Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Indians just got a whole lot harder to identify

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Knowing what name to use when referring to a "native person" in Canada just got a whole lot harder. And not only because about 600,000 "indigenous" people may have their status changed by a recent court ruling.

Back in the 1960s, things were more simple. There were Indians, non-status Indians and Métis. Indians were people who met the requirements of the Indian Act sufficiently to be issued a treaty status card, non-status Indians were native people who were not eligible or who had lost their status (e.g. an Indian woman who had married a white man). And Métis were descendants of a European and Indian mix who had developed their own culture, complete with language (Michif) and political leaders like Louis Riel.

But the name "Indian" fell out of favour because of negative stereotypes, and then the term "aboriginal" was introduced at a constitutional conference to include Indian, Métis and Inuit.

Some Indians still prefer to be called Indians. Métis will always be Métis. There are a lot of aboriginals who would prefer to be called "First Nations" (the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the official governance of First Nations, has stated it prefers not to do business with organizations that use "aboriginal" in their name).

The problem is always going to be that no matter how any of these names originated, none of the words were ever spoken before Europeans arrived. Many of the indigenous nations here simply referred to themselves by a word in their own language which meant "the people" or "the human beings." You may have heard Ojibway call themselves "anishnabi" (the people).

But words like anishnabi don't mean much to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and many of the other 600 First Nations in Canada.

Now Federal Court Justice Michael Phelan has ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are considered Indians under the Constitution. There is going to be confusion, because Ottawa previously asserted "Indian" exclusively meant First Nations and Inuit.

The situation is further complicated by the fact the definition of who is Indian is also defined in the Constitution and by the Indian Act. Sometimes Indian covers Métis, non-status or First Nation, and other times the names are mutually exclusive.

A name defines who you are and can be a source of immense pride and identity. Names build unity, which is useful in solving common problems and developing solutions that meet the needs of the group. So you can see why David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, is being "cautious" about the recent ruling.

"This recent decision does not mean that the Métis are Indians in the same way as when we say or think of First Nations members," Chartrand explained. "There have been other words used to describe the whole of Canada's indigenous peoples such as natives, aborigines and aboriginals. Now we have another word."

And another.

"We are the Otepayemsuak -- the independent ones," Chartrand added.

OK, so what is a Caucasian Canadian to do when it comes to naming names? Call people what they want to be called. Ask a simple question and you'll find that most of the respondents will guide you gently to a higher understanding.

Then you don't have to worry if a Cree person prefers to be called Ininew and you won't have a Dakota individual tell you, "Don't call me Sioux!"

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2013 A11

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