Naming Aboriginal Canadians

When doing historical research of any kind, researchers have to choose a variety of search words. They hope that by using the correct word they can locate and use both primary and secondary sources. Choosing the right search terms is a challenge at the best of times, but the challenges involved in finding Aboriginal content are particularly significant. Many search words reflect historical biases and misunderstandings. Over time, names or terms change entirely while spellings are altered to suit the period, location and circumstances.

And the terms are still changing.

There is little evidence that, as knowledge keepers, First Nations, Métis or Inuit were involved in the historical creation and development of the documents found at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). However, the individuals or institutions that created the documents left a strong imprint on them that is coloured by the why, when and where of their creation.

The language and imagery used in the past, however problematic, remain in the database descriptions. Terms such as “squaw,” “half-breed,” “massacre,” “uncivilized” and “victory” should be used with careful consideration and in an appropriate context.

A watercolour showing a woman wearing a red dress with a blanket wrapped around her head and shoulders. She is wearing snowshoes and looking off to the left. Behind in the distance is the silhouette of a church with a mountain behind it.

Indian squaw in her Sunday best with Montréal in the distance painted by Francis George Coleridge, 1866 (MIKAN 2836790)

A lithographic print showing a group of nine people, likely a family, including a baby, and three children sitting in front a tepee. One person is standing up and holding a rifle and two Métis men are smoking pipes.

Indian tepee and rebel Half Breed [Métis], 1885 (MIKAN 2933963)

A watercolour showing three figures standing by a body of water. From left to right: a woman smoking a pipe with a baby on her back , a man wearing leggings, a long blue jacket and a Métis sash holding a rifle in his right hand, and another woman with a shawl wrapped around her head and body wearing a blue dress underneath.

A half-cast [Métis] and his two wives (MIKAN 2835810)

Equally problematic is material that has less than perfect descriptions. These are not always helpful. Little detail is forthcoming when terms such as “native type” and “peau rouge” (red skin) are used. At the same time, the majority of individuals depicted in the images in Library and Archive Canada’s collections were never identified. Many archival descriptions relating to events or activities are absent or have dated information (e.g. place names, band names or terminology). Alternatively, information is based on original inscriptions and captions found in the records, and hence reflects the biases and attitudes of non-Aboriginal society at the time.

The sheer number of these type of descriptions makes searching for a particular document or photograph a formidable task.

LAC does modify the descriptions in its collection. While ensuring the integrity of the original description, LAC strives to add clarity to incomplete data and modify inappropriate language when examples come to our attention. We never alter an original record or image, only the description that was created for it.

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit man wearing a shirt and suspenders and looking directly at the photographer.

[Close-up portrait of a man wearing suspenders, Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut]. Original Title: Native type, Chesterfield Inlet, N.W.T., July, 1926 (MIKAN 3379826)

One thought on “Naming Aboriginal Canadians

  1. Great points here. I recently learned that the term “Iroquois” is considered offensive by many Aboriginal Peoples because it is thought to have translated from the Basque expression “hilokoa,” which means “killer people.” The correct term for the First Nations group commonly known as the “Iroquois” is Haudenosaunee. If anyone’s interested, I made a short stop-motion film about Sky Woman, a version of the Haudenosaunee creation story.

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