A Look at a Copy of Albert Lacombe’s 1874 Cree-French Dictionary

UNESCO has designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. I currently live in Treaty 6 Territory, which is the traditional homeland of the Cree, the Dene, and the Metis, among others. (Use this website to find out whose territory you reside on if you are unaware already – or use it to look up familiar places!) I’ve been learning bits and pieces of the Cree language for several years now and I want to make accelerated effort at it this year of all years. I’m lucky that several of my staff members are Cree language learners and we have opportunities to try to learn and to use it in the work place. These are living languages so it’s important to use them; languages shape how we describe and see the world. I want to highlight some resources and sources of information about Indigenous languages, and encourage people to learn and use Cree.

As a historian, I’m fascinated by delving into the history of languages like Cree; I often use historical sources as a lens through which I view a topic I’m learning about. I’ve written before about people like Peter Erasmus and other Old Timers, people both from Cree-speaking cultures and not, who all commonly spoke Cree as a lingua franca in this territory in the 19th century.

The oldest book I personally own is a copy of Father Albert Lacombe’s Cree-French dictionary. I bought it from a book seller at the American Bison Society Conference in 2016 in Banff. I find the materiality of this book fascinating. Before it came into my possession, it was rebound (it has an English-language spine) and spent time in a library (it has a call number on the spine too), I think in British Columbia. Pasted in the back, there’s a pair English-language newspaper articles from the 1970s about the preservation of the Cree language and also Father Lacombe’s life. (I didn’t realize that his mother was half-Anishinaabe?)

One of my favourite details about the book is that someone at some point in its history has trimmed the edges and written in the letters of each section for ease of reference. It’s clear from the condition of the book that it was well-used.

This book had a clear audience and purpose; it was to teach prospective missionaries the Cree language so they could better convert and minister to Indigenous peoples. It only goes one way: translating French concepts into Cree. That’s reflected in the introduction. It is a book of its time, and it is trying to share knowledge of Cree people with an audience that already has a lot of preconceived notions about them.

For those who can’t read French, this page and the one following reads something to the effect of:

The Savage Languages / The Wild Languages

A lot has been written and spoken of the savage languages of North America. Some souls, who see themselves capable of judging everything, and deciding on questions outside of their competencies, have poorly appreciated savage languages. This new group of Indian-ologists, having spent a little bit of time among the Indians and after gathering a certain number of words, often very poorly written, have come to believe that these dialects are nothing more than inarticulate, truncated debris, almost unintelligible, and that they are not real languages. Others, in contrast, are better appreciators and are in a better state of judging (and we place missionaries in the first rank of these), after long studies and several years passed among the savage tribes, and have recognized that the poor child of the prairies and the woods have a regular language, intelligible and not without its beauty, with which they can transmit with sounds all that takes place in their soul. Even more than that, the savage, in speaking his language, speaks it correctly from a young age, and he is amazed to hear someone make the least grammatical mistake…. Savage languages in general are rich in vocabulary and in grammatical forms. In their complex structures, we find the grandest order and a most regular methodology.

Father Lacombe was fluent in both Cree and Blackfoot as well as French, but he was speaking to an audience that had to be convinced that First Nations actually had language, and that it was a complex one with its own beauty. That is, uh… quite a low bar for baseline knowledge.

Lacombe seems to quite admire Cree and favorably compares it to French:

La langue des Cris est belle, riche et peut-être la plus facile de toutes les langues sauvages de l’Amérique du Nord. On peut dire que le cris est pour le Nord-Ouest ce que le français est pour les pays civilisés.

The language of the Cree is beautiful, rich, and perhaps the easiest of all of the savage languages of North America. One could say that Cree is to the North-West what French is for civilized countries.

Lacombe in his introduction scatters about Cree words, and occasionally gets a dig in at the English. In a footnote explaining the origin of the name of the Saskatchewan River:

Ce mot est défiguré par les Anglais et ne veut rien dire en cris. Il faudrait : Kisiskatchiwan, courant rapide.

This word has been disfigured by the English and doesn’t mean anything in Cree. You should use Kisiskatchiwan, swift current.

Father Lacombe was an interesting figure at the intersection of several communities and cultures. He was a peace maker but also an agent of colonialism; he was beloved and did both harm and good. All of things can be true at once. His book in its attention detail does seem to show admiration for the Cree language… and yet it has a clear (and understandable) focus on Catholic terminology, intended in large part to supplant parts of that culture. He often has to clarify that Cree doesn’t quite have a word that means that, or that this word could be used in that way but has unexpected connotations. For instance, in his definition for “to adore” (as in “to adore the Christ child”), he includes a note (my incredibly rough translation):

We could also say manitokkâtew, but this expression seems improper here, because it really means he is like a God, a phrase better suited for idols and objects of superstition. The word manâtjihew, used in prayer to mean to adore, is not quite suitable either, as it means simply that he respects [it], he has regard for him.

He also really struggled with “superstition” and “superstitious”, and ended up effectively just listing superstitious acts (ceremonies) in Cree.

As someone who is fascinated by linguistic history, this focus on how to translate biblical passages and catholic catechisms, as well as pejorative translations of Cree culture, is not surprising but it is interesting, illustrating how language can be used (and mangled) to communicate a very specific message. That being said, Lacombe records very specific cultural concepts, including for instance a specific word designating the act of crying in very specific circumstances. Other words frame European concepts in a way that is more comprehensible to the Cree, framing their concepts as normal and the Euro-Canadian ones as those needing clarification. The word Lacombe lists for domestic cattle, for instance, includes the word “slave”, framing them as “enslaved buffalo”. The dictionary is fascinating to me because of its specificity of language and window into Cree culture at a time of encounter and change.

However, I have to acknowledge here that I am interpreting the history of this language through the lens of Father Lacombe and the languages that he spoke, that he and I share. That means I am trying to access this information about Cree language and culture already from an outside perspective. It’s a fascinating one to me that resonates with my experience, but one that holds a certain worldview. Father Lacombe chose to include words that he felt his audience would find useful – they betray a certain obvious focus and perspective. Dictionaries are not impartial lists of vocabulary. They are written with a purpose.

Material objects are a tangible link with the past. One thing struck me when I was handling this book last year: its publication date. It was published in 1874. What was happening at that time? Treaty 4 was signed that year. Bison populations were in steep decline. That was also the year when Samuel Walking Coyote (or Peregrine Falcon Robe) captured a small seed herd of bison that would eventually become the Pablo-Allard herd from which a majority of Plains Bison are descended from today. Judging from notes and stamps on the inside cover, by the 1960s this particular copy had found its way to Victoria, BC. What happened to it in the 90 years in between? Who used it? Did it make its way to Treaty 6 territory in the 19th century? By canoe, horse-drawn cart, or later by train? Or was it purchased and kept in Quebec for decades before making its way to British Columbia by car or by plane? Who used it so often they needed to trim the edges of the pages for easy reference? Was the most useful period of its life before or after it entered into a library? How did it come to be on that bookseller’s table, where it caught my eye?

When I hold this book, I think of who else could have held this book, and both how near and yet how far we are to their world.

Note

I am not a native French speaker, and I welcome corrections on my rough interpretations of the French elements of the text. I also welcome insight from any Cree or French speakers about what they read here!

Further Reading

 

Scenes From the Life of Peter Erasmus, “Prince of Interpreters”

When Peter Erasmus (1833 – 1931) was an “old timer” in the 1920s, he dictated the story of his life to a man named Henry Thompson. The manuscript of the first half of his life was eventually published as Buffalo Days and Nights. I consider it one of the single most fascinating books about the fur trade era and the time of transition and trauma that led to the destruction of the great bison herds, rebellion, and settlement.

Image of the cover of Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus. It has an illustration of a Buffalo hunt on the cover.
My copy of Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus.

Peter Erasmus was well-known in his time as a Metis interpreter between Indigenous languages such as Plains Cree and English. He translated for missionaries, traders, and Indian agents as well as, most famously, on behalf of Chiefs Mistawasis (Big Child) and Ah-tah-ka-koop (Star Blanket) at the Treaty 6 negotiations. Eramus’s account is the only (?) first-hand written account of the treaty negotiation process that reported on the discussions happening in the Cree camp, not only in the British governor’s tents. He quotes Chief Poundmaker powerfully arguing: “This is our land. It isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.”(244)

The introduction in my copy by Irene Spry recounts this story about Erasmus’s linguistic prowess. He spoke Swampy Cree, Plains Cree, Ojibway, English, Blackfoot, and Stoney (Assiniboine), and could also read Greek besides. She quotes another author, George Gooderham, who tells the story of two travellers to the West coming across a mysterious sign on a telegraph pole, covered in “funny characters.”

“Just then Peter Erasmus appeared, seemingly an old Indian. In signs and Pigeon English the drummers asked him about the notice. Coming forward with a smile, he stated it was no foreign language though the characters were not unlike Greek; they were actually Cree syllabic characters and the notice said it was unlawful to buy intoxicating liquor and the supplier would be penalized by fine or imprisonment, or both.” (xxiii)

One of the things I find most fascinating about his book Buffalo Days and Nights is the role language plays in it. The book is written in English and the words that other figures speak are transcribed or paraphrased in English too. Erasmus doesn’t always explicitly state what language the people are speaking. However, it becomes very apparent very quickly how much Cree is being spoken all the time by Erasmus and the people around him. Here are a few examples that jumped out at me:

  • When a young and inexperienced Erasmus crosses a river with a horse and nearly drowns, in that emergency situation a man named Sam yelled instructions to him in Cree. (29)
  • During the Palliser Expedition, Erasmus works with a Stony man nicknamed Nimrod. His words are transcribed in the book as being in simple but grammatically correct English, but there are several mentions of Erasmus interpreting between Nimrod and other members of the expedition. I suspect that they were using Cree as a way to communicate, with Cree being Nimrod’s second language. Erasmus is said to have later known the Stony language, but in this early chapter in his life Nimrod is the one who communicates exclusively with any Stony the expedition encounters and the paraphrasing instead of quoting implies that Erasmus didn’t understand them at that time. So what language were Erasmus and Nimrod using to communicate? My bet is Cree. (74-85)
  • At the Christmas of 1863, Erasmus helps coordinate the appearance of a Father Christmas for the children of the mission at Smoking Lake (now Smoky Lake), with the help of a volunteer and a bunch of white horsehair to form a beard. “When Santa gave them an address of welcome in the Swampy Cree language, the elders gazed in astonishment. I had to speak to them in Cree and explain that the man could speak in all languages for he visited all countries over the Big Water.” (170)
  • Peter’s first wife Charlotte Jackson, a Metis woman, didn’t speak a word of English when they first married, only Cree, and had her husband teach her so she could thank the missionary family the McDougalls for their help at the wedding and in the early days of their marriage. (177)
  • Erasmus makes mention of an HBC clerk called Harrison Stevens Young who could understand “some Cree but not enough to carry on a conversation.”(286) Even though he was an Englishman, Cree was something one had to learn out West to be useful.

Interestingly, none of the Indigenous characters in Erasmus’s work speak with broken English as they are often transcribed in other contemporary sources. The only people written as speaking bad English are French people and one black man. Indigenous people are written as eloquent speakers because they were speaking to Erasmus in their native language, which Erasmus understood.

We now think of what is now western Canada as being overwhelmingly Anglophone (English-speaking). Many people assume that because the region is now majority English-speaking, it has been so since the first Europeans arrived. That was not the case. The documents written by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which are often cited by historians of this time period, were in English, but that’s because they were written by clerks who were writing for bosses in Fort Garry and London, England. It was an English company so the documents were written in English. Monolingual historians don’t always think of seeking out documents in other languages. Sometimes it’s not that the documents aren’t there, it’s that many historians can’t read them.

Just because many English-language documents were produced in what is now Western Canada in the 1800s doesn’t mean that English was the most useful language for people on the ground in the West, though. Far from it. Artist Paul Kane, travelling in the west the 1840s, complained that at a celebration at Fort Edmonton, he could only speak to people at the head table because nobody else spoke English.

I’m always pleasantly surprised when Erasmus mentions people with what I see as European names speaking Cree too; it wasn’t just Indigenous people speaking the language. It was a true lingua franca in the West, at least until the time of the second Riel Resistance. Erasmus recounted a time when his Cree speaking worked against him in 1885. Hudson’s Bay Company stores had been raided by rebels, and Erasmus’s family had fled. He returned late at night to a friend’s place on a strange horse, and was confronted by someone he doesn’t know and was held up at gunpoint:

“It was very dark and I was startled by a voice behind me, ‘Stand fast and give me your first name.’

‘Peter,’ I snapped out. I was getting tired of having guns pointed at me.

‘All right,’ the man ordered. ‘Walk straight ahead to the house. Knock three times on the door when you get here. You have the right word but the wrong horse. Umla will know if you’re the right man.”

. . . .

‘Give your last name and the name of the man you were with today,’ the voice spoke out of the darkness.

‘Damn it, man, I’m Peter Erasmus, the man was Young and you’re Umla with the two bear skins.’

The man spoke up behind me. ‘He’s riding a different horse. I’ll keep a gun on him while you get a light.’

[Peter Erasmus’ face is revealed by the light.]

‘Go to that table, your supper is waiting. If you had spoken English instead of Cree all [this] time, you might have been eating some time ago. There are lots of big men like you in this area but very few can talk English like you do.'”

In this scenario, this final line makes clear that this whole conversation was happening in Cree, and that speaking good English even as late as 1885 was a distinguishing enough characteristic that would have identified Erasmus on the spot because it was so unusual.

Only one generation later, English started to become the more dominant language in the West, largely due to the influence of schools and the influx of waves of Euro-Canadian settlers facilitated by the railroad. Even so, well into the 1900s, there were still many “old timers”, of Indigenous and European descent, who still used Cree as a means of communication.

One of the main things historians do is think critically about the sources of their information. However, too often we look at sources in translation, in our own native languages, or the only sources available are contemporary transcriptions of translations of varying and unverifiable accuracy.  We need to remember that what is now Western Canada has always been home to dozens of different languages and different world views, and we need to seek out sources that represent that. By reading English-only sources, we’re getting a clouded and second-hand view of events. The story of Peter Erasmus’s life reminds us that despite what our documents imply, English wasn’t the most useful language in the West in the 1800s: Cree was.

Further Reading

“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.