, “Indigenous” first came into usage during the 1970s when international Aboriginal groups pushed for greater presence in the United Nations. In the UN, “Indigenous” is used to refer broadly to “peoples of long settlement and connection to specific lands who have been adversely affected by incursions by industrial economies, displacement, and settlement of their traditional territories by others.”
In Canada, the term “Indigenous” has become the preferred collective noun for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, and is often used synonymously with “Aboriginal” (Section 35 (2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, defined “Aboriginal peoples in Canada” as including “the Indian (First Nations), Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada”).
First Nations are the Indigenous peoples of Canada who first inhabited the lands south of the Arctic Circle. They have diverse cultures and unique histories that span thousands of years but share a common philosophy of care and stewardship for the natural environment. First Nations developed complex systems of knowledge, communication, and belief that – despite colonization – continue to exist and evolve today.
Coming into common use in the 1980’s, “First Nations” may refer to individuals (“status” or “non-status Indians”), communities (reserves), and their governments (bands). It is typically used as a general term, as First Nations people are more likely to identify as members of specific nations and communities (e.g. “I am a Mississauga Anishinaabe from Curve Lake First Nation”).
Although in Canada the term “Indian” is used in federal legislation, “First Nations” has become the preferred term of reference. In fact, the term “Indian” carries historical connotations that many consider offensive.
In a legal context, “Indian Status” refers to whether or not an individual is registered under the Indian Act of Canada.
The Métis are the mixed-race descendants of the original unions between First Nations women and European settler men that took place during the North American fur trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. The emergence of a new Indigenous people known as the Métis resulted from the subsequent intermarriage of these individuals. The Métis gradually developed their own social order and formed what is now called the Métis Nation.
There are two competing ideas about what the term Métis implies:
When written with a lowercase “m,” “métis” refers to individuals born of two racially different parents (e.g. Indigenous and European/Euro-Canadian/Euro-American). Based on the French verb “métisser” (which means “to mix”), it is a racial classification which recognizes the many people of various mixed-ancestry groups.
When written with a capital “M,” “Métis” is an identifying term embraced by most contemporary members of the Métis Nation, for whom have a specific sociocultural heritage that is based on more than racial categorization. This is a self-defining community of people who recognize that their ancestors made a political choice to distinguish themselves as Métis based on shared histories, customs, and kinship networks.
Although Métis were historically referred to by other terms, such as “Half-Breed” and “Bois-Brûlé”, many are now considered derogatory and are no longer used.
Inuit are the Indigenous peoples of Northern Canada, who have lived in the Arctic region, or “Inuit Nunangat”, since time immemorial. Many continue to do so today, and rely on their traditional knowledge and adaptive skills to thrive in the frigid environments of their homeland.
The term “Inuit” means “the people” in Inuktut, the Inuit language, and refers broadly to the Arctic Indigenous population of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. The singular of Inuit is “Inuk”, meaning “person”.
In Canada, Inuit were historically referred to as “Eskimos”, however this term is neither accurate nor respectful and is no longer used.
Definitions for other Indigenous references and terms can be found in the Trent University Michi Saagiig Protocol Guidebook. This resource also provides readers with foundational information about the Michi Saagiig communities on whose territory Trent is located, significant symbolism and sacred objects to the Anishnaabeg people, an introduction to the Anishnaabeg language, and tips for participating in ceremony.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report emphasizes the need for education to play a key role in the revitalization of Indigenous cultures, calling on Canada to provide “the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.” This process of infusing and naturalizing Indigenous knowledge systems is known as “Indigenization.”
In the context of post-secondary education, it involves bringing Indigenous knowledge systems (embedded in relationship to specific lands, culture, and community) together with Western knowledge systems.
The goal is not to replace Western knowledge with Indigenous knowledge, nor is not to merge the two into one. Indigenization can be more accurately understood as weaving these two distinct knowledge systems together, so that learners may achieve an understanding of both. The word “Indigenization” therefore refers to the deliberate coming together of these two ways of knowing and includes using culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy.
When educators make efforts to Indigenize their practice, Indigenous students see themselves represented and valued in the curriculum. Indigenization should not be confused as just an “Indigenous issue” however, as it is not undertaken strictly to benefit Indigenous students. Indigenization benefits everyone, in that we all gain a deeper understanding of the world and of our relationship with Creation through awareness of Indigenous knowledge and perspectives. Indigenized curriculum supports societal reconciliation, helping to ensure that non-Indigenous learners develop the skills necessary to work in collaboration with Indigenous people intelligently and toward building a brighter future for all.
Some examples of curricular Indigenization might include the addition of Indigenous readings, inviting a local Indigenous knowledge holder to speak in your class, or the adoption of Indigenous teaching and learning approaches. Though not an exhaustive list, other more specific considerations may involve:
Utilizing the local protocol norms (offering of a gift) in your relationships with Indigenous knowledge keepers.
Working with HR and Financial Services to ensure that you follow the policies and practices supportive of respectful relationships with Elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers (honorariums).
Participating in campus events such as Trent’s annual Elders and Traditional Peoples Gathering
Beginning to design courses reflective of Indigenous epistemologies through collaboration with Indigenous scholars, elders and community-based partners.
Recognizing the treaty and traditional territory in one’s opening remarks to students and in course outlines and other resources; recognizing that Trent University offers programs in Michi Saagiig territory.
Reviewing individual course outlines for Indigenous content, scholars, and readings.
Seeking out and reviewing the scholarship of Indigenous peoples in one’s field.
Considering how one might take up social justice issues in their course(s).
Being flexible enough to take up emerging local Indigenous issues as they arise.
Visiting a local Indigenous community.
Giving thanks that we are taking seriously this opportunity to work toward reconciliation.
Because Indigenization is a rather new focus area within western academia, it is not always well understood and can provoke feelings of tension or mistrust. For instance, concerns may arise that Euro-Western education systems will be deconstructed and replaced with an Indigenous system, or, that the rigorous approach to sciences, humanities, arts, and the social sciences will be diminished in order to accommodate Indigenous perspectives. While Indigenization is a unique process for every post-secondary institution, in no ways does it entail changing something Western into something Indigenous (as clarified above) nor does it involve reducing academic standards.
Still, fear of the unknown is a very real and predictable obstacle in the case of Indigenization. In fact, many non-Indigenous educators justifiably feel uncomfortable with teaching anything Indigenous for fear of doing it wrong (e.g. fear of committing cultural appropriation). Although these concerns are natural, they do not excuse us from our role in doing the work. Practise humility. Ensure that you acknowledge and properly cite the sources of your information. Be open to being corrected and willing to do more research. Learning from mistakes is a common aspect of Indigenous education - after a mistake has been pointed out, it is important to ask questions and continue forward.
One common mistake about Indigenization itself is that it is more or less the same as multiculturalism. Note however that while multicultural approaches are valuable in terms of honouring diversity, they do not address the specific injustices and racist policies to which Indigenous Peoples in Canada have singularly endured. Consider that most Canadians are settlers (visitors) in Indigenous lands and thus, have a responsibility to understand and value local cultures, languages, and protocols. Indigenization is therefore a very distinct process – the two terms (“Indigenization” and “multiculturalism”) should not be used interchangeably in practice or in policy.
The term “decolonization” refers to the dismantling of colonial ideologies that continue to subjugate Indigenous Peoples whilst prioritizing Euro-Western thought-ways, systems, and approaches.
It includes deconstructing processes which perpetuate the concept of Euro-Western superiority and privilege, and often means taking real action against the current status quo. For example, in “Decolonization is not a metaphor” authors Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, describe decolonization as the literal undoing settler-colonialism, through the repatriation of land – from settlers to Indigenous people.
Decolonization also involves shifting our perceptions in terms of how society regards Indigenous people - considering the broad implications of historical misconceptions, modern prejudices, and personal assumptions. It requires non-Indigenous peoples to comprehend the truth of Canada’s colonial past and present, examining their beliefs about Indigenous Peoples and culture through critical self reflection.
Most importantly, Decolonization requires non-Indigenous peoples, governments, and institutions to provide space and support for Indigenous Peoples seeking to revitalize their cultures and reclaim what was stolen from them.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines Indigenous Knowledge (IK) as:
“The understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. For rural and Indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life.”
This knowledge is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality.
These unique ways of knowing are important facets of the world’s cultural diversity, and provide a foundation for locally-appropriate sustainable development.”
Although Indigenous ways of knowing - like Indigenous peoples themselves - are extremely diverse, at the core of its meaning, Indigenous Knowledge is relational, holistic, and rooted in beliefs that are inclusive of both the sacred and the secular.
Indigenous pedagogies stem from pre-colonial approaches to teaching and learning which emphasize: (1) the development of the learner as a whole person; (2) learning through experience; (3) learning through the land; and (4) recognizing the important role that Elders and Traditional Peoples have in passing on knowledge.
1. Personal and Holistic
An Indigenous pedagogical approach is holistic in nature, focusing on the four interrelated dimensions of human development. A learner's intellectual proclivities, physical-awareness, emotional and spiritual growth are all equally valued, challenging dominant ideologies that specifically ignore the latter domain.
Indigenous pedagogies emphasize learning by doing. Traditionally, young people learned how to participate effectively in their communities by practicing the skills they would need to perform later in life. In a contemporary context, students can learn through observation, action, reflection, and further action. For instructors, this means creating opportunities within courses for students to share and learn from direct experience.
3. Place-based learning
Indigenous pedagogies connect learning to a specific place, and thus knowledge is situated in relationship to a location, experience, and group of people. Students benefit when provided opportunities to explore, inquire, and learn on the land, and to be in relationship with the land alongside others.
In pre-contact societies, Elders had a vital role to play in passing on wisdom and knowledge to youth. That relationship is still honoured today, as Elders remain the most respected educators in most Indigenous communities. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students can learn a great deal from Elders, and instructors can collaborate with them as experts in Indigenous pedagogy.
Written by: Mitchell Huguenin
Last Updated: 3 May 2021