Lexicon and Terminology

It’s time to sit down and write your story, and you probably find yourself facing the NAFNIP question.

Otherwise known as, the “NATIVE-ABORIGINAL-FIRST NATIONS-INDIGENOUS PERSON” question (Indian head nod to Drew Hayden Taylor for coining this fabulous acronym).

What term should a journalist use to describe a NAFNIP?

Your news organization likely has a style guide. That may offer some guidance, but the terms used to describe Aboriginal peoples are continually evolving. Reporters may find it a challenge to understand the distinctions among these words and to whom they apply.

Ultimately, there is no sole agreed-upon name for the original peoples that inhabited North America before European settlers arrived. In Canada, “Aboriginal peoples” is often used. In the United States, “American Indian” and “Native American” are commonly used. United Nations documents and organizations use the term “Indigenous peoples.”

If you are unsure about names and terms, ask the Aboriginal people you’re reporting on which term they prefer.

This terminology guide is adapted with permission from SABAR

If you’re still confused, check out this Glossary of Key Terms, developed by the Strategic Alliance of Broadcasters for Aboriginal Reflection (SABAR), a group of national broadcasters seeking to increase participation of Aboriginal people in the media in Canada. This fabulous site addresses thoroughly these very questions, and I suggest you use it.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ve pilfered some information from that site (with SABAR’s permission) and re-purposed it here, to give you a taste of the subject.


Many diverse and autonomous peoples lived in the territory now known as Canada for thousands of years. Each community or culture had distinct languages, religious beliefs and political systems, and its own name for its people and names for the peoples around them.

Credit: urbanrez.ca

Whenever possible, try to characterize Aboriginal people through the identities of their specific tribe or Nation (e.g., a Haida painter, a Mohawk school, a Blackfoot publication).

Note that many Aboriginal people are using English transliterations of terms from their own languages to identify themselves; e.g., the Mohawk Nation is also called “Kanien‘kehá:ka”; the Blackfoot, “Siksika”; the Chippewas, “Anishinabeg”; and the Swampy Cree, “Mushkegowuk.”


Ever since Columbus sent a letter back home in 1493, identifying the folks he met as los Indios, the term “Indian” has been applied to the first occupants of the Americas.

The term “Indian” is laden with history and associations, and some argue the whole notion of “Indian” is purely a white man’s construction. Some find the term offensive, akin to the n-word used to describe African-Americans.

That said, plenty of Aboriginal folks themselves, particularly in the Prairies, use the term “Indian” regularly in conversation. Does that give you the license to use it? Probably not.

Still, for the sake of accuracy, there are times you should use the term Indian:

  • in discussions of history where necessary for clarity and accuracy
  • in discussions of some legal/constitutional matters requiring precision in terminology
  • in discussions of rights and benefits provided on the basis of “Indian” status
  • in statistical information collected using these categories (e.g., the Census).

Indians are one of three peoples recognized as Aboriginal in the Constitution Act, 1982. Specifically, that means “status Indians” — but you may also encounter the terms “non-status Indians” and “treaty Indians.”

  • Status Indians
    Status Indians are people who are entitled to have their names included on the Indian Register, an official list maintained by the federal government. Certain criteria determine who can be registered as a Status Indian. Only Status Indians are recognized as Indians under the Indian Act. Status Indians are entitled to certain rights and benefits under the law.
  • Non-Status Indians
    Non-Status Indians are people who consider themselves Indians or members of a First Nation, but whom the Government of Canada does not recognize as Indians under the Indian Act, either because they are unable to prove their status or have lost their status rights. Many Indian people in Canada, especially women, lost their Indian status through discriminatory practices in the past. Non-Status Indians are not entitled to the same rights and benefits available to Status Indians.
  • Treaty Indian
    A Status Indian who belongs to a First Nation that signed a treaty with the Crown.

You should use “Indian” when referring to the Indian Act, or Indian reserves.

Credit: urbanrez.ca

  • Indian Act:  The principal federal statute dealing with Registered Status Indians and or Treaty Indians.  The Act was created in 1876 in an attempt by the federal government to assimilate Native people into Euro-Canadian society and assume Native land for European settlement, development and agricultural purposes.
  • Indian reserve:  Defined in the Indian Act as a tract of land that’ been set apart for the use and benefit of an Indian band.  The federal government has assumed jurisdiction over reserve lands and the Native people living on them.


This is a term defined in the Constitution that identifies Aboriginal as Indians, Metis, and Inuit peoples. When you are referring to “Aboriginal people,” you are referring to all the Aboriginal people in Canada collectively, without regard to their separate origins and identities. Or, you are simply referring to more than one Aboriginal person.

Reporters should take care in using this term, because “Aboriginal people” generally applies to First Nations, Inuit and Metis, If you are describing a particular departmental program that is only for First Nations, such as band funding, avoid using “Aboriginal people” as it may cause misunderstanding.

Suggested usage:

Use as an adjective. The use of “Aboriginal” as a proper noun, in stories or headlines, is grammatically incorrect.

IMPROPER: The government’s new strategy will support increased business with Aboriginals.

PROPER: The government’s new strategy will support increased business with Aboriginal people.

Avoid describing Aboriginal people as “belonging” to Canada. Use less possessive terms instead.

IMPROPER: Canada’s Aboriginal people have traditions and cultures that go back thousands of years.

PROPER: Aboriginal people in Canada have traditions and cultures that go back thousands of years.

Credit: urbanrez.ca


This term came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word “Indian,” which some people found offensive. Although the term First Nation is widely used, no legal definition of it exists. Among its uses, the term “First Nations peoples” refers to the Indians in Canada, both Status and Non-Status. Some have also adopted the term “First Nation” to replace the word “band” in the name of their community.

Suggested usage:

Use as a noun and a modifier. The term “First Nation” is acceptable as both. When using the term as a modifier, the question becomes whether to use “First Nation” or “First Nations.” Note the different uses in the following examples.

(plural modifier, plural noun)
The number of First Nations students enrolled at Canadian universities and colleges has soared over the past twenty years.

(singular modifier, plural noun)
The association assists female First Nation entrepreneurs interested in starting home businesses.

(plural modifier, singular noun)
Containing recipes from across the country, the First Nations cookbook became an instant hit at church bazaars.

(singular modifier, singular noun)
Many people have said that North of 60 and The Rez were the only shows on television that depicted life in a First Nation community with any realism.

There is no clear right or wrong in this area, provided that reporters are consistent about the way they choose to use modifiers.

  • Many people today prefer to be called “First Nations” or “First Nations people” instead of “Indians.” Generally, “First Nations people” is used to describe both Status and Non-Status Indians. The term is rarely used as a synonym for “Aboriginal peoples” because it usually doesn’t include Inuit or Métis people.
  • Because the term “First Nations people” generally applies to both Status and Non-Status Indians, reporters should take care in using this term. If they are describing a program that is for only Status Indian youth, for example, they should avoid using “First Nations youth,” which may cause misunderstanding.


Credit: cbc.ca/8thfire

The word “native,” derived from Latin natus meaning “born,” is used to mean a group who lived in some place before the arrival of Europeans.

Like “First Nations,” the term “native” evolved to replace the word “Indian.” It has no legal definition in Canada, and generally describes Indians, not Inuit or Metis.

However, because “native” also has a specific meaning of “born in,” the term “native Canadian” could also legitimately apply to anyone born in Canada.

For this reason, though “native” is often used in common speech, it’s being used with less and less frequency. Reporters should note: “Native American” is used in a legal context in the United States, and can be used interchangeably with “American Indian.”


You’ll most often find the term “Indigenous” used in United Nations documents, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and “Indigenous” is often the preferred term in an international, academic or activist context.

Credit: Climate Justice Now

The adjective “indigenous” has the common meaning of “from” or “of the original origin.” The United Nations has yet to define “Indigenous peoples,” as the concept has been subject of much debate.

Indigenous legal scholar S. James Anaya offers this description. “Today, the term indigenous refers broadly to the living descendents of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. Indigenous peoples, nations, or communities are culturally distinctive groups that find themselves engulfed by settler societies born of the forces of empire and conquest.”

According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous peoples have a right to cultural sovereignty and self-determination.