When the National Indian Brotherhood, or NIB, began using the word “aboriginal” in some of its documents more than 30 years ago, my Mom and Dad railed at those those they called “idiots” and worse. The NIB is the fore-runner of today’s Assembly of First Nation, and the national organization representing band council chiefs in Canada. My parents could not fathom why the NIB seemed insistent upon using generic, one-size-fits-all umbrella terms to refer to themselves.
Why, they wondered, didn’t they go back to referring to themselves as they had for centuries and in their own languages. To my parents, use of those other generic terms showed just how successful decades upon decades of brainwashing had been in erasing their own national identities. So instead of calling themselves “chopped liver,” they should call themselves “onkhwehhonhweh,” “Kanienkeha:ka” or “Anishnabek” instead.
My parents were also quite upset when band council chiefs at the AFN decided to call each of their reserves “first nations.” They felt that was just as divisive as a generic term since it gave each reserve, an artifice of the Indian Act, the pretense of existing as a separate and distinct “nation” but (still) under the Indian Act and without any central, sovereign national identity.
In northern Saskatchewan for instance, you can have a whole bunch of Cree territories separating themselves from each other as “first nations,” refusing to group themslves under their own national identity – as part of the Cree Nation.
To my parents, it was all about “divide and conquer;” it was a simple question of cultural, political and national survival. Our own Indigenous nations would either hang together or, to quote Benjamin Franklin, we would surely hang separately.
It seems someone is now thinking along similar lines. The Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) represents mostly Ojibway and Algonquin bands in eastern and northeastern Ontario. they passed a resolution instructing:
“… government agencies, NGOs, educators and media organizations that they should discontinue using inappropriate terminology when they are referring to the Anishinabek. We respect the cultures and traditions of our Metis and Inuit brothers and sisters, but their issues are different from ours.”
The resolution notes that “there are no aboriginal bands, aboriginal reserves, or aboriginal chiefs” and that the reference to “aboriginal rights” referred to in Section 35 of the Constitution Act of Canada “was never meant to assimilate First Nations, Metis and Inuit into a homogeneous group.”
Now if these Anishnabek can only get away from that clumsy “first nation” bit, and convince the others at the AFN as well, they might get somewhere. They might even get there quicker.
So… listen up. I am not a “first nation person.” I am Kanienkeha:ka (aka Mohawk). Get it?
If Canadian reporters can understand the difference between Shona and Kikuyu in Africa, or Croat from Serb in the Balkans, then why can’t they learn the differences and proper names for the distinct Indigenous nationalities within Canada as well? So can politicians.