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How do you refer to an Indigenous person?

You are all wondering what to call us and what is the correct word to use - First Nation, Métis , Inuit, Status Indian, non-Status Indian, Treaty Indian, and there are many more names to describe us. Yes, I get confused as well, because I grew up as Indian in the fifties and sixties, as a young fellow. We were referred to as Status Indians. We received ID cards to prove we were Indians.

What is a “Status Indian”?  It was a term that was part of the Indian act created in 1876. This government document defined what a status Indian was, and therefore who could be and could not be an Indian. The Indian Act was created as a tool for the government to administer local Indian governments, and manage reserve lands and money. It pulled together all the colonial laws already passed in local areas across the country under one document, which still exists and has power today.

One of these laws was actually called “The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857.”  The Indian Act restricted First Nations’ power to govern themselves and live their culture so that they would over time be assimilated into Euro-Canadian society.  The Act was/is administered by the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA).

This legislation had absolute control over us, where we lived, how we lived and where we could go.  When the superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs showed up to our villages, my parents and grandparents had to show them the inside of our house and the cleanliness of the children (that was us) to the superintendent.  I do not profess to know the Indian Act, other than how my mom and grandmother reacted when the authorities showed up to our village.

The controlling factor of the Indian Act was that we were unable to make decisions for ourselves and be independent, as we were at one time.  For thousands of years we totally governed our own communities. On a personal note, it scared my family when the superintendent came to our village. The kids enjoyed seeing the airplane fly over us and land on the Nass River. Little did we know that it was a hardship for our parents and grandparents.   

So ‘Status’ is not really a status with benefits or privileges.  Actually we were confined to our villages or to a residential school, and there were many rules about how we could do business. We did not own our houses – they were DIA property.  Many First Nations people fought for this country in the two World Wars, but we didn’t get our right to vote in BC until 1960.

There have been reforms to the Indian Act over the years, beginning in 1951, but it still exists and has power over many aspects of First Nations governance and life on reserves.

If you want information about the Indian Act, there are many sites you can search on line. One good, basic explanation can be found here on the Canadian Encyclopedia site.

I guess I got carried away with “Status Indian” and didn’t write about the other words used to refer to us. Next time my friends.

IMAGE: Airplane landing in Aiyansh 1950's