Governor James Douglas and the Ambiguities of Race at the Edge of an Empire

Black and white portrait of a man wearing a suit and several British medals.
The first governor of the Colony of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas. Image courtesy of the British Columbia Archives.

James Douglas was born in Demerara in modern Guyana. He was the son of a Scottish sugar merchant and a free black woman. In his lifetime, he was schooled in Scotland, then headed to the west coast of North America, working for the North-West Company, then the Hudson’s Bay Company, and ending up as the Governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia.

Douglas didn’t often speak of his racial background; in fact, his daughter told a biographer in the 1920s that he was born in Scotland. (Whether or not she genuinely believed that or just said so to protect the memory of her father is an interesting question.) Douglas became the governor of British Columbia in 1858. At that same time, across the continent, tensions were rising in the United States over questions of slavery. That conflict would eventually erupt in the American Civil War. In the States, a single metaphorical drop of African blood would mark you as a second class citizen. Yet, here, at the edge of an empire, a man like Douglas could rise to an incredibly powerful position. I find this time and place fascinating.

Historian Adele Perry (whose article I list below was a major source for this blog post) has argued that it would be a mistake to think of Douglas in simplified terms from solely an American racial perspective. That black/white dichotomy is not an entirely useful lens out in what would become Western Canada. As Perry wrote:

“Douglas lived nineteenth-century blackness in different circumstances, one where black-white hierarchies were not the only or principal racial cleavage, and where geographic distance and limited communication facilitated a degree of self-invention . . . . The disconnects between different colonial spaces allowed a man of African-Caribbean origin to serve as the highest representative of the British empire in a northern North American colony….”

Now, don’t get me wrong: 19th century British Columbia was not a perfect post-racial utopia where all lived in harmony. Douglas did downplay his background, and that of his wife and children. (More on that in a moment.) There was interracial conflict, tensions, and hypocrisy. But there were also interesting relationships between and among emerging diverse communities.

To understand the history of what is now Western Canada, you’ve got to know about the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and you’ve got to know about “country wives”. Despite the beautifully simple maps you see in history textbooks where all of Rupert’s Land is painted in one solid colour as “Hudson’s Bay Company Territory” or even “British Territory”, in reality, the HBC only ever controlled the land within the shadow of the walls of their forts. The company relied a lot on the goodwill of local Indigenous people: their customers and economic partners. Forts thrived and profited when there were good relationships. By the early 1800s, it became increasingly common for company employees to marry into local Indigenous groups. These marriages were not blessed by the church. Missionaries were discouraged by the HBC – they were dead weight in the cargo boats and only caused trouble with the locals. Instead, these marriages were according to the “custom of the country”. That usually meant an amalgam of local traditions of marriage and at times a legal ceremony by the chief trader or chief factor of an HBC post. These Indigenous women provided essential and largely unpaid labour that kept these forts going: from interpreting to tanning the hides coming in to tending to the farms that grew their provisions to keeping the staff fed and clothed. Over time, their children – the emerging Métis Nation – became the next generation of company employees, and wives for incoming company men.

After the governor of the HBC, Sir George Simpson, turned away his country wives to marry his 16 year old white cousin Frances Simpson, there was a vogue among company officers to have European wives. This influx of white women, particularly in places like Red River, caused racial tensions, as these newcomers (many from more humble classes that married up) and the high-ranking “fur trade aristocracy” (largely Métis people) both condescended each other. (See: the Foss-Pelley Scandal of 1850 for an engrossing account of the viciousness and pettiness this war of words and morals.)

All that is to say that viewing Douglas’ situation purely through a black/white racial lens removes a lot of fascinating nuance.

Douglas, like many officers of his rank at that time, did marry a Métis woman, Amelia Connolley, the mixed-blood daughter of one of his superiors (an Irishman) and his Cree country wife. Douglas also kept her as a wife even after some high-ranking officials abandoned their “country wives” in favour of imported white “exotics.” Times were changing and by the 1850s views of race and class became increasingly fraught in the region. Many of these Indigenous country wives, while not having been married in a church, were treated by fur trade society as genuine, lawfully wedded and respectable wives. Newcomers, however, saw things differently. Douglas defended the country wives against their detractors who held them to moral standards from elsewhere in the empire:

“The woman who is not sensible of violating any law, who lived chastely with the husband of her love, in a state approved by friends and sanctioned by immemorial custom, which she believes highly honourable, should not be reduced to the level of the disgraced creature who voluntarily plunges into promiscuous vice . . . who lives a disgrace to her friends, and an outcast from society.”

There is a famous story about Amelia Connolley saving the life of her husband when he was working up at Fort St. James in the 1820s. It is said that she and a female interpreter called Nancy Boucher successfully begged Chief Kwah for Douglas’s life… after she’d come at the man holding her husband at dagger point with a dagger of her own and had been disarmed. Connolley used her knowledge of Carrier (or Dakelh) customs to negotiate a peaceful solution where her husband was helpless.

Connolley was a successful figure in her lifetime because she could both navigate conflict between Indigenous groups and her husband’s company, but also could navigate high-class British colonial society. Remember, when her husband was knighted and induced into the Order of the Bath, she simultaneously became a title Lady. She, a mixed-blood woman, was the highest-ranking lady in Victoria, BC, for years.

For all that, though, the North-West Coast was changing. The question of race was an increasingly weighty one. Douglas did “pass” for white, as did his wife. In his writing, tended to shy away from mentioning his own racial background or that of his mixed-blood children children. He once advised one of his daughters in a letter she could share Cree legends with her new school friends in Wimbledon but only if she hid the fact that she knew them from her mother. Despite the fact that they’d had their marriage sanctified by a missionary in 1838, some newcomers still viewed Douglas’ marriage to Connolley (and any other marriages like theirs) as suspect. Connolley, too, was not always at ease with high society in Victoria. Though she looked remarkably European, it is said that she was far more comfortable speaking French and Cree than English, which was described as “hesitant.”

All that is to say, the question of race and class in the mid-1800s on the North West Coast is not a simple black and white one, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Douglas remains a controversial figure in some circles today, as he was the one who initially laid out the reserve system in British Columbia which still has ramifications for massive land claims today. The reserves he laid out were, to be fair, intended to provide First Nations with enough land to both practice their traditional lifestyles as well as adopt European farming practices, but were reduced by 92% by his political successor. Nevertheless, the fact remains that British Columbia is largely comprised of unceded Indigenous land and he was the first to lay out reservations alienating First Nations from the bulk of their traditional territory.

So happy Douglas Day, citizens of British Columbia! Remember: people in the past were human. They had their admirable traits, and their deplorable ones. The shades of grey are what I find the most interesting.

I’ll be showing off a satchel purportedly owned by Douglas at work on Sunday, November 18th, 2018, at Fort Langley National Historic Site. If you’re in the Vancouver area and you’re a history nerd, come and see me!

Further Reading

  • I drew the majority of my content for this post from Adele Perry’s article “‘Is your Garden in England, Sir’: James Douglas’s Archive and the Politics of Home.” History Workshop Journal, issue 70 (2010): 67 – 85.
  • To learn more about race, gender, and the evolving nature of fur trade marriages and the emergence of the Métis people, I recommend a pairing of the following two books, in this order:
    • Sylvia Van Kirk. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670 – 1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
    • Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free downloadable PDF ebook available on the publisher’s website!)
  • To learn more about the People of the River (First Nations of the region near modern Fort Langley), and their relationship to the land over time, see: Keith Thor Carlson (Ed.). A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.

Sitting Bull Wasn’t American: Interpreting the Messy History of the Border at Fort Walsh

I recently visited the Cypress Hills: a gorgeous landscape full of history. It’s also the site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. This event and the early history of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) are commemorated at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.

Overall I was very impressed with my visit. In the dynamic, newly redesigned displays of the interpretive centre, they clearly made an effort to add nuance and empathy to the story of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in which over 70 Nakoda people, mainly women and children, were killed by Americans who falsely blamed them for horse thefts. This horrific event was one of the catalysts for the formation of the now famous Mounties. This police force was sent West to impose Canadian law for the first time in the territory. The new exhibits made a point of using Indigenous languages throughout. I was particularly impressed by a display which had audio recordings of accounts of the massacre from the Nakoda perspective (from both oral histories and contemporary depositions). They were available in three languages: English and French (as required by the official languages act) and Nakoda. I thought this was proper and respectful.

The site has a reproduction of the Fort itself as well as a Métis camp and trading post which interprets late fur trade history. As someone who is more used to fur trade history from a generation before (1820s – 1850s), I found the little differences from the 1870s fascinating. They had early canned goods! They also had three costumed staff there, on a weekday, interpreting Métis history, and the interpreter that showed us around was very engaging and knowledgeable. I think it would be too easy to present the Métis and First Nations history as peripheral at this site, but they did a decent job at interpreting the stories not just on the Mounties but the other folks who were living out there already. I recognize this effort particularly because I believe that it represents a shift in trying to tell a broader narrative than a narrow focus on just the Mounties.


My partner and I went on a tour of the fort itself right after we arrived. We had to skip the exhibit until afterwards, doing it out of the intended order. Luckily, we already knew some of the context of this site’s history! The tour guide was an excellent speaker and was very dynamic in their presentation style. I walked away with a clear sense of the day to day life of these men in the fort. Our favourite part of the tour was a mock trial of several troublemakers pulled from the audience. Aside from being an interesting snapshot into the kinds of crimes that were common during that period, the interpreter’s comedic timing was on point! I’m also particularly fascinated by material culture so I really appreciated, for instance, explanations about what kinds of saddles were used when and why by the Mounties. Practicality is paramount! As a whole, I was pleased with the tour and what I learned.

However, there were a few offhand remarks made by the guide that really got me thinking about the narratives Canadians tell about their history, and whose perspectives are highlighted and whose brushed aside. This isn’t a critique of our guide in particular, but of the common narratives around the history of the Mounties in Canada. Namely, one often hears about the early history of the Mounties without contextualizing a very messy history of a decade of abrupt transition from a buffalo economy to control by the British/Canadian colonial state. The guide did talk a bit about Indigenous relations throughout the tour, particularly in the introduction, but several comments really brought home to me how glossed over some of the more problematic aspects of the relationship between the Mounties and Indigenous people has been, not only at this site but whenever a triumphalist Canadian history narrative is told.

One of the key messages the interpreter had was that the relationship between the first Mounties and local Indigenous people at that time was based off of mutual respect but also intimidation. That seems contradictory to me: it can’t have been a relationship on equal footing when the Mounties were continuously doing manoeuvres with their field guns as a show of force. Mounties were also imposing a very specific worldview on the West and punished those who did not fit into that mold, criminalizing some acts that hadn’t been crimes before. I’m thinking particularly of the restriction of free movement in ancestral territories and the imposition of American and Canadian nationalities upon local people who didn’t define themselves by an invisible line (the border at the 49th parallel). Individual Mounties may have had decent and relatively respectful working relationships with some First Nations leaders, but the tour glossed over several points for me. Namely, we were laughing about arresting horse thieves at the mock trial, but who were these horse thieves? I would be shocked if they were all Euro-Americans or Euro-Canadians. Differing cultural views of what horse stealing was all about clashed in this time period and a lot of First Nations were viewed as inherent criminals because of their traditions of horse theft.


Reproduction Treaty medal at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.

Maybe this was a slip of the tongue on the part of the guide (though part of the history section of the website uses similar wording), but I think the following example really brings home the need to think critically about the narratives we’ve all been told and have told about Mounties during this time period. Namely, the guide was describing the Lakota Refugee Crisis; Chief Sitting Bull and others were fleeing conflict in what is now the US after the Battle of Little Big Horn but were refused entry into “Canadian” territory by the NWMP because, quote, “they were American.”

No, they weren’t. Sitting Bull  and his people were at war with the Americans. The Americans were an invading force who had drawn an invisible line on a map from thousands of kilometres away and sought to claim Sitting Bull’s territory for the United States. Sitting Bull was not an American. He was not a Native American. He was a Lakota man at war with Americans. It is true to say that the British/Canadians at the time considered Sitting Bull to be American, or at least an American problem, and that is why they took the actions they did. But perceptions are not reality. Explaining historical perspectives is fine, but if you are speaking as an interpreter out of character, in third person, you are able to make these distinctions in a way that a person interpreting in character (in first person) cannot. I would argue that interpreters have a duty to do so, to give nuance to a story that we may understand better in hindsight with greater context than in the limited views at the time.

The decades of the 1870s and 1880s are a fascinating time of transition and conflict in the West. The near-annihilation of the buffalo changed everything on the prairies. The arrival of the Mounties and the delineation and enforcement of the border at the 49th parallel wasn’t inevitable as it is often portrayed to be. It would have been hard at that place and at that time to see the larger picture that was taking shape and just how much and how rapidly things were changing. This time of uncertain politics and culture clash is incredibly fascinating to me because it isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed in textbooks, high school classrooms, or museum exhibits. I’ve written before about NWMP encounters with people accused of being wendigos or wendigo killers. Too often we’re told the history of this messy period from the perspective of those writing the documents: the lawmen, who were too often new to to the region and had little understanding of the cultural context in which these “crimes” (according to the state) were committed. If you killed a suspected wendigo, were you a person doing what was necessary to save your community from a monster who might kill and eat people, or were you a murderer who killed a mentally ill person, sometimes at their own request? I find those messy narratives even more interesting than the misleadingly straightforward, triumphant one we often hear about: the simple narrative of the men in red uniforms coming in and imposing “peace, order, and good government” upon a lawless West.

I find it useful sometimes to think of this time period as a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Mounties arrived at a time of great disruption, after waves of disease, warfare, and the displacement of people. The near-destruction of the great bison herds wasn’t just the loss of an essential food source, but something much more profound. LeRoy Little Bear, an elder of the Kainai First Nation, has described it this way: “If you’re a Christian, imagine what would happen if all the crosses and corner churches disappeared … you still have your beliefs and ideas, but there’s no external connection to it anymore.” Imagine that every cultural institution (churches, museums), plus every shopping mall, grocery store, hardware store, and even Tim Hortons, all closed down within a single lifetime. Imagine the disruption to your life. That is the situation the Mounties were walking into.

So in summary, delve deeper into the history of the 1870s and 1880s in the West. Challenge the dominant narratives and think of how things could have been different. Seek out perspectives told by Indigenous people (yes, contemporary accounts also exist). Be fascinated, as I am, with the messy complexities and contradictions of this time period. The Mounties came in to combat the destructive whiskey trade and to stop some of the violence being committed against Indigenous people by settlers. Yes, celebrate the stories of the good things the police did, and tell the stories of early respect between NWMP and Indigenous leaders, but don’t lose sight of the wider colonial role and context of the Mounties.

It’s a part of our history.

Further References

  • Visit Fort Walsh National Historic Site and take in their interpretive displays in their visitor centre. Take one of their tours.
  • Hogue, Michel. Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Wilkins, Charles. The Wild Ride: A History of the North West Mounted Police 1873–1904. Stanton Atkins & Dosil, 2010.
  • Wilson, Garrett.  Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014.

“Buffalo” Jones: The Man Who Tried to Lasso an Elephant

…and according to at least one account, seems to have successfully roped a giraffe, a cougar, and a rhino.

Portrait of Charles Jesse "Buffalo" Jones. Courtesy of the Kansas Memory Archive.
Portrait of Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones (1844-1919), circa 1880-1900. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society Archive.

“Buffalo” Jones, as his nickname would suggest, is most famous for his role in bison conservation. He was one of the first ranchers to successfully capture and raise bison. I had heard his name connected in relation to the Pablo-Allard herd – which had stock from Jones and which formed the basis for Elk Island’s herd and therefore most cattle-gene and disease-free bison stock in North America. Only recently did I read the account of how he actually captured his first set of calves:

“I will tell the story of how the great American bison was saved. I roped 8 calves and saved them, although the wolves and coyotes were there by hundreds. As soon as I caught one, I tied my hat to it, as I knew the brutes never touched anything tainted with the fresh scent of man. The next, my coat, then my vest, then my boots, and last, my socks, thus protecting 7. The 8th I picked up in my arms and rode back to the 7th as it was surrounded by wolves and coyotes. When I arrived where it was bound down, I saw the vicious brutes snapping at the sixth one, so reached down and drew up the seventh one and galloped back to the sixth to protect it. I let the two calves down, one with legs tied and the lasso around the eight calf’s neck, the other end of the rope around my horses’ neck. The strain was so great, I fainted, but revived when my boys came up and gave me some whiskey we had for snake bites.”

  • Buffalo Jones, letter to the American Bison Society, 1912, cited in Ken Tingley, Recalling the Buffalo: The Martin S. Garretson Collection (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.

In summary: Jones, by his own account, reportedly fended off hundreds of wolves and coyotes to save eight bison calves by tying his own clothing onto lassoed calves to give them the scent of human beings. If nothing else, it makes for an amazing story.

The first chapter of his biography, written in 1911 by a friend of his, Ralph T. Kersey, is basically a series of anecdotes listing all of the crazy dangerous animals that he has allegedly successfully lassooed and wrestled to the ground. Kersey wrote that  Rightly or wrongly, [Jones] firmly believes that all wild animals, from the elephant down, can be lassoed, captured and subdued by man if, as he expresses it, ‘one has courage in his heart and determination in his soul.'”  Kersey recounted an impressive anecdote about Jones capturing a live cougar:

“I shall never forget his lassoing a 200 pound cougar which our dogs had chased up a big spruce tree a thousand feet down the Colorado Canyon. Jones climbed the tree without gun or knife and faced the ugly brute, which at times was not three feet above his head. Deliberately and cooly he threw the noose of the lariat over the head of the animal, which was lashing its tail and raising its ominous paw – seemingly at any second about to strike him – while in a quiet voice, alert and confident, with no trace of fear, he carried on an amusing and running talk with the savage beast. When the cougar came crashing through the limbs to the ground amidst the dogs and men, with nothing to hold him save a half-inch rope around his neck, more lively things happened in a second than I could describe in an hour. . . . In such a hunt there are no dull seconds.”

  • Ralph T. Kersey on Buffalo Jones, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography, 5-6.

According to Kersey, Jones had an amazing “successful” trip – in lassoing terms, at least – to Africa well into his old age.

“I knew, of course, the chances were that the African trip, absurd and impossible as it seemed to be, might end in failure and ridicule. Jones might be seriously injured and the expedition wrecked.

‘He is certain to be killed,’ a friend said to me.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘what of it? He is sixty-five years old, and I am sure would far rather die fighting on the plains than in his bed at home.’

The expedition started on its long journey; no one save Jones, perhaps, having much confidence in its success.

At last a cablegram came from Nairobi announcing the lassoing and capture of giraffes, cheetah, warthog, zebras, and many other animals; and best of all, it told of a six-hours’ fight and capture of a large rhinoceros and later, of the lassoing and capture of a full-grown lioness. We were disappointed that the expedition did not have more time at its disposal. Jones wanted to tackle an elephant, which he thought would be easier than a rhino. ‘An elephant,’ he said, ‘stands high; while a rhino is built low and is much harder to overturn.'”

  • Ralph T. Kersey on Buffalo Jones, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography, 7-8. (Bolded emphasis added)

No-one with the nickname “Buffalo” Jones could have a boring life.

Further Reading:

  • Ralph T. Kersey, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography (Garden City, Kansas: Elliott Printers, 1958).
  • Ken Tingley, Recalling the Buffalo: The Martin S. Garretson Collection (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.

“Why can’t I call them ‘Indians’ anymore?” A question and a few possible answers

If you are under the age of thirty and went through the Canadian school system, you were probably taught not to use the word “Indian” when referring to the indigenous peoples of Canada or the United States. “Indians” are people from South Asia, and using the word “Indian” here in North America, and Canada in particular, seems outdated and conjures to mind the historic uses of harmful stereotypes.  It’s happened a few times in front of me: older folks – often Americans but not always – visiting historic sites or attending conferences here in Canada will casually use the term “Indian” … and you can see a bunch of the Canadians in the room, particularly those of the younger generation, hold back their flinches and look awkwardly at each other. However, while I wish it were as straightforward as simply saying “don’t call them Indians!”, it isn’t easy to find an alternative – and some people don’t want to, for both good and bad reasons.

Words are loaded with meaning and implications, and even the idea of having an overarching term that purports to refer to indigenous peoples of the Americas as a whole is incredibly problematic. Here is a roundup of all of the common questions I have heard asked about choices of terminology and what I believe are issues you need to be aware of before you use any of them. Many of these are questions and discussions I have had at museums with visitors, with undergraduate students, with young collège students in France, with friends, with visiting scholars, and so on. As is usually the case with thorny issues, there is no simple answer.

Disclaimer: I am a relatively young Canadian woman who identifies as being of European descent: i.e., I am a young(ish) white Canadian woman. Take everything I say with a grain of salt as I am  someone speaking from a settler community about people I respect but cannot speak for. I welcome any questions, corrections, expansions, and opinions.

Postcard 17894 The Valentine & Sons' Publishing Co., Ltd (Publisher) . Best wishes from Canada Indian Types. Montreal: Toronto: The Valentine & Sons' Publishing Co., Ltd. Montreal and Toronto, c1910. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 17894. “Best wishes from Canada – Indian Types.” Montreal: Toronto: The Valentine & Sons’ Publishing Co., Ltd., circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“What’s wrong with the word ‘Indian’? They use it all the time in movies!”

“Indian”, at its root, is based on a misconception. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, etc., etc., ad nauseam, thought he had stumbled across India when in fact he had landed in the Caribbean, killed a bunch of people, left chaos in his wake, and went on to serve as a “heroic” symbol for European exploration and the discovery of a “New World” … which had already been “discovered” and occupied by millions of people before him but who apparently just don’t count.

Early European explorers and settlers thought that these non-European people needed to be given a name. Their own names were apparently no good: that would involve talking to them, acknowledging them, and attempting to pronounce non-European words! It really was just easier for explorers and settlers to refer to and think of them as a homogenized group: they are essentially the same people. Over time (and I acknowledge that I am generalizing here), “the Indian” grew in the imaginations of Europeans and European settlers into a very specific being – who wore a feathered headdress, smoked “peace pipes” but was a fierce and savage warrior. “The Indian” probably rode horses, screeching and whooping, and only spoke broken English if he spoke at all. The word “Indian” is inextricably tied to these stereotypes in the minds of many people even today.

Just because a word has cultural currency (i.e., you hear it in common use) doesn’t make it inoffensive. Case in point: the once common “n-word”, which I dare not even type, was once used quite frequently throughout the United States and likely elsewhere but is now incredibly considered inflammatory, blatantly racist, and offensive. Was the “n-word” ever used in a non-derogatory manner? I doubt it, but it is definitely not a word fit for polite or even impolite society today. My point is that simply because a word was heard all of the time doesn’t mean it isn’t disrespectful.

Nevertheless, the word “Indian” is still in common use throughout the United States in particular. American scholars still use it, apparently unselfconsciously, though it is very unlikely that you will see Canadian publications use the term without clarifying or identifying it as a quotation from a historical text. The Smithsonian Institution seems to favour the term “American Indian“, but as far as I am aware most Canadian scholars eschew the term, and recent works like Daniel Francis’ The Imaginary Indian, Paige Raibmon’s Authentic Indians, or Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian only use these terms after defining them not as reflections of actual people but as an idea that others hold about them. If the word “Indian” appears at all in these works, they appear in historical quotations or between scare quotes and refer to a specific concept and rarely if ever to refer to a group as old “Cowboy and Indian” Westerns once did.

Great. So why do many people, including respected American historical institutions and government bodies, continue to use the word “Indian”? I can’t tell you for sure. The thing you have to remember when using these terms is that these debates are also generally happening among Euro-Canadians and Euro-Americans. Deciding unilaterally that “Native American” is a better term than “Indian” because it makes white people feel better and trying to impose that word without the consent of the people it actually applies to also isn’t cool. I have heard some older folks say that they’ve been called an “Indian” all of their lives and they identify with it and prefer it – nobody can take that identity away from them. There is a lesson in here somewhere.

Edit: I should also mention that “Indian” is also a legal term in both the United States and Canada, designating a certain status in relation to the state. For more information on this rather convoluted legal concept and the differences between the two countries, see Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian.

“Isn’t this just political correctness run amok? Aren’t there better things to worry about?”

No. Well, yes, there are other issues to worry about. However, names have power. They are important. What you are called by others and what you call yourself are elements of your identity. Having control over what you are called is incredibly important and these terms do have certain implications – and in the case of the term “Indian”, many negative connotations are evoked. These words are not all synonyms. “Indians”, for example, are seen as relics of the past or even mythical creatures; the endless debates (that many are shocked are still happening in 2013) over the inappropriate and racist nature of “Indian” Hallowe’en costumes confirms this view. The stereotypical “Indian”, as a dead or mythological being from the past, is not perceived as being able to co-exist with the modern present and is thus frequently invisible to the wider North American society; if you aren’t a part of modern Canada/America and/or are mythological, you cannot agitate for rights.

Yes, there are other important issues yet to be tackled in these communities today, but that doesn’t diminish the necessity of little changes. May I also direct you to a very articulate explanation of why the “little things” people need to just “get over” are in fact hurtful and extremely harmful, courtesy of blogger Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations?

“Okay. What else can I call them? What about ‘aboriginal’?”

This is a term that gets thrown around a lot and is generally considered acceptable but not ideal. It simply means “original to a place,” which sounds about right. However, it is still an incredibly general term. Often, conscious of the fact that “Indian” is a less acceptable word now, people will simply use “Aboriginal” in the same way that the word “Indian” was used previously, without thinking more deeply about the subject. Generalized words are useful for making sweeping statements and discussing broad policies. They have their uses, but are also incredibly problematic because using the word “Aboriginal” (or “Indian” or other terms discussed below) assume that there actually is one large group that have enough in common to be referred to with one word, which many have argued is not the case. Having one word ignores huge differences in language, culture, and history in the Americas, and negates historical divisions and conflicts between the groups encompassed by this word. There may be far bigger cultural, linguistic, and historical differences between, say, the Inuit in Nunavut and the Iroquois near New York, than between Castillians in Spain and Muscovites in Russia. In the latter case, is it still useful to refer to both as “white”/”European” without troubling the terms a bit? What, specifically, do they have in common?

However, some “Aboriginal” people do see a political advantage to be had in solidarity, and that one of the things that “Aboriginal” peoples have in common is the fact that they have been discriminated against for generations under the collective term “Indian”. Because they have suffered under a collective term, they can perhaps find some usefulness in mobilizing under a collective term as well.

As a side note, “aboriginal” is awfully close to “aborigine”, which has been used pejoratively in Australia for many years and I am told is on par with the “n-word” in the States… so if you use it with an Australian present you may get some funny looks, if not worse.

(Edit: It has also been drawn to my attention that “Aboriginal” is also used as a collective umbrella term by some Canadian organizations to refer to, collectively, First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis.)

“What about ‘indigenous’?”

Some people use this term to refer to native peoples of a region in many colonial states across the globe, and is essentially defined as a person (or animal, or thing) that is native or born of an area. This term is not limited to North America and is often used to contrast those who are native to a region from European settlers or colonizers. It can be a useful term, but often is used to define contrasts and can gloss over differences in radically different historical and cultural situations. Usually, when you use the word “indigenous”, it is because they are being discussed in contrast with European colonists, so you are almost defining people by what they are not. Why not call them what they call themselves? Nevertheless, it can be a useful, if general term. Be conscious of your purpose in using it.

What about ‘Amerindian’?” 

This portmanteau (“American” + “Indian”) is interesting, but I don’t hear it terribly often in Canada. I hear it more in French (“Amerindien“). At the root of it, it still has the “Indian” assumption. I believe that the “Ameri-” prefix was added mainly to distinguish between “East Indians” from India and those native to North America, which is a problem that shouldn’t even exist in the first place because these are very different peoples. Furthermore, while “American” can be a descriptor, it is far from a neutral one. It also has political implications for those nations that are resisting the hegemony of the American (or Canadian) governments – e.g., the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) on the border between Ontario and New York that issue their own passports. I am unsure of the acceptability of this term, so I would proceed with caution and perhaps look at alternatives.

“What about ‘natives’ or ‘Native Americans’?

The term “Native American” has been in use for far longer than the age of political correctness, and used to refer to anybody, including those from settler communities, that were born in North America. “Native” distinguished them from those Americans (or Canadians) from those who were born in Europe and immigrated later. It enjoys a lot of currency in the United States as an alternative to “Indian”, but it isn’t without its detractors… and of course the term “Native American” doesn’t work terribly well in Canada because while the Canadian government doesn’t have the best track record with indigenous relations, those North of the Medicine Line would probably not want to be considered American either.

“What about the word ‘squaw’? That just means ‘woman’ in an Indian language, right?”

Uh… no. Well, maybe it did at some point (and remember, etymology is not destiny), but its pronunciation has probably been corrupted by English mouths and probably sounds very different from what the word originally sounded like. “Squaw” has been a pejorative (insulting or belittling) word for over a century, and has connotations with prostitution. It has also been associated with dehumanization; racist protesters have waved signs at rallies against treaty fishing rights saying things like “Save a fish, spear a squaw.” This is not appropriate language. As far as my circle of friends and acquaintances goes, I have never heard a woman identify herself as a “squaw”.

This is a woman and child. Postcard 9711. Taken at Medicine Hat, Alberta, before 1907. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
This is a woman and child.
Postcard 9711. Taken at Medicine Hat, Alberta, before 1907. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“Papoose”, too, is a word that has been appropriated into the English language. I believe it originally came from one of the Algonquin languages on the Eastern seaboard, but it entered English vocabulary at a very early date and has likely lost a few syllables and such over time. I don’t want to enter into the “prescriptive” versus “descriptive” language debate, as this word has been in use for several centuries in English with less belittling connotations than other words. Nevertheless, I feel that it is rarely used (in North America, at least) to refer to non-indigenous children, and so is a marker of difference. Anglophones who use this term without having a firm definition of what exactly a “papoose” is: an infant? An infant wrapped in a moss bag? A toddler? In the UK, it can even be used to refer to a kind of backpack, I think. (Brits, can you clarify this for me? What springs to mind when you hear the word “papoose”?)

Even if it does not have as many dangerous or sexist connotations as the word “squaw”, and may have indeed originated from an indigenous language in the East, applying the word “papoose” to, say, Cree children in cradle boards on the plains or to Inuit children in the North or Haida infants on the North-West Coast assumes that the children in these diverse cultures and languages are essentially the same when they are not. I would avoid it unless you hear them use the term. Ask yourself: why is there a specific term for a woman or child of a separate race? Are they not also women and children?

Furthermore, if you cannot identify which”Indian language” the word came from and are not entirely certain of the word’s definition or connotations, I would hesitate to use it until you find out more information.

“But it’s traditional! Why do we have to change the names of our mountains and stuff?”

Traditional according to whom? “Squaw Peak” or “Dead Indian Valley” probably had a different name for far longer before it got given that moniker by Europeans, Euro-Americans, or Euro-Canadians.

(Also: “your” mountains? By what right do you/we claim ownership? )

Let’s take a slightly less racist case in point. The Queen Charlotte Islands off of the coast of British Columbia held that name for over a century on European maps, but its name was recently changed back to Haida Gwaii: the Islands of the Haida. The imposition of European names upon places that were already known by different names by peoples native to the area is a whole other kettle of fish that could be addressed in a different blog post.

“Francophones in Canada use ‘Autochtone.’ What’s the deal with that?”

Apparently, at its root, it simply means “the originals.” Aside from “Premières Nations“, this was the term I heard most often in my French immersion classes in elementary, junior high, and high school. It appears to be used in the names of a few organizations – e.g., l’Alliance Autochtone du Québec. Other websites appear to use it as a synonym for “indigenous”, so as a word it may not be limited to North American peoples. As an anglophone, I am not up to date on the most common terminology in use among Francophones in Canada. I would be very interested to hear from Canadian Francophones on this subject.

(Incidentally, “autochtone” does not register as a word with either the teachers nor the students of the junior high schools (collèges) I taught at in Normandy (France) in 2011/2012. In France they were still using the term “Indiens“, which I tried to disabuse them of. My British and German friends were also much less sensitive to nuances of racialized words than my Canadian and American friends of the same age. But they were willing to learn!)

“Okay, what about ‘First Nations’?”

This is the term that is in vogue in Canada right now. Unlike “Indian”, it acknowledges that, well, they were in the area first, before white settlers (which seems obvious to me, but in many ways they are treated as if they were foreigners in their own land by governments and settler communities). It also implies pluralism – “First NationS” – and, like the collective word “United StateS” it can at once demonstrate solidarity but also individuality and independence. By using the term “nation” you may also be suggesting the idea that they are potentially sovereign nations in their own right – which they had to be, to enter into treaty with Great Britain and, later, Canada, and First Nations did on multiple occasions – though in subsequent years they were treated as wards of the crown and not the independent nations they would have been.

However, as previously mentioned, this is a word for a collective that may actually not have the same goals and aspirations, and it can also be thrown around to refer to the group in sweeping generalizations – “find and replace” the word “Indian” in your digital documents and replace it with “First Nations”? Furthermore, you have to respect the fact that if some people don’t like the phrase and don’t want to be called “First Nations” then you shouldn’t call them that.

“What about tribe names?”

I would say that this is one of the better options, but with a few caveats. Acknowledging that you are speaking of a specific group of people – e.g., the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Stoney – is definitely a big step up from the general and problematic term “Indian”. However, you may notice something peculiar about the examples that I used: “Cree” comes from the French “Christineaux”, referring to the fact that some may have converted, and “Blackfoot” and “Stoney” are clearly English in origin. These names may have a lot of cultural currency in English Canada and perhaps among these peoples themselves, but they are in all likelihood names that were imposed by English colonizers. Would they choose this designation themselves? Perhaps. Again, many of these terms have been in use a lot longer among anglophones and are more recognizable to outsiders than the actual name of the First Nation (respectively, if I have this right, the Nehiyawak, the Siksiká and the Nakoda).

And even then, as our writing system was not designed with North American indigenous languages in mind, spelling is subjective. Is it Anishinaabeg, Anishinaabek, Anishinabe, or what? Chippewa or Ojibwa or Ojibwe or Ojibway? Am I referring to the name of the people, the name of their language, or a larger confederacy or alliance of smaller groups collected together, and how do these names differ?

Furthermore, some of these “tribe names” are more or less precise than others. Be aware of the history of the word and what it actually refers to. Even using the term “Algonquin” when referring to, say, the group that Samuel de Champlain met on his two week journey down the Ottawa River Valley in 1613 is a bit of a generalization. They were Anishinaabeg; “Algonquin” is a larger linguistic group which is composed of multiple nations who may or may not have enough in common with each other to be referred to be a generalized term.

Incidentally, some of our terms may not seem English or French in origin, but are not ideal either. “Eskimo” is a good/terrible example. Often spelled “Esquimaux” in the early years, it is comes to English via the French pronunciation of a word from a group of Algonquin speakers who may have been enemies of the Inuit. “Eskimo” is generally thought to mean, roughly, “Eaters of Raw Flesh.” (Or so the story goes.) Those once called the “Eskimos”, at least in Canada, prefer to be called the “Inuit”, meaning “the People” in their own language, instead of an insulting nickname from the language of their enemies. To use a European comparison, it’s as if the most commonly used name for the French in German and Dutch were a Germanized spelling of the English “Frog Eaters” or “Surrender Monkeys.” I’m sure the French would much prefer the nicer sounding, less insulting, and native term “les Français”, or even regional terms like “les Rouennais”, “les Bretons”, etc.

(Another caveat: “Eskimos” is still used as a collective term in Alaska to refer to two different groups, the Inuit and the Yupik. I would love to hear from people who are up to date on the views of that word in Alaska! Nevertheless, “Eskimo” is not considered an acceptable term in Canada.)

Even the term “tribe” has fallen out of favour, possibly because of “primitive” anthropological connotations. I believe “nation”, “band”,  and other words are preferred to “tribe” or “tribal” now. I welcome any further clarification on this subject!

“Well, what can I call them?!”

Thank you for asking this question. The moral of this story is don’t assume. Be conscious of your word choices and think critically about them. If you are not sure, ask the group affected what they would prefer. You want a say in how people know you and your people – why would you assume that First Nations would feel otherwise? As always, I welcome comments and questions (always in a respectful manner).

Further Resources: 

  • Vine Deloria Jr., Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian ManifestoA classic work on the problems facing “American Indians”, originally published in 1969
  • Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, Inc., 1992): an excellent history of how the stereotypical image of the “Indian” formed in popular culture.
  • Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Random House; Doubleday Canada, 2012): a fascinating recent work on the subject of relations between the governments of Great Britain, America, and Canada and the indigenous peoples of North America throughout the past centuries.
  • Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005): the author tackles very thorny questions of what people mean when they evaluate the “authenticity” of indigenous culture and just how damaging ideas of “authenticity” can be.
  • Native Appropriations Blog by Adrienne K. Check out, for example, this post: “Proud to Be”: NCAI’s answer to the R-word mascot debate.
  • Etymology Online, an excellent resource for the historic origins of words.