Note(s) on Terminology and Aboriginality

Language changes over time. Both the meanings of words and the popularity of specific terms can fluctuate. This can make reading history challenging. The meaning of words in past texts cannot be taken for granted, nor can the meanings that a historian intends for the terminology they use when describing the past.[1]

[1] To complicate matters, “Definitions may have legal implications that often operate in surprising ways.” See “Aboriginal Identity & Terminology,”, which reviews some of the implications.

See also Library and Archives Canada, “Terminology Guide: Aboriginal Heritage.”


The following lays out my attitude towards, observations on, and usage of terms for this site.


Note on the use of upper and lower case when naming a group of people:

In historiography, the people being discussed are seldom representative of intra-species variation — as in blonde, or diabetic human beings for example (unless the history of hairstyles or medical history is the subject).  Rather, historians usually discuss people who are representative of cultural or socio-political groupings — as in Acadians or Manitobans for example.

If I am naming a cultural or socio-political group (a social group with some kind of structure that sets it apart as a self-regulating group), then I consider it proper form to capitalize whatever name I am using to identify them. A lack of capitalization would imply that I am writing about some random, disorganized crowd of people who don’t know each other and have no significant cultural, social, or political reason to be associated with each other — they are only people who happen to be in the same place at the same time (in which case I am not naming the gathering, I am merely describing it).[2]

[2] In terms of English writing conventions, capitalization is a matter of style, not of grammar. The choices a writer makes, therefore, often reflect their attitudes and political stances/ belief systems (though they may reflect the stance of a publisher, to whose style guide a writer is conforming). See for example, “Convention Style Sheet for Native Subject-Matters,” Living Justice Press; and “First Nation(s) – Aboriginal,” Department of Justice, Canada, (accessed 13 December 2012).




aboriginal = Latin derived term
indigenous = Greek derived term
both terms mean “from the beginning”

In 1982, with the patriation of the Canadian Constitution, “aboriginal peoples of Canada” were defined in Section 35 as including “the Indian, Inuit, and Métis peoples of Canada.” At the time, the term ‘Indian’ was a hold-over from the language used in previous official Canadian statutes and laws — particularly the ‘Indian Acts’ — with which the Constitution had to coordinate. Canadian government terminology appears to be evolving, however gradually, to reflect usage among the peoples of Canada.[3]

[3] See “First Nation(s) – Aboriginal,” Department of Justice, Canada. The use of ‘Indian’ rather than First Nations by the Government of Canada is becoming less visible. For example, “Change to the Department’s Name,” About AANDC, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, (accessed 15 March 2012), notes that in 2011, under the Federal Identity Program [FIP] the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development became publicly known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (though pursuant to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Act, the term “Indian” remains in the department’s legal name).


With the advent of the Idle No More movement in 2012, the term Aboriginal has been flagged by First Nations groups as an offensive marker of a Canadian colonialism — an instance of imposed naming on par with using ‘Indian.’[4]

In my previous writing, I uniformly used Aboriginal as a blanket term applying to past First Nations, Inuit, and Métis — including non-status and urban individuals who did not belong to any formal organization or corporation but who were affected by, or likely to have been affected by, policies and practices directed at Aboriginality in North America.

For me, as a person of Métis heritage, the term Aboriginal is associated with an important moment in Canadian history. In 1982, Harry Daniels succeeded in having Métis Peoples officially recognized in the Canadian constitution as ‘Aboriginal.’[5] This meant that along with ‘Indians’/ First Nations and Inuit Peoples, Métis Peoples were recognized as Original Peoples of North America with  social, political, and cultural histories that conferred legal rights into the present.

A one-word term, such as ‘Aboriginal,’ to describe ‘people whose ancestors lived in North America from time immemorial’ is convenient. Nevertheless, out of respect, I have decided to try to find terminology that does not give offense, but still allows me to be understood while describing people(s) of the past who were not new arrivals to Great Turtle Island (the new arrivals having no ancestors there and having sailed ocean seas to get there). For a while (beginning 23 December 2012), I used ‘Original Peoples of North America’ (or variations such as ‘Original North American Peoples’) in place of ‘Aboriginal.’ After finding, “A Note on Terminology: Inuit, Métis, First Nations, and Aboriginal,” Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami website (accessed 10 December 2014), which has laid out appropriate usage very clearly, I have adopted “First Peoples” as a general term (reserving Aboriginal for specific Canadian instances and Indigenous for international references). [It will, nevertheless take time before all the entries on this site are updated to reflect my change in usage.]

[4] Objection to the term had begun earlier. See, for example, John Ahni Schertow, “Anishinabek outlaw term ‘Aboriginal’,” IC Magazine (20 June 2008).

[5] The Native Council of Canada formed in 1971 out of the Métis Association of Alberta, the Métis Society of Saskatchewan, the Manitoba Métis Federation, and the BC Association of Non-Status Indians. In 1979, under the leadership of Harry W. Daniels, the Council issued a “Declaration of Metis and Indian Rights” that stated in part:

We believe it is our right as a people with a rich history and culture to preserve our identity while we participate as partners in the development of Canada. In the past we were denied this right. If we were to succeed in the eyes of the larger society we were expected to give up our identity and beliefs. We were expected to assimilate.

The declaration included the statement: “Metis Nationalism is Canadian Nationalism. We Embody the True Spirit of Canada and are the Source of Canadian Identity.” An explanation of the terms of the declarations stated,

There can be no distinct Canadian identity nor can there be real national unity until Canadians accept their Aboriginal heritage. The Metis fact, not the French or English, represents the true basis of Canadian culture and identity.

Daniels is credited with convincing Justice Minister Jean Chrétien in 1981 to include Métis as one of the three peoples to be defined as Aboriginal in Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982. While the charter document re-placed Métis within an Aboriginal designation, the re-membering, because adhering to terms set during the process of colonialism, had the consequence of having “indelibly separated ‘Métis’ from ‘Indian’ as coherent and distinctly separate entities in the minds of the public (and many Indigenous people).”

The quotations directly above are from Declaration of Metis and Indian Rights, with commentary by Harry W. Daniels (Ottawa: Native Council of Canada, 1979); and Bonita Lawrence, ‘Real’ Indians and Others” Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 95. See also Harry W. Daniels, The Forgotten people: Metis and non-status Indian land claims (Native Council of Canada, 1979); “Harry Daniels, Métis, 1940 – 2004,” Native Leaders of Canada, (accessed 16 March 2012); and Michael Poslums, “Congress of Aboriginal Peoples,” Canadian Encyclopedia, Institut Historica/ Dominion Institute, (accessed 16 March 2012). The Canadian Métis Society gave rise to the Native Council of Canada, which was renamed the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples in 1993. “Since 1971,” Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Website, (accessed 16 March 2012), lists the earlier name as the Aboriginal Congress of Canada; “About Us,” Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Website, (accessed 16 March 2012), lists the founding name as the Native Council of Canada. See also “Tony Belcourt, Aboriginal Rights Leader and Advocate,” (accessed 16 March 2012).



Indigenous is the term used by the United Nations in such documents as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). A significant number of historians prefer the term Indigenous over Aboriginal. The term is regarded as particularly appropriate when engaging in historiographical debate about an international context or when putting forward or acknowledging activist perspectives.[6]

[6] While some writers argue ‘Aboriginal’ reflects a history of ‘race’-based categorization, so do not like to use it, other writers reject ‘Indigenous’ for the same reasons. Much of the time, choice of wording depends on where, geographically, a group of people was living, what the history of language use in that area has been, and what political struggles are currently underway. See “How to name Aboriginal people?” and “Aborigines or Aboriginal – Which Word to Use?” for opinions based on Australian history. See also Schertow, “Anishinabek outlaw term ‘Aboriginal’,” for an example based on Canadian history.



is a term that was coined by historians of South America and adopted in the 1970s by some historians in Quebec. It has not been as popular in other Canadian historical circles.[7]

[7] See James Taylor Carson , “American Historians and Indians,” The Historical Journal 49, no. 3 (September 2006): 921-933. See also “Indigenous Peoples of the Americas,” Wikipedia.



In some texts (principally French-language), autochthone is sometimes used for Indian/ Native/ Amerindian and other Aboriginal or Indigenous peoples of Canada.[8]

[8] See, for examples, Google search results. The term also appeared in the 1860s in Part 1 “History of the Red River Settlement,” Nor’-Wester (1861), 1, column 1, in reference to the Cree. Historian W.L. Morton used the term “autocthonous” when describing Métis. See D.N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869 – 1885 (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988), 4.



is an inappropriate term to use in Canadian academic writing about the original peoples of North America (except in a quote), because it commemorates a mistaken identity — people from India are Indians.[9]

Historically, to maintain legal continuity — but problematically in terms of addressing peoples of Canada intelligibly and respectfully — Canadian government documents have used the word ‘Indian’ to describe the original inhabitants of North America and their descendants. [See the note on ‘Indian’ in the entry for Aboriginal above.]

When it is necessary to reflect past usage, I indicate my awareness that the word is inappropriate (unless referring to peoples with a connection to India), by marking it off with inverted commas or quotation marks: ‘Indian’ indicating ironic usage; or “Indian” indicating a quote from a source.

In the distant past, naming of North American peoples was all over the board. For the most part, historians do not know the names that Aboriginal peoples gave themselves, because, for the most part, historians have relied on the written reports of Europeans who had imperfect understandings of the peoples they met.

Take, for example, the writings of Roger Williams who lived in New England from the 1630s. He learned to speak an Aboriginal language (Narragansett, an Algonkian language), and claimed that there was no Aboriginal word for “Indian” before the English came, because no one had needed one, because no categorical difference based on continent of origin had existed previously. The people of North America had words for each other in terms of a tribal name or village name, and they had words for the whole human species. And, Williams maintained, they had only started calling themselves “Indians” when they had a need for such a word, to distinguish themselves from Europeans (probably when speaking to Europeans). They used the word “Indian” because it was a convenient one to use (Europeans understood it).[10]

[9] See “The Many Uses of the Word ‘Indian’ in the English Language,” Marianopolis College; see also “Does ‘Indian’ derive from Columbus’s description of Native Americans as ‘una gente in Dios’?” The Straight Dope, (accessed 21 November 2012).

[10] See Roger Williams, A Key to the Language of America (London: G. Dexter, 1643; reprint Providence: John Miller, 1827), 19. See also Jack L. Davis, “Williams among the Narragansett Indians,” New England Quarterly 43, no. 4 (December 1970): 593 – 604.



is a confusing term, because anyone born in a place is native to that place, or a native of that place. In many instances, historical Métis preferred to use the term Native (when speaking English) instead of the pejorative ‘Halfbreed’ (see the entry for Métis below).

Nevertheless, some historians have used the term Native as a generic substitute for ‘Indian’ (and do not mean Métis at all). Such writers might or might not have capitalized the term.

When the word is encountered in a text, it is important to take time to determine what the author means. If for some reason an author feels compelled to use the term as a generic substitute for ‘Indian’ then it is probably capitalized; if they are using it to mean born in Canada or any other specified place it is likely not capitalized — but not all writers adhere to those style conventions (and those who don’t do not always explain why they don’t).

I use the word as in “native, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary Online [OED] (accessed 2004 – 2009), “III. Senses relating to place of birth or origin,” specifically, “9. a. Of a country, region, etc.: that is the place of a person’s birth and early life,” including “b. In extended use (chiefly literary). Of an object, event, circumstance, etc.: being or forming the source or origin of a thing or person,” and “c. to have one’s foot on (one’s) native heath and variants: to be on home ground, esp. in one’s place of birth,” but excluding the senses described under the entries for 10. a., 10. b., 11 a., 11 b., and 11 c., that imply a biological heritage, an anthropological classification, or a politically constructed category.

I have also used the compound ‘native-born,’ to signify “A. adj. 2. Designating a person born in a particular place, as distinguished from an immigrant or incomer.” See “native-born,” OED. Again, my usage is not intended to imply a biological heritage, an anthropological classification, or a politically constructed category.



Currently a Canadian is generally defined as “a native, citizen, or inhabitant of Canada.”

In the past, a person who lived within the boundaries of Canada could be called Canadian, but, depending on the time period, Canada was not necessarily a country in its own right — historically, at times Canada was a dependent ‘dominion,’ province, colony, or merely a settlement. At times it was claimed as a possession or dependency of Britain, or of France. Prior to that, it was the territory of a people original to Turtle Island/ North America.


is a geo-political construct that has changed over time. It is a good idea to be aware of differences between Canada in the present and the various versions of Canada that existed at different times in the past. It is even better to be able to clarify which version of Canada is meant when writing about the past.[11]



is a word that can be misunderstood when reading historical texts, because the meaning has changed over time. Elsewhere on this site, I lay out a basic chronology that shows change(s) — though the chronology is somewhat simplistic (the meanings of words at any point in time and over time are always fraught with complexity).[12]

Significantly, by 1870 at Red River Settlement,  the people of St. Peter’s Parish were held to be “civilized,” if ‘Indian,’ by residents of other parishes. That year the parish was included as a constituency with an elected representative during the creation and operation of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. The parish inhabitants (men at any rate) had the right to vote. John Sinclair’s position in the Legislative Assembly as representative of the “settled Indians” demonstrates that any male members of the greater Red River community who were considered ‘civilized’ had a formal say in community affairs. In framing terms for  confederating with Canada (in the successive versions of the List of Rights), the Provisional Government of Assiniboia stipulated that it was only ‘uncivilized Indians’ who were to be denied the vote. Such a clause was included in the Manitoba Act (1870), which was ratified by the predominantly Métis Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia.

Subsequently, the historical references in the List(s) of Rights and the Manitoba Act led to the misapprehension that the Métis of Manitoba were opposed to allowing any First Nations individuals to vote. This was not the case. ‘Civilized and Settled’ First Nations had the vote, as full citizens of Red River, who adhered to its laws and participated in organizing the community and determining its values (and they did not lose the vote until several years after Manitoba became a province[13]). Denying the vote to First Nations people who did not behave as the other settlers did in fact recognized that the primary allegiance of those First Nations people was to their own nation: having never agreed to abide by the laws of a foreign state and accept its governance, or having never been forcibly subjugated by a foreign state, they belonged to politically independent nations subject only to their own laws.

[12] See “A Brief History of the term ‘Civilized’,” this site.

[13] See “The Legislature,” Manitoba Free Press (15 February 1873), 8 column 4; and “Manitoba Parliament,” Manitoba Free Press (18 July 1874), 8 column 1.



was not a name that applied to people who lived in ‘Europe’ until after about 1400, because the idea of Europe as a territory, with the geographic dimensions that are familiar to people of the 21st century, had not been invented until about 1400. For the purpose of this site, I try to avoid the term European, because it hides such a wide array of differences and divisions among peoples. There might be instances, however, where it is used to identify people who were not native to North America, but were native to somewhere in what Canadians of the present identify as Europe, because it is convenient to do so.[14]

[14] On my objections to the use of ‘Settler’ as a substitute term for ‘European’ (and exclusively European) see “‘Settler’: Upsetting the semantics of superiority,” this site.


First Nations:

is a Canadian term that was coined in the 1970s to refer to groups formerly known as ‘Indians’ who were organized as political bands (in the United States, termed a tribe), or as a nation. The term is also used to refer to the land reserved for a band (which adds a layer of confusion, because a ‘nation’ in previous usage  normally referred to people, whereas a peoples’ land was previously referred to as their ‘country’).



“the people.” Eskimo is an inappropriate term to use in academic writing in Canada.

Inuvialuit: “real people” are Inuit of the western Canadian Arctic region.



Terms used to describe individuals of mixed Aboriginal and non-North American heritage and to name their communities have changed over time within Canada.[15]  Conceptions about which attributes defined Aboriginal people have varied according to who was attempting to itemize such attributes, and for what purposes. I have found that the naming of communities, whether by non-members of the communities or by members themselves, is directly related to identity formation arising out of divisive instances of contest or conflict — usually over claims of ownership or attempts to limit access to resources (the contests are political and those who are engaged in them seek to win control).[16] The position I have adopted is that achieving clarity requires paying attention to definition, and, as far as possible, with respecting the right of Métis peoples (past and present) to define themselves.[17]

By 1615 in Spain, the word ‘mestizaje’ had been coined to describe the fusing of transatlantic cultures in blended families at colonial outposts. In France, however, the term was not readily adopted. There, the operative assumption remained that if non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal peoples in Nouvelle-France were mixing, then eventually everyone would become French. Children born into blended families in Acadia were designated Acadiens, those born in the province of Canada were designated Canadiens.[18]

In 1738, the term ‘Metiss’ was recorded as having entered the French language, in correspondence dealing with New France. The word appeared in “Mémoire sur les Mariages des Sauvages avec les Français, La Louisane,” a discussion of families formed as a result of marriages between First Nations and French settlers in Louisiana. By 1755 the term ‘métis’ was used in France to describe Caribbean-born offspring of English colonial officials — for example the political militant, Thomas Warner Jr./ ‘Indian Warner,’ who led the people of Dominica in attacks against both the French and the English.

By 1767 in francophone Europe the term “Métis” apparently signalled mixed populations in any colonial situation, from Africa to the Great Lakes region of North America. Whether or not the people to whom the term was applied used the word ‘Métis’ to describe themselves is unknown — for the most part such colonial subjects of France left no written records.[19]

With the British conquest of New France in 1763, in English-language communications, children of trans-Atlantic heritage who were not counted as French Canadiens or French Acadiens, were being described “unambiguously” as “native-born” and “natives of” North American regions, districts, or settlements — as opposed to being labelled either European or First Nations. Such children would continue to use the terms ‘Native’ and ‘Native-born’ to self-identify to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As the decades of the nineteenth century passed, however, children in families with ties to both First Nations peoples and overseas peoples were increasingly referred to by non-family members in other, racialized terms that in effect underscored a not-quite-entirely English status.[20]

After the violence at Red River in 1816 (a.k.a. the Seven Oaks incident), as part of the process of resolving that dispute, litigation took place at the Assizes of York, Upper Canada, in 1818. At that time and place, reporter Samuel Hull Wilcocke attempted to define categories of people associated with the fur trade. Under his system of definition, the term English/ Anglois [sic] was taken to include: “An Englishman, the English,” but, in the context of the fur trade, it also “applied exclusively to the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whether English, French, or Half-breeds.” Likewise, the term French/ François [sic] meant “A Frenchman, the French,” although in the fur trade context it “applied exclusively to the Canadian fur-traders,” regardless of country, language, or nation. Wilcocke described the terms “Half-breeds, Métiʃs [sic: long s in source], Bois-brulés” as synonymous “names given to the mixed population which exists in the North-West arising from the connection of Europeans or Canadians with Indian women.” He felt justified in adding:

The first [Half-breed] is the English[-language term]; Métiʃ, is a corruption of the Spanish Mestice [sic]; and the term of Bois-brulé is said to be derived from the sallow complexion of the half-breeds being compared to the appearance of a forest of fir-trees that had been burnt, an occurrence frequent in those parts, and which assumes an universal brown and dingy colour.[21]

While there is no question that those who laboured in the North-West would exhibit sun-burned visages, a conjecture — equally as probable as that imagined by Wilcocke — would be that the group name ‘Bois-Brulé’ was a contraction of the phrase ‘coureur de bois à la mode de Brûlé,’ referencing Étienne Brûlé, the first, and fabled, coureur de bois.

Up to 1870 (and beyond), people of Assiniboia spoke Aboriginal languages. Names by which they might have self-identified depended both on the circumstance/ context in which they did so, and the language they were speaking. In North America there were hundreds of Aboriginal communities, each with its own approach to naming affiliation in accord with cultural custom, language, and dialect. In conversation, people of mixed Aboriginal and non-North American heritage who were highlighting that heritage, to differentiate themselves from relatives or group members who did not share the heritage (or to indicate differences from group outsiders), might have referred to themselves using words such as:

 ᐊᐱᐦᑕᐃᐧᑯᓯᓴᐣ — also spelled Apihtohkosan/ Apihtawikosisan/ Âpihtawikosisân/ AbittawokosianApeetogosan/ Apitow Coosan (Cousin/ Cousine), which term originally implied a ‘half relative’ in Cree (the common trade language in the West).[22]

Aiabitawisid/ Aiabitawisidjig (plural). “A half-breed man or woman.”[23]

Ootipayimisoo/ Otepaymsuak/ Otipimisiwak/ Otipemisiwak their own boss/ the people who own themselves/ Free people/ Gens de libre/ Hommes Libres.[24]

Akpayeća/ “to be lighter than its proper color, as a child that will yet darken … mulatto.”[25]

Wissakodewikwe/ “half-breed woman, (or half white and half Indian origin); half-burnt-wood-woman” Wissakodew inini/ “Half-breed man, half whiteman and half Indian, (from a white father and an Indian mother, or vice versa); half-burnt-wood-man/ “Woodsman”/ “Bois Brule.”[26]

Note, however, that the meanings given above are merely those recorded in dictionaries composed in the past and were not necessarily the precise meanings any individual in the past intended. [And keep in mind that English-to-‘Other Language’ dictionaries are lists of words, but, depending on the language, do not necessarily show how to use the word — not all languages construct words in the same manner as English, French, and Spanish.]

In 1870, for the purpose of taking a census of the inhabitants of the new province of Manitoba, a definition was devised in order to count the number of people at Red River who qualified for a land grant on the basis of Aboriginality.  Individuals who were “descended however remotely, either by father or mother, from any ancestor belonging to any one of the native tribes of Indians, and also descended, however remotely, from an ancestor among the Whites,” were identified as “Halfbreed” on English-language census forms and as “Métis” on French-language forms.[27]

Canadian historians have often asserted that, in the past, ‘Half-breed’ was a term for English-speaking people and that Métis was a term for French-speaking people. That notion is incorrect.

‘Halfbreed’ and Métis were cross-linguistic synonyms. In English, distinctions of cultural or economic affiliation were made by saying “English Halfbreed” or “French Halfbreed” (or Scottish~, Swiss~, Sioux~, etc.). In French the same practice was applied when qualifying affiliation: as in Métis français, Métis anglais, Métis écossais etc. Of course bi-lingual (or multi-lingual) people could switch back and forth between languages, in which case the word ‘Halfbreed’ might appear in an otherwise entirely French-language sentence (and vice versa, with the word Métis in an English-language sentence.)[28]

Note on hyphenation — Half-breed or Halfbreed? Hyphenating the term implies an incomplete version of a person or people: “The hyphen is both a sign of the disappearance of the purebreds and the advent of hybridity”; “the hybrid, even in those relegated spaces of race and ethnicity, is never whole.” Whether or not an author hyphenates the term might reflect their own political stance/ belief system or that of a publisher.

If I use the term, I write ‘Halfbreed’ when speaking for myself: capitalized to show this is a socio-cultural/ political-economic group; in inverted commas to show ironic usage; and non-hyphenated to signify persons and peoples who are as culturally whole in and of themselves as any other individual or collectivity might be.[29] If I write ‘Half-breed,’ then I am using written language symbolically in commenting on what somebody else is speaking about; I am signifying that somebody else actually meant ‘half’ in the hybrid sense.

Country-born: was a term invented and promoted in the 1970s by Canadian historian John Elgin Foster, “The Country-Born in the Red River Settlement, 1820-1850,” Ph.D. diss. (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 1973), 4-5, to describe ‘English’ Métis as distinct from ‘French’ Métis — although his Ph.D. thesis, which was devoted to describing the ‘Country-born,’ failed to find that a clear distinction had existed historically.[30] Nor did Foster establish that the term was used by ‘English’ Métis people of the past to name themselves.  The only instance Foster cites of the use of the term was by a non-Aboriginal clergyman speaking in London, England — Rev. David Anderson, in his testimony before the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Hudson’s Bay Company, on 4 June 1857.[31]

Mixed Blood: is a term used by some historians, usually applied to ‘English’ Métis. It is an offensive term in that:

1) it invokes an absurd biological impossibility — all members of the human species have 100% human blood; no human being has blood that is mixed with anything else;

2) it perpetuates the notion that cultural attributes (such as language, religion, and loyalties) are determined by blood (read ‘race,’ and see the entry for ‘Race’ below);

3) it perpetuates a false dichotomy — a historiographical assertion that a ‘French vs. English’ divide existed among historical Métis peoples and constituted a ‘fatal flaw’ in the community at Red River that explains its political ‘failure,’ the dispersal of Métis families, and any subsequent economic disadvantage. In fact, the historical Métis were typically multi-lingual. Neither French nor English was necessarily a first language, and some Métis spoke only Aboriginal languages.

The term ‘Half-breed’ has a history of pejorative usage and has been rejected by people who might fit the criteria set in 1870 as described above if it were applied today. The word, therefore, is currently inappropriate in academic writing except in historical quotations.

Among academics and formal Aboriginal organizations, the usage, meaning, and typographical representation of Métis is still under negotiation (you may find authors or organizations using metis or Metis, or reserving the term for French-language peoples only, for example). Nevertheless, because the term Métis is enshrined in the Constitution of Canada and is regarded as a name of honour for a wide range of people throughout that country who choose to identify with that Aboriginal aspect of their heritage, here Métis serves as a universal term for past people of mixed Indigenous and non-North American heritage.

In my opinion — based on my experience reconstituting the history of the Red River Métis — the defining characteristic of Métis in Canada today (in that it is universally experienced) is that we/they have had our/their history disrespected and misrepresented: chopped up (dismembered); chunks of it ‘disappeared’; and parts of it appropriated. Being Métis is being in search of a sensible (as in ‘that makes sense’), re-membered past.

[15] Norma Hall, “Interpreting Identity as a Signal of Contest: A Case Study of Semantic Paradox in Red River Historiography,” research paper, Memorial University of Newfoundland (7 April 2005), 7, [or see “Identity as a problematic aspect of the history of Red River Settlement, 1810-1870“] notes, “By rough calculation, historians intent on devising an ordered description of the people of Red River have had recourse to in excess of thirty-eight terms devised at various times for various reasons to designate their subject group — or a subset thereof — and thereby differentiate it from, or argue its similarity to, any other,” and supplies the chart below:


[16] Ibid, 16, 18 – 20, 22, 24 – 26, 35 [or see “Identity as a problematic aspect of the Social Sciences and Humanities,” and “Analysis of the Identity Paradox“], observes that there is “a critical relation between contest and identity formation: in a context where contest is absent, identity is not an issue,” and that “Contest is the one constant associated with [the word] identity. … In all of the works from all of the disciplines that I examined there is a straightforward correlation between the two. Whether a discussion is about identity as an attribute or identity as a term, there is always a competition — overt or covert — over something; perhaps control of territory, land use or resources; possibly control of populations, communal groups or family members; or, in some cases, control of knowledge, ideologies or discourse,” [italics in source].

[17] Diwata Olalia Hunziker, ed., “Evolution of standards concerning the rights of Indigenous Peoples: Definition,” doCip Update no. 15 (August/October 1996), Indigenous Peoples’ Center for Documentation, Research and Information, (accessed 25 October 2004), describes state moves to impose definition on Aboriginal groups as evidence of the “continuation of oppression and colonization.” Helga Lomosits, “Future is Not a Tense,” The Unifying Aspects of Cultures, contributions to the conference in Vienna 7 – 9 November 2003,in TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15 (July 2003), (accessed 19 October 2011), agrees, stating, “to protect the freedom of the individual to self-identify” — meaning to conceive of oneself as united or associated with a group — is to accord value to the “constitutive aspects of cultures,” and to respect Aboriginal persons’ and peoples’ fundamental “right of integrity.” The arguments carry forward in United Nations, Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, “The Concept of Indigenous Peoples,” background paper, PFII/2004/WS.1/3, prepared for the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Workshop on Data Collection and Disaggregation for Indigenous Peoples, New York, 19 – 21 January 2004 (2004): 2, 3. See also Jean Barman and Mike Evans, “Reflections on Being, and Becoming, Métis in British Columbia,” BC Studies 161 (Spring 2009): 81.

[18] See Devrim Karahasan, “Métissage in New France: Frenchification, Mixed Marriages and Métis as Shaped by Social and Political Agents and Institutions 1508 – 1886,” Ph.D. diss. (Florence: Department of History and Civilization, European University Institute, July 2006), 142; Robert Carney, “Aboriginal Residential Schools Before Confederation: The Early Experience,” Canadian Catholic Historical Association [CCHA] Historical Studies 61 (1995): 29; and Olive P. Dickason, “Aboriginals: Metis,” Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples, ed. Paul R. Magocsi (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 71-72.

[19] See René Tartarin, “Mémoire sur les Mariages des Sauvagesses avec les François,” 1738, AC, C13a, 23:41-42. In the original document the word was spelled with a ‘long s’—Métiſs. For another near contemporary example, see Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., “Letter from Father [Louis] Vivier, Missionary among the Illinois, to Father * * * ,” dated 8 June 1750, in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 16101791, The Original French, Latin, and Italian Texts, with English translations and notes; Illustrated by the Portraits, Maps, and Facsimiles, vol. 69, All Missions 17101756 (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1900), 143, 144. Samuel Engel, Essai sur cette question, quand et comment l’Amérique a-t-elle été peuplée d’hommes et d’animaux? (Amsterdam: Chez Marc Michel Rey, 1767), 29, 440, a Swiss geographer mentions the “Métis” of Nouvelle-Brétagne (Papouasie/Papua, Nouvelle-Guinée/New Guinea). He explains “les Mulâtres ſont les enfans dés Européens & des Négres,” refers to similar instances in other locales, then notes “On apperçoit la même choſe dans les Indes-Orientales, dans l’Iſle de Java, ou à Baravia, à Goa, & autres endroits ou les Européens ſont établis depais lonques années & dont deſcendans mélanges ſont nommés Métis, Caſtices, Poſtices, &c.,” [sic: long s in source]. Benjamin Martin, Miscellaneous Correspondence, Containing a Variety of Subjects…vol. 1, For the Year 1755 and 1756 (London: W. Owen, 1759), 138. Plank, Unsettled Conquest, 72, avows that only to a very limited extent were “English words such as ‘half-breed’ or ‘mulatto’ ever used by British officialdom to refer to Acadians.  Dickason, “From ‘One Nation’ in the Northeast to ‘New Nation’ in the Northwest: A Look at the Emergence of the Métis,” in in The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America, ed. Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown (Winnipeg, 1985), 36 n. 63, refers to a description of Antoine Gaulin in Acadia as “that half-breed priest,” which might be interpreted as having meant ‘priest for the half-breeds’ since biographies of Gaulin do not identify his parents as Aboriginal. See David Lee, “Gaulin, Antoine,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online [DCB],  (accessed 15 November 2011); and Richard V. Bannon, “Antoine Gaulin (1674 – 1770), An Apostle of Early Acadie,” CCHA Report 19 (1952): 49 – 59. Joyce E. Chaplin, “Race,” in The British Atlantic World, 15001800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 168, caution, “It has long been thought that sexual activity across the ‘races’ was more characteristic of Iberian and French colonies than of English ones. But the ‘lack’ of mestizos in Anglo-America now seems suspect. Such people indeed existed, but it has taken determined reinterrogation of the historical record to discover them. Their existence shows that, in British North America, mixed-race people were not absent — official recognition of them was.” It is difficult to find the term ‘half-breed’ applied to human beings, rather than live-stock, in British texts written prior to the Seven Years’ War. After that conflict the word becomes more common, appearing, for example, in Edmund Burke, ed., “An account of an extraordinary diʃeaʃe among the Indians in the iʃland of Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard, in New England,” [sic: long s in source] The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politicks, and Literature for the Year 1765 (London: J. Dodsley, in Pall-Mall, 1766), 90; and in Edmund Burke, ed., “September,” The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politicks, and Literature for the Year 1766 (London: J. Dodsley, in Pall-Mall, 1767), 134. I did, however locate an earlier text using the term ‘mixt breed,’ see Pierre Bayle, John Peter Bernard, Thomas Birch, John Lockman, George Sale, A General Dictionary, Historical and Critical: in which a new and accurate Translation of that of the Celebrated Mr. Bayle, with the Corrections and Observations printed in the late Edition at Paris, is included; and interpreted with several thousand Lives never before published, vol. 2 (London: James Bettenham, 1735), 117-118 n.B, which quotes Apulius (Lucius), second-century author of the Golden Ass, who self identified as “A Numidian and half a Gatulian, I do not for that … have any more reason to be ashamed of this than Cyrus the Great had of being a mixt breed, half a Mede and half a Persian.”

[20] Gwen Reimer and Jean-Philippe Chartrand, “A Historical Profile of the James Bay Area’s Mixed European-Indian or Mixed European-Inuit Community,”  prepared for Department of Justice Canada (14 March 2005),  xii. Reimer and Chartrand, “Documenting Historic Métis in Ontario,” xii, 571-574. Great Britain, Colonial Office, Papers relating to the Red River Settlement viz. return to an address from the Honourable House of Commons to His Royal Highness The Prince Regent, dated 24th June, 1819 ([London : s.n., 1819]), 2, 7.

[21] Samuel Hull Wilcocke, ed., Report of the proceedings connected with the disputes between the Earl of Selkirk and the North-West Company at the assizes, held at York, in Upper Canada, October, 1818 (Montreal: Printed by James Lane and Nahum Mower, 1819), xiii – xiv. See also John Pritchard, Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, and Frederick Damien Heurter, Narratives of John Pritchard, Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, and Frederick Damien Heurter, respecting the aggressions of the North-West Company, against the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement upon Red River (London: John Murray, 1819), 14, 18, also 39, 77, where the term “half-breed” is used as a counter-distinction from “natives,” which term is reserved for “Indians”; see also 75, where Heurter also refers to “Bois-brulés” as a group name among North-West company personnel. The term “Metiss” appears once (p. 19), in the Narratives, in a section of speech originally made in French by Alexander McDonell, translated into “Indian language” by Joseph Primeau, and finally re-counted in English by Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun. Throughout the rest of his narrative — and those of Pritchard and Heurter — “half-breed” is used. Pritchard, however, asserts that the ‘half-breeds’ antagonistic to the Selkirk Settlement — “servants of the North-West Company” — self-identified “for the first time” as “‘Bois-brulés,’ and the ‘New Nation.’”

[22] See Edwin Arthur Watkins, ed., A dictionary of the Cree language, as spoken by the Indians of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territories (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1865), 130, 189. The term is now regarded as synonymous with ‘Half-breed’/ Métis. See “Métis,” Word search, Nehiyaw Masinahikan Online Cree Dictionary, (accessed 4 January 2012); and Gérard Beaudet, Cree-English, English-Cree Dictionary: Nehiyawe Mina Akayasimo-Akayasimo-Mina Nehiyawe-Ayamiwini-Masinahigan (Winnipeg: Wurez Publishing, 1995), 193, 336. See also Yvonne Boyer, “First Nations, Métis and Inuit Health and the Law,” 10; and Brenda Macdougall, One of the Family: Metis Culture in Nineteenth-Century Northwestern Saskatchewan (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 8, on the “meaning and sentiment” of “wahkotoowin.”

[23] See Frederic Baraga, A Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language, Explained in English (Cincinnati: Jos. A. Hermann, 1853), 16.

[24] E.A. Watkins, A Dictionary of the Cree Language, As Spoken by the Indians of the Hudson Bay Company’s Territories (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1865). Gérard Beaudet, Cree-English, English-Cree Dictionary: Nehiyawe Mina Akayasimo-Akayasimo-Mina Nehiyawe-Ayamiwini-Masinahigan (Winnipeg: Wurez Publishing, 1995), 127.

[25] S.R. Riggs, Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1852), 15, 313.

[26] Frederic Baraga, A Theoretical and Practical Grammar of the Otchipwe Language, for the Use of Missionaries and other persons living among the Indians 2d ed. (Montreal: Beauchemin & Valois, 1878), 421.

[27] Archives of Manitoba [AM], MG2 B3, Council of Assiniboia fonds, Red River and Manitoba census returns, 1870, document 3, “Instructions To be observed by the enumerators appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor, to take the Enumeration of the Province of Manitoba/Instructions que devront observer les Enumerators appointes par le lieutenant-Governor de manitoba,” 1870; see also “Fort Garry, October 13th, 1870,” Canada Gazette, Sessional Papers 20 (I871), 74; the Manitoban [and Northwest Herald] (15 October 1870), which includes a list of districts for census taking along with a list of the enumerators for each district; and the The Manitoban and North-West Herald (22 October 1870), which includes “Instructions to be observed by the Enumerators” for the census.

[28] See, for examples of English- and French-language usage, “Interesting Revelations, One of McDougall’s Spies, Major J.W., The Pembina Detective On Our Track,” New Nation (15 April 1870), 1 columns 1-4; and M.H. de Lamothe, “Excursion au Canada et la Rivière Rouge du Nord [1873],” in Le Tour du monde: nouveau journal des voyages, vol. 35 (Paris: Libraire Hachette et Cie., 1878), 251, 266268, 282. On the diversity of languages at Red River see, for example, Alexander Ross, Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State (London: Smith Elder and Company, 1856), 79, 377; “The People of the Red River,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 18, no. 104 (January 1859), 169, 170, which notes the “strange melange of languages,” encountered in the cart brigades of the “Pembinese and Selkirkers”; “The Red River Trail,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 18, no. 107 (April 1859), 614, describes the Métis “dialect” as being “as various as their origin; being principally Chippewa and bad French, with an admixture of Cree, English, and Gaelic”; “History of the Red River Settlement. Eleventh Paper,” Nor’-Wester (15 July 1861), 3 column 2, observes, “Although many of them understand and speak both French and English, yet they are averse to speak any other than their mother tongue”; “Our French Column,” Nor’-Wester (2 September 1863), 2 columns 2-3; [A.-A,] Taché, Sketch of the North-West of America, trans. D.R. Cameron (Montreal: John Lovell, 1870), 68; Joseph James Hargrave, Red River (Montreal: John Lovell, 1871), 181, notes “a man whose usual language is English, and one who speaks French alone, are enabled to render themselves mutually intelligible by means of Cree, their Indian mother tongue”; Isaac Cowie, The Company of Adventurers: a narrative of seven years in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company during 1867-1874 (Toronto: William Briggs, 1913), 261; A.C. Garrioch, The Far and Furry North: A Story of Life and Love and Travel in the Days of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Winnipeg: Douglas-McIntryre, 1925), 64; Irene Spry, ed., “The ‘Memories’ of George William Sanderson 1846-1936,” Canadian Ethnic Studies/ Études enthiques au Canada 17, no. 2 (1985), 122 (or see [AM, MG 9, A107] Mary Sophia Desmaris [sic] Campbell ed., and George William Sanderson, “Through Memory’s Windows,” online pdf [c. 1934-1936], 6). See also John Elgin Foster “The Country-born in the Red River Settlement, 1820-1850,” Ph.D. diss. (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 1973), 205; Irene Spry, “The Métis and Mixed-Bloods of Rupert’s Land before 1870,” in The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America, ed. Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S.H. Brown (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985), 98-99, 103, 104; Peter Bakker, “A Language of Our Own,” the Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Métis (Amsterdam: Drukkerij Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1988; reprint Oxford University Press, 1997), 1, 3, 8, 9, 11, 12 (page citations are to the reprint edition); Eleanor M. Blain, “The Bungee Dialect of the Red River Settlement,” M.A. thesis (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1989); Clifford E. Trafzer, “Native American Studies,” Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. Frederick E. Hoxie (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), 420, argues that Indigenous peoples purposely cultivated multi-lingual abilities because, “it was important to be able to deal with neighbors who spoke different languages and followed different customs”; “Bungee: A language unique to Canada,” Language Portal of Canada, Government of Canada website, (accessed 28 August 2014); and Norma Hall, “Parishes of Assiniboia, 1870,” and “Records of the Provisional Government(s),” Provisional Government of Assiniboia website, (accessed 23 August 2014).

[29] See Fred Wah, cited in Stefan Helgesson ed., Exit: Endings and New Beginnings in Literature and Life (2011), 194-195; and Jerome Satterthwaite, Elizabeth Atkinson, Wendy Martin eds., Educational Counter-cultures: Confrontations, Images, Vision (2004), 174. See also F. Davey ed., Alley Alley Home Free, Open Letter (2004).

[30] See Norma Hall, “Interpreting Identity Part III,” and nn. 65-68.

[31] Anderson’s testimony does not indicate that the term applied only to ‘English’ Métis. See Great Britain, Parliament, House of Commons, Report from the Select Committee on the Hudson’s Bay Company: together with the proceedings of the committee, minutes of evidence, appendix and index (1857), 235.


North America:

‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ are Eurocentric phrases. The ‘New World’ was an old world to its inhabitants by the time Europeans arrived. If I use either term, I indicate my awareness that they are problematic by marking them off with inverted commas or quotation marks: ‘New World’ indicating ironic usage; “New World” indicating a quote from a source.

The name by which the continent of North America was known by First Nations at the time of contact has been hypothesized to have been ‘Turtle Island.’ In the Seneca language, the mythical turtle was apparently known as Hah-nu-nah (the word for an ordinary turtle being ha-no-wa). In Western Algic [Algonkian/ Algonquian] languages the name of the continent might, in some previous era, have been Mishi-nimikina.

In the 1970s, writer Jan Carew revived 19th-century arguments that “the name America was brought back to Europe from the New World” and asserted that “To rob people or countries of their names is to set in motion a psychic disturbance which can in turn create a permanent crisis of identity. As if to underline this fact, the theft of an important place-name from the heartland of the Americas and the claim that it was a dilettante’s [Amerigo Vespucci’s] Christian name robs the original name of its elemental meaning.”[32]

[32] See Harriet Maxwell Converse, Herman Le Roy Fairchild, William John Miller, Arthur Caswell Parker, Myths and legends of the New York State Iroquois (New York: University of New York, 1908), 33; J. Watts de Peyster, Miscellanies: By an Officer vol. 1 (Dumfries [England: C. Munro, 1888]), cii; Jonathan Cohen, “The Naming of America: Fragments We’ve Shored Against Ourselves,”  (accessed 12 October 2011). See also “The naming of America,” The Renaissance Mathematicus blog (accessed 14 September 2014).



As historian of law in Canada, Constance Backhouse , has observed, racial classification is “nonsense.” I agree with her statement that “‘Race’ is not a biological or trans-historical feature, but a sociological classification situated in a particular time and context. It is shaped and moulded by economic, political, and cultural forces as well as resistance and challenges. Racial categories form a continuum of gradual change, not a set of sharply demarcated types. There are no intrinsic isolating mechanisms between people and, given the geographic dispersion of populations over time, the concept of ‘pure’ human ‘races’ is absurd.”[33]

I use the word “racism” to mean any system of ideas in which ‘race’ and ‘racial’ differences are believed to exist, or are pretended to exist as biological fact.[34]

I use the adjective “racist” to mean an attitude, practice, system etc. that relies on the precept that ‘race’ exists.

[33] Constance Backhouse, “The Historical Construction of Racial Identity and Implications for Reconciliation,” commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage for the Ethnocultural, Racial, Religious, and Linguistic Diversity Seminar (Halifax: 1 – 2 November 2001), 2, 7 – 8.

[34] See Ian F. Haney Lopez, “What is Race,” Race Racism and the Law, University of Dayton School of Law, (accessed 25 March 2012).


Published: 21 November 2012

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