Say it right: clarifying terminology

July 25, 2008 at 3:40 pm | Posted in Naming | 4 Comments
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Thanks again to Survival I found a small compilation of terminology related to indigenous peoples. Given the fact that pejorative terms have already been used for years, it is important to show respect using the right words:

There are a huge variety of terms used to describe the peoples most commonly called ‘tribal people’ or ‘indigenous people’. All of them are problematic; none are entirely satisfactory:

Some general terms

Tribe: means a distinct population, relatively small in number, with a common language and culture, dependent on their land for their livelihood, and not assimilated into the national society. This is perhaps the term most readily understood and used by the general public, and for that reason is commonly used by Survival (as in the expression ‘tribal peoples’). Many anthropologists dislike the term, believing it evokes the colonial era. Some English-speaking indigenous people, especially more politically active Indians in North America, also dislike it. However, many tribal peoples themselves use it. For example, almost all American Indians use the word ‘tribe’ to describe themselves to others, eg ‘the White Mountain Apache Tribe’, or the ‘Northern Arapaho Tribe’. Although nearly all tribal peoples are also indigenous, not all are: for example, many of the Thai hill tribes are not indigenous to the areas where they now live, having settled there relatively recently.

Native: the words ‘native’,’ aboriginal’, ‘autochthonous’ and ‘indigenous’ are virtually synonymous; in this context they mean a people who are originally from the area in which they still live. In other words, they have not arrived from somewhere else, but to all intents and purposes have developed in the land which is their ancestral territory. (Of course, according to current theories of human evolution, homo sapiens first evolved in Africa and subsequently emigrated to populate the globe, but as this is thought to have happened around 60,000 years ago, its practical ramifications can be ignored.) The terms ‘native people’ in Canada, and ‘native Americans’ in the USA, are perfectly acceptable in those countries, but the use of the English word ‘native’ elsewhere has rather colonial connotations, particularly in Africa, and should therefore be avoided if possible. ‘Nativos’ in Spanish has similar connotations in many South American countries (but not all).

Aboriginal: most commonly used in Australia, where it is slightly preferred (by some Aboriginal organisations) to the term ‘Aborigine’, although both are in common usage. The Spanish word ‘aborígen’ is common and perfectly acceptable in Argentina to describe that country’s indigenous people, though it is little used elsewhere in South America.

Indigenous: this is perhaps the term most often used by specialists and academics, although it is not in such common usage amongst the general public. Not all indigenous people are tribal: the Quechua and Aymara Indians of the Andes, for example, form what could best be described as an indigenous peasantry, being the majority rural, agrarian population in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and often well integrated into the national economy. The Spanish term ‘pueblos indígenas’ is regularly used throughout Latin America and is perfectly acceptable (whereas pueblos tribales is neither).

Autochthonous: apart from in India, this is hardly used in English. In French, the term ‘peuples autochtones’ is widespread in academic debate, though not common elsewhere.

Some place-specific terms:

Indian: applies in this context only to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Although some, particularly in the academic world, may worry that it has disparaging overtones, it is very commonly used by the people themselves. Almost all North American Indians will use the word perfectly happily to describe themselves (obviously, there are exceptions). In the USA, some prefer it to ‘native American’, as they feel the latter implies they are simply another national minority like African Americans or Hispanic Americans, rather than people who lived in that land before the state of America was created. For Spanish usage, the word ‘indio’ generally (though not universally) has derogatory connotations, although some urbanised Indians in the Andes have reclaimed the term. The Portuguese word ‘indio’ is not derogatory in Brazil, where it is commonly used by Indians and their supporters.

Red Indian: almost never used by the people themselves, it now has racist overtones and is best avoided.

Amerindian: a term that has now fallen out of use, though it is still the word most often used in Guyana to describe that country’s indigenous people (‘Indian’ is not used there, as a large part of the national population is originally from India).

First nations: a phrase that has developed in Canada to describe that country’s indigenous people. It is not used elsewhere.

Well, there is still a lot of work to be done, but this is a beginning. I may look the terms up in some dictionaries, but that will be for another day post.



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  1. Great list, Survival International puts out a very important publication and I’m glad to see fellow readers on the net. Knowing the right words to use is key when working with indigenous peoples.

  2. Thank you for a very well-articulated post – definitely food for thought!
    Here are some of the terms we’re using here in Quebec, Canada.
    Autochtone – which is the French for indigenous.
    First Peoples
    Thanks again,
    Evelyn in Montreal

  3. Evelyn, merci beaucoup pour ton info! Je ne sai pas si tu parles l’anglais ou le français, c’est pour ça que je t’écri en anglais… Thanks a lot for your information. It’s so good to have first hand information! I will use your links for my next post, do you mind it? Thanks again for your contribution!

  4. No, I think that’s great! And you speak great French and English!

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