Decolonization 101: Terminology + Decolonizing History

By Molly Swain + Lindsay Nixon, excerpted from the zine Decolonization 101

tanisi kahkiyaw awiyak, Molly Swain êkwa Lindsay Nixon nitisiyakâsonân, Molly otipêmsiw-iskwêw ôma wiya otôskwanihk ohciw, Lindsay anishnaabekwe/nêhiyaw-iskwêw ôma wiya Tootinaowaziibeeng Nation ohciw. nikîhokêwinân onatowêw-askîy êkwa pîtos nêhiyawak-askîy. osihchikawak Indigenous Women and Two-Spirit Harm Reduction Coalition. namoya wi-yôski-pikîskwawak.


In the settler-colonial nation-state known as “Canada,” there are three common terms for Indigenous peoples: First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. Some words that we Indigenous peoples use for ourselves include Natives, Aboriginals, ndns, Indians, redskins, Half-Breeds & Bois-Brûlés (for the Métis), the names of our nations (Anishnaabe, Tsuu T’ina, Haudenosaunee, Innu, Dene, Gitxsan, etc.). Some of these words, like Indian or Half-Breed, we have reclaimed for ourselves, and some, like ndn, were created by us and should only be used by us.

Names that are appropriate for settlers to refer to us as are: Indigenous, First Nations, Métis, Inuit, names of our nations. Words that settlers shouldn’t use: Indian (even though this is a legal term, ie: The Indian Act, it is both inaccurate and a slur when referring to Turtle Island Indigenous peoples), redskin (a slur), injun (a slur), squaw (a gendered slur, NEVER use), redman (slur), ndn (ours, not yours), Half-Breed (slur), Eskimo (slur).

Words that you can use but aren’t the best: Native, Native American/Canadian (many Indigenous peoples don’t consider ourselves Canadian, or think of ourselves instead as belonging primarily to our specific nations. We
recommend you stick with Indigenous.

The term ‘First Nations’ refers to Indigenous peoples who are neither Inuit nor Métis, such as the Blackfoot, Cree, Saulteaux, Oneida, etc. Métis (also known as Michif) are Indigenous peoples with First Nations and European heritage. It is important to understand both that Métis ARE Indigenous, with unique culture and languages, and that not every mixed European and Native person is Métis. Finally, Inuit (Inuk is the term for a single person) are peoples that live in the North, all across the Arctic parts of Canada, the US, and Greenland. These distinctions do not reflect the vast differences within and between our many cultures, traditions, and languages, nor the cultural similarities and sharing that happen between our peoples.

Speaking of, you should never talk about “Indigenous culture,” “Indigenous language,” or “Indigenous spirituality.” There are hundreds of nations on Turtle Island, and so hundreds of cultureS, languageS, spiritualitIES, and peopleS. Don’t homogenize us, the Cree are as different from the Haida as the Spanish are from the Japanese!


Indigenous peoples have been on Turtle Island for tens of thousands of years. Our traceable histories extend far beyond the debunked “Bering Strait Land Bridge” theory settlers have been trying to push on us, and we had highly advanced cities and technologies–did you know the largest pyramids in the world aren’t in Egypt, but in the southern half of Turtle Island? That Africans and Turtle Islanders were trading, marrying, and kicking ass together well before Columbus was even born? And that one of the world’s biggest cities at the start of the 16th century was in what is now known as Minnesota? Indigenous peoples are keepers of scientific, navigational, medicinal, historical, ecological, sociological, mathematical, and economic knowledges that remain far beyond even current European and Euro-colonial societies. This is not a joke or an exaggeration; despite what we’ve all been taught about the “primitives” of the “undiscovered Americas,” Indigenous peoples had vast international trading networks and cultural exchanges, and huge political confederacies. Settler colonial societies have always ‘Columbused’ (claimed to have discovered something Indigenous peoples, Black folks, and People of Colour have been doing or have invented) Indigenous knowledge when it’s convenient, and dismissed or devalued it when it suits the narrative of “uncivilized savages” who benefit from the importation of superior European (or Canadian, American, Australian, etc.) ideas. Part of decolonization is giving credit where credit is due, and resisting bullshit narratives of European cultural and technological superiority.