"The eagle flies the highest in the sky, and in a Coast Salish legend people would seek guidance from the eagle to gain knowledge of faraway places. This representational eagle wing relief was created to bring the knowledge to students as they seek guidance in their studies." By Marissa Nahanee - Maykw Cha7em Squamish & Nisga’a Nations, Eagle Clan.

If you need help, please contact Jenna Walsh, Indigenous Initiatives Librarian & Librarian for Indigenous Studies, Archaeology, Environmental Science, and Resource & Environmental Management at 778-782-9378 (voicemail) or jmwalsh@sfu.ca or Ask a librarian.


The first chapter in Chelsea Vowel’s (Métis) book Indigenous Writes provides a comprehensive, plain language overview on how the terminology used to refer to Indigenous Peoples has changed over time. She provides definitions, examples, and a list of offensive terms (which is expanded on in chapter six of Gregory Younging’s (Cree) book, Elements of Indigenous Style). It’s recommended to read both or either of those chapters, or appendix one in Bob Joseph’s book (Kwakwaka’wakw), 21 things you may not know about the Indian Act. Here you will find an introduction to the topic and some definitions, and some information on how libraries are approaching the work needed to change terminology in collection records. 

For many people, knowing how to refer to Indigenous Peoples can be stressful due to not knowing the correct terminology (Vowel, 2016 ; Younging, 2018). What’s important is not causing offense, and taking cues from the Nation or community you’re engaging with. This may mean asking, and being open to receiving feedback or corrections if you don’t get it right the first time (Vowel, 2016). 

What’s important to remember is that “there is no across-the-board agreement on a term” (Vowel, 2016, p. 8). This is because terms and names evolve over time (Vowel, 2016 ; Younging, 2018). Younging recommends when using a historic work that contains inappropriate language, include a note or explanation to identify it as such in the body of your work, a footnote, or an endnote (2018, p. 61). 

The terms and definitions on this page are reflective of Canada. For terms and definitions of Indigenous Peoples in the USA, this glossary by the Aspen Institute provides a starting point.

Aboriginal & Indigenous

In 1982 Aboriginal replaced “Indian” as the appropriate term for Indigenous Peoples in Canada (Vowel, 2016 ; Younging, 2018). In 2016 the federal government adopted Indigneous as the preferred term for all government communications (Joseph, 2018), and this term is gaining recognition in organizations and literature (Younging, 2018). 

Indigenous is used collectively to refer to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in Canada (Joseph, 2018 ; Younging, 2018), and is not intended to “imply homogeneity of culture or of linguistic representations” (SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, 2017, p. v). It is important to recognize and acknowledge “that Indigenous peoples are diverse, multicultural, and multinational” (SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, 2017, p. v).

Chelsea Vowel cautions against using either Aboriginal or Indigenous in the possessive (2016, p. 8). Meaning, use Indigenous Peoples in Canada and not Indigenous Peoples of Canada or Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. 

First Nations

This term replaced the use of Indian or Native in the 1970s (Joseph, 2018 ; Younging, 2018). It “refers to that group of people officially known as Indians under the Indian Act, and does not include Inuit or Métis peoples” (Vowel, 2016, p. 11).

According to Younging, “the term has strong political connotations: it refers to separate nations that occupied territory before the arrival of Europeans” (2018, p. 63). It can be used to refer to a single community within a larger nation, such as Younging’s example of Westbank First Nation, which is part of the Okanagan Nation (2018, p. 63). Except when discussing a particular nation, the term is always plural (Younging, 2018). 

There are more than 630 First Nations in Canada, and approximately 200 Nations are in BC

Indian Act

Passed in 1876, the Indian Act combined previous pieces of legislation on “Indians” in Canada; it does not include the Métis or Inuit. This document “regulates Indians and reserves and sets out certain federal government powers and responsibilities towards First Nations and their reserved lands” (Joseph, 2018, p. 111). It has been modified over other years, and is current Canadian legislation.

For more on the Indian Act see Indigenous Foundations, The Indian Act, or the Canadian Encyclopedia, Indian Act.


The term refers to the Indigenous people living in the Arctic areas of Canada, Greenland, and Siberia (Joseph, 2018 ; Younging, 2018). The word Inuit is plural and means the people, while Inuk is singular (Joseph, 2018 ; Younging, 2018).

There are 56 Inuit communities in Canada.


This term is used by many people in Canada, and in a few different contexts (Joseph, 2018 ; Younging, 2018). It often means “an Indigenous People who emerged during the fur trade from the intermarriage of people of European descent and people of Indigenous descent” (Younging, 2018, p. 67). Métis is a French word that translates to mixed. 

The Métis Nation Canada defines Métis as “a person who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation Ancestry and who is accepted by the Métis Nation.” The Métis Homeland includes: Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia (Rupertsland Institute, n.d.).

Identity is complex, and there is a lot of debate around Métis identity and historic Métis communities. For more on the topic, read chapter four in Indigenous Writes (Vowel, 2016). 


The term used to refer to a First Nations person who is not registered under the Indian Act, and therefore does not have status (Joseph, 2018). This can be a result of losing status or having a parent or grandparent lose status, through either the Indian Act or another piece of legislation (Vowel, 2016).

The Indian Act outlined a process of enfranchisement, where an “Indian” could give up their status to become a Canadian citizen (Joseph, 2018). Once enfranchised, the person could then vote, live off reserve, attend post secondary school, hire a lawyer, become a doctor, or join the military (Joseph, 2018). If a man became enfranchised, his wife and children were as well (Joseph, 2018). By 1985 enfranchisement was removed from the Indian Act (Joseph, 2018).


“An individual recognized by the federal government as registered under the Indian Act.” (Joseph, 2018, p. 113). The Indian Act defined “Indian” as:

  • Any male person of Indian blood reported to belong to a particular band
  • Any child of such a person
  • Any woman who is or was lawfully married to such a person (Joseph, 2018, p. 11).

Language of reconciliation 

With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report and Calls to Action in 2015, the word decolonize, Indigenize, and reconciliation have been used in scholarly literature, popular literature, and the media. Each word has multiple meanings and interpretations, and are often intertwined together.


Is used to “represent a socio-political agenda that seeks to redress historical and current practices that have had deleterious effects on Aboriginal peoples” (Walk This Path With Us, p. V).


Is used to “indicates incorporating Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing into the practices (such as the curriculum) of the institution” (Walk This Path With Us, p. V). The report authors go on to say that Indigenization represents “the primary goal of the ARC, which is to sustain and/or to create the conditions by which we might collaboratively work towards a preferred future” (Walk This Path With Us, p. VI).


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission defined reconciliation as being “about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country” (volume 6, p. 3). This can only happen with “ awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour” (volume 6, p. 3). 

This post on the Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples blog provides a list to consider what is and is not reconciliation.

Searching the Library catalogue

Library metadata

Libraries use two systems to organize their physical materials; classification and categorization. These systems are used to develop call numbers (classification) and subject headings (categorization). This information, along with things like title and author, make up an item’s record and metadata.

Academic libraries typically use the Library of Congress Classification, and most libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings, though in Canada the Canadian Subject Headings are also used. The LC Classification and Subject Headings were written in the late 1800s, and are often representative of that time. There have been changes and additions of the years, to bring the systems into alignment with current socio-cultural understandings.

What this has meant is the placement of materials by or about Indigenous Peoples in the E or F sections (History) and the use of problematic, outdated, and inappropriate terminology (such as the subject heading “Indians of North America”). Library staff have been vocal in the need to update these systems to better reflect today’s society and cultural awareness, however any changes impact thousands to millions of records and it is going to take some time. SFU Library has several initiatives underway, starting with the addition of “Indigenous Peoples” to records. 

There are many articles that discuss the need to change, and the challenges faced by libraries. If you are interested, here are some to introduce you to the topic or watch the presentations at Sorting Libraries Out, a symposium hosted by SFU in collaboration with UBC, the UofA, and COPPUL.

When searching

Due to the terminology changes mentioned above, when searching for Indigenous topics you will need to use some expert tricks, particularly the commands AND and OR. Using these commands lets you create a search string that includes all potential terms.

For example: “First Nations” OR Indigenous OR Aboriginal OR Indian.

This search string will bring results with any of those terms; the OR widens your search. That way, regardless of the term used by the author it will show up in your results list. This can be especially helpful when looking for historic works which might use the term “Indian,” which would be missed in a search only using Indigenous. 

Problematic terms

While library staff are working on adding more appropriate terms to item metadata, the problematic terminology has not been removed. There are a couple of reasons for this decision, primarily because libraries create and share metadata according to international standards. Changing and updating these standards takes time. Both Library of Congress and Library Archives Canada are aware of the concerns around terminology, and are working on changing it. Meanwhile, libraries are adding appropriate terms and updating names on their own, or in collaboration with other academic and public libraries. You may also start seeing content notes being added to records, similar to the recommendation Younging (2018, p. 61) makes.

Another factor is that older materials contain these problematic terms (e.g. Eskimo, half-breed, savage; see Vowel (2016), and Younging (2018) for a more in-depth list and discussion). It’s important to recognize them, and understand their historical use. 


Joseph, B. (2018). 21 things you may not know about the Indian Act. 

Simon Fraser University Aboriginal Reconciliation Council. (2017). Walk this path with us.

Métis Nation Canada. (n.d.). Citizenship.

Rupertsland Institute. (n.d.). Métis homeland.

Vowel, C. (2016). Indigenous writes: A guide to First Nations, Metis & Inuit issues in Canada.

Younging, G. (2018). Elements of Indigenous style: A guide for writing by and about Indigenous Peoples. 

Additional Readings

âpihtawikosisân. (2012). A rose by any other name is a mihkokwaniy. (Chelsea Vowel’s blog).

Farrel, A. (2018). Indigenous terminology. (Lakehead University).

Indigenous Foundations. (n.d.). Terminology. (University of British Columbia).

Working effectively with Indigenous Peoples, blog by Indigenous Corporate Training.