'We aren't Indians': Indigenous teens say words matter

A group of Saskatoon high school students who sat down with CBC News are applauding the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre and other bodies for recently purging "Indian" from their names.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, other organizations rapidly replacing 'Indian' with 'Indigenous'

Indigenous youth share their feelings about identity

6 years ago
Duration 2:55
Three Saskatchewan youth talk about their Indigenous identities.

Nineteen-year-old Kassidy Harper feels only one emotion when she hears the word "Indian."

"Anger," Harper said. "We aren't Indians."

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre and other bodies have recently purged "Indian" from their names.

Harper and other Nutana Collegiate students interviewed by CBC News say that change is welcome.

Kassidy Harper says the term Indian has been used to shame Indigenous people. (Jason Warick)

For Harper, a member of the Moosomin First Nation, the word "Indian" is a symbol of shame. Her father, grandmother and others have been subjected to repeated slurs using the word. She said it has been used to stereotype them as savages.

Harper is saddened that the shaming continues. Last week, she began to braid the hair of her niece. The little girl told her to stop, fearing it would make her look "too Indian."

"She doesn't like her skin colour because some of the kids at school make fun of her for it. She's only seven," Harper said.

'I am what I am'

Harper is studying to become a social worker to help Indigenous people heal the wounds of residential school and other oppression. Terminology and identity are central to that effort.

"My identity is Cree. I'm very proud of my nation, my culture," she said.

"I [also] prefer the words 'First Nations' or 'Indigenous.' I don't really like 'Aboriginal.' It's like 'abnormal,' like we're a fungus or something."

Fellow Nutana students Kayla Fiddler and Caitlin Works have also spent a lot of time thinking about issues of appearance, terminology and identity.

Nutana Collegiate student Caitlin Works says it hurts that many people don't believe she's Métis because of her fair complexion. (Jason Warick)

"There's been racism because, you know, whenever I tell people I'm Métis, they are always kind of taken aback, like, 'Oh, you can't be Métis. You're too fair. Your eyes are blue,'" said Works, who hopes to become a conservation officer.

"And I'm not sure how I'm supposed to look. I can't really change my appearance. I am what I am."

Fiddler, a fashion model who wants to become a psychologist, is also Métis.

Kayla Fiddler says Indian is an inappropriate label based on a mistake by Christopher Columbus, and shouldn't be used any more. (Jason Warick)

"However, I am also Puerto Rican and Jamaican and Cuban on my mom's side, and then I am Irish and I'm Norwegian and English and French … a little bit of everything."

All three feel Indian is an offensive term. They also note it's historically inaccurate.

Christopher Columbus "thought he landed in India, but that's obviously not correct," Fiddler said with a smile.

Ask if in doubt, students say

All three preferred to be identified by their specific nation, such as Cree or Métis. When speaking more generally, they said Indigenous is best. And if in doubt, they want people to simply ask them.

Nutana Collegiate social worker Tatum Neveu, who identifies as "Michif," said she's proud to see these and other students expressing themselves.

"In today's reality, Indigenous people have found a voice on social media [and] with Idle No More. Our voices are being heard," Neveu said.

"Indigenous" is fast becoming the preferred general term when referring to First Nations, Métis or Inuit people.

Belinda Daniels, a teacher at Saskatoon's Mount Royal Collegiate, was the one who initiated last year's name change of the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre.
Belinda Daniels said the word Indian had negative connotations growing up, so she's happy to see the adoption of the term Indigenous. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

"For me, growing up, [Indian] always had a negative connotation," said Daniels, a member of the Sturgeon Lake First Nation.

"It's really important to identify Indigenous people by the correct terminology. It's way more respectful that way."

Daniels, who identifies as "Nehiyaw" rather than the European word "Cree," said the term Indigenous connects the cultural centre to other peoples around the world.

Many questions in name changes

Other groups, such as the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, the Saskatchewan Indian Equity Foundation and the Lac la Ronge Indian Band are keeping the word — for now.

Lac la Ronge Chief Tammy Cook-Searson agreed the word Indian is problematic, but many take pride in a name they've had since two of their communities amalgamated in the 1950s.

Some band members have asked about a name change. The last band council discussed changing the name, but there was no consensus on a new one.

Should they change Indian to "First Nation," or rather "Cree Nation" as Onion Lake, Peter Ballantyne and Montreal Lake did recently? Should they translate the French phrase Lac la Ronge into the woodland Cree phrase "Mistahi Sakahigan?"

These questions were all raised, and Cook-Searson said they want to take their time with something so important.

"We may do a survey during Treaty Days," Cook-Searson said of her membership of more than 10,000, the largest in Saskatchewan.

"Is it time to change our name? People do talk about it."