Glossary of Key Terms

The terms included in this glossary reflect many influences, including colonization and self-determination.  People may use different terms or they may shift over time.  The definitions included here are intended to provide relatively straightforward usages, but as with most things, each term may have complexities which are not reflected in the definition provided.  

The Glossary is in alphabetical order, which may require you to scroll down for certain common words/phrases.

Aboriginal Peoples This term refers to the peoples who are the descendants of the original inhabitants of a Nation.  In Canada, this term encompasses First Nation Métis and Inuit peoples.  the rights of Aboriginal peoples are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Currently, this population is the fastest growing in the country.

Aboriginal title  The right that First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Canada have to land as a result of their ancestors’ use and occupancy of traditional territories before contact with Europeans or Canadians.  This right has continuously been asserted by First Nation, Métis and Inuit people and continues to be defined in various court decisions.

Algonquian This term refers to a linguistic group.  This group encompasses Cree, Oji-Cree, Mississauga, and Ojibwe, as well as others.  Pronounced Al-gon-key-an

Algonquin  The Algonquin have traditionally lived in Ontario.  The Algonquin currently have an outstanding land claim for the southern watershed of the Ottawa River.  They are also called the Anishinaabe, anishinabek, and the Omamiwinini.  Pronounced Al-gon-kwin

Anishinaabe This term is used to refer to various First Nations including the Algonquin and the Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa).  It means “first man”.  They live from Quebec to Manitoba, north and south of the Great Lakes.  The plural is Anishinabek or Anishinabeg.  Pronounced Ah-nish-nah-bay

Assimilation  The process of change whereby a dominant group attempts to force cultural change onto an individual or group.  In Canada, the government used various methods–residential schools, the Indian Act, and missionary activities, to make First Nation, Métis and Inuit people adopt non-aboriginal culture.

Band  This is a term from the Indian Act which refers to a First Nation group for whose use and benefit common lands have been established.  Each band has its own governing council which usually includes an elected chief.  Band governments must conform to the structure imposed by the Indian Act.  Today, bands prefer to be called First Nations.  There are over 630 bands or First Nations in Canada

Clans Clans are related groups of families.  These links may cross many first Nations, and are usually associated with a totem, symbol or animal.  the Haudenosaunee, for example, have nine clans: Turtle, Eel, Beaver, Wolf, Deer, Bear, Heron, Hawk, and Snipe.  these clans often have specific responsibilities within a community.

Colonization The process by which one people or nation imposes and legislates its political and cultural traditions and institutions on another.  Following from the British, Canada imposed the reserve system, the Indian Act, residential schools and other policies on first Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples.  These policies attacked and undermined their cultures and traditions.  Colonization continues whenever governments attempt to dictate policies which seek to control or speak for First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples.

Cree The Cree live in northern and western Ontario as well as in Quebec and on the Prairies.  In northern Ontario they are mostly the Moose Cree and Swampy Cree and on the Prairies, the Plains Cree and the Woods Cree.  They are the largest group of First Nations peoples in Canada.

Cultural Appropriation When a dominant culture takes or uses the artistic or traditional teachings of another culture without the permission or acknowledgment.  Teachers must be especially careful when using First Nations, Métis and Inuit stories or art.  For example, the making of totem poles or dream catchers must be made within an appropriate cultural context.  As well, the rewriting of traditional stories is discouraged.

Elder A man or woman whose wisdom and knowledge of spiritual and cultural matters is recognized and affirmed by the community.  These people are sometimes called knowledge keepers or wisdom keepers.  Within the Métis culture they are called Senators.  Elders are not necessarily “old”.  Elders are an important part of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.  When approaching Elders or asking them to share cultural knowledge, they should be shown respect through a gift of tobacco.

First Nation A term that came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the term “Indian” or “band”.  Canada has over 630 First Nations.

Great Law of Peace This oral law was given in the distant past by the Peacekeeper to the five nations of people who formed the Iroquois Confederacy.  Its rules continue to guide the existence and governance of the people of the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee.

Haudenosaunee This term means “People of the Longhouse”  and refers to members of the Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Tuscarora who choose to follow the Great Law of Peace.  the Haudenosaunee have also been called by the following names:Iroquois, Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations.  Pronounced Ho-den-oh-show-nee.

Homeland Traditional Métis territories are called homelands.  The homelands stretch from the lakes and rivers of Ontario, across the prairies, and into British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.  They also include lands in the north-central United States.

Indian An out-dated term, although it is still used by some first Nation people to refer to themselves and by the federal government in the context of the Indian Act.  The term should only be used when referring to legal matters involving the Indian Act.  this term is still used quite commonly in the United States.

Indian Act  The act is the legislation which defines who is entitled to be registered as an “Indian” and outlines the rules governing reserves.  It was first passed in 1876 and has been revised many times since.

Indigenous peoples This term is used to describe Aboriginal peoples when referring to them in a global context.  In 2007, The United Nations issued the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Inuit Aboriginal people from norther Canada who traditionally lived along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, Hudson Bay, and Labrador.  They now form the majority population in Nunavut.  The Inuit are not covered by the Indian Act which only covers status Indians.  Pronounced Ee-new-eet.

Iroquoian Refers to a linguistic group that includes many languages such as Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Tuscarora, Onondaga and Cherokee.

Iroquois Confederacy Originally a confederacy of five nations, the Iroquois Confederacy has a long history and today includes six First Nations: Mohawk Oneida, Seneca, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscarora.  The confederacy is governed by the Great Law of Peace.  Historically, its influence stretched from James Bay all the way to Florida.  The main living area of the Five Nations was south of lake Ontario but today various nations live in the lands that surround Lake Ontario.  The Iroquois peoples are also known as the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) or the Six Nations.

Jigging A traditional Métis dance style.  The Red River Jig, a unique dance developed by the Métis people, combines the intricate footwork of some Aboriginal dances with the instruments and form of European music.

Land Claims This term was created in the 1970s to describe claims made by First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples for recognition of land rights (Comprehensive claims) or to claims of financial impropriety by government (Specific claims).  In this region, the Algonquin have an outstanding comprehensive claim which encompasses the western watershed of the Ottawa River and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte have an outstanding specific claim regarding land adjacent to the existing Tyendinaga Territory.

Longhouse Longhouses were traditional homes used by the Algonquin and the Iroquois.  They accommodated several families.  The term Longhouse also refers to the traditional beliefs and practices of the peoples who are Haudenosaunee of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Matrilineal Many Aboriginal peoples trace their lineage through their mothers.  In these groups, clan mothers play an important role in the governance of the Confederacy, especially in selecting and removing chiefs.

Medicines Medicines are things like plants, words, rattles, drums and animals which can heal or hurt.  First Nation peoples believe the Earth is our Mother and provides for humans, the most dependent of the created beings.  Among the blessings of Mother Earth are the sacred medicines.  In many First Nation cultures these medicines include sage, cedar, tobacco and sweetgrass.  These medicine are used as offerings to the Earth and spirits to show respect and are used before ceremonies begin as well as at other times.

Medicine Wheel the Medicine Wheel is typically divided into four which represent the four lateral directions: East, South, West and North.  Each direction is associated with various elements such as a particular colour, animal, medicine, stage of life, element, life force, or spiritual value.  The Medicine Wheel reminds us of the importance of maintaining balance in our lives and encourages us to view ourselves and the world from various perspectives.  The Medicine Wheel is used by many Aboriginal peoples.

Métis The Métis are a distinct Aboriginal people.  Their ancestral Homelands lie in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, parts of the Northwest Territories and the northwestern United States.  Prior to Canada’s creation as a nation, the Métis emerged out of the relations of First Nation women and European men.  Subsequent intermarriage between Métis women and Métis men resulted in the genesis of a new Aboriginal people with a distinct identity, culture and consciousness.  Their rights were included in Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

Métis Sash Perhaps the most widely recognized symbol associated with the Métis culture.  Voyageurs wrapped the sash about their midsections, and used it to carry their belongings during their transportation duties.  The sash is also valued for its aesthetic presence.

Michif Language The Michif Language is spoken by some Métis. Michif combines Cree and French, with some English and First Nations Languages such as Ojibwe and Assiniboine.

Mohawk The Mohawks are one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Traditionally they lived in New York State but moved to Canada following the American War of Independence.  The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte were given land at Tyendinaga in 1784 by the British as compensation for lands they lost by being British allies.  The reserve is named after Joseph Brant’s Mohawk name.  Mohawks now live in a number of different communities in Canada and the United States.

Native This term is still used by some First Nation, Métis and Inuit people when they refer to themselves.

Oral tradition  Traditionally, First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples passed on their knowledge and culture orally.  The term “oral tradition” refers to the entire body of knowledge, history, language and culture passed from generation to generation.

Non-status Many First Nation people have not been enrolled as Status Indians or have lost their status under the rules of the Indian Act. As such, these people, although often identifying as Aboriginal people, are currently ineligible for the rights of Status Indians as defined by the federal government.

Peacemaker The person who brought the message of peace to the peoples who constitute the Haudenosaunee and guided the creation of the Confederacy under the Great Law of Peace.

Powley Decision In 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the constitutional protection for the harvesting rights of the Métis.  The Court also set out a general test for determining Métis rights within section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.  The decision is named for Steve and Roddy Powley, two Métis hunters who were charged with illegal hunting but claimed the Métis had constitutionally protected hunting rights.

Powwow This is a gathering of First Nations or Métis people for thanksgiving, celebration, unity, cultural renewal, and bonding.  There are strong ceremonial and spiritual aspects to certain elements of powwows.  Powwows feature drumming, singing, and dancing and some have dance competitions.  There is a definite powwow etiquette with which you should familiarize yourself and your students before attending.

Regalia  The term used to describe the clothing worn by First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples during powwows and other cultural ceremonies.  Referring to ceremonial clothing as “costumes” is inappropriate.

Reserve Lands set aside by the federal government for the use and benefit of a specific band or First Nation.  The Indian Act states that this land is owned communally and can only be sold to the federal government.  There are over 2300 reserves in Canada but only 630 bands.  Oftentimes, these lands were of poor quality and did not correspond to ancestral lands.

Residential Schools Residential schools were set up beginning in the 1800s and continued until 1996.  They were run by churches in conjunction with the federal government and used to educate and assimilate First Nation, Métis and Inuit children.  They were often the scene of horrendous abuses for which the federal government apologized in 2008.  These abuses and the attack on Aboriginal cultures have had negative multi-generational impact which continues to devastate individuals, families and communities.  A Truth and Reconciliation Commission began hearing testimony about abuses in 2009.

Royal Proclamation of 1763 This document, issued by the British Government following the Seven Years War with France, states that First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples retain title to their traditional lands which can only be transferred to the Crown.  This document is the basis for the treaty making which has occurred since that time.  First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples still cite this document when asserting their rights.

Self-Determination First Nation, Métis and Inuit people assert that they have the right as distinct peoples to determine their own ways of governing themselves.

Self-Identification The Ministry of Education in Ontario has a formal process for self-identification for First Nation, Métis and Inuit students.  Students with or without status may self-identify.

Seven Grandfather Teachings  This is a set of teachings in the Anishinaabe and Algonquin traditions.  They include Respect, Love, Truth, Courage, Honesty, Humility and Wisdom.

Smudging Before meetings and spiritual activities, many First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples will smudge themselves as a ritual cleansing and offering.  This involves burning sacred medicines, typically tobacco, sage, sweetgrass or cedar, and drawing the smoke across on’s body.  People will usually draw the smoke across their hands, eyes, ears, mouth and heart to be pure of spirit in their subsequent actions.  Before and after smudging people should stand and remain silent.

Sovereignty First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples assert their right to govern themselves according to their own rules and without external control or interference.  This right is based on their habitation of Canada prior to European exploration and settlement; it is also called self-determination.

Status Status is a technical term under the Indian Act and refers to those who are registered as Indians under the Indian Act. Not all people who consider themselves First Nations have status due to historical reasons; for example, they may not have been registered under the act when a reserve was established or they or their ancestors may have lost status due to marriage to a non-status person.  Status Indians have certain rights not available to non-status Indians.

Stereotype Stereotypes are oversimplified and unjustified generalizations which supposedly describe characteristics or behaviors of a group of people.

Sweat Lodge Ceremony This refers to a traditional purification ceremony practiced by many Aboriginal peoples.  There are specific protocols for constructing and leading a sweat lodge ceremony.  They can have various purposes and participants.

Thanksgiving Address The Haudenosaunee may use this address to give thanks to all elements of creation.  It is said to greet the new day, at the start of meetings, and other public events to cleanse and purify the minds of all involved.  When one recites the Thanksgiving Address, one thanks each life-sustaining force and one becomes spiritually tied to each of the forces of the natural and spiritual world  It is also known as the “Words before all else”  and is usually said in a language of the Six Nations.

Tobacco  Tobacco is one of the four sacred medicines.  The others are sage, sweetgrass and cedar.  Tobacco is offered as a sign of respect, often in a small tobacco bundle.   It is given to Elders when asking for teachings.  It is offered to the earth or animals when people harvest resources.

Traditional ecological knowledge The knowledge of ecosystems and social relationships which First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples developed over countless generations to sustain themselves in a specific geographical area and traditionally passed on orally.

Traditional territory Lands used and occupied by First Nations before European/Canadian contact or the assertion of British sovereignty.  Comprehensive land claims are based on traditional territories and may treaties stated that First Nations could continue to hunt on their traditional territories until they were taken by non-Aboriginal Canadians for settlement, mining or other economic uses.

Treaty An agreement between the Crown (federal and provincial governments) and First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples.  Treaties, also called land claims, have been negotiated for hundreds of years.  Today, many areas in Canada are still not covered by treaties which remain to be negotiated.  The Numbered Treaties (signed between 1871 and 1921) are typical examples form the past; the Nisga’a agreement signed in 2000 is a good example of a contemporary land claim agreement.  Some First Nations people refer to themselves as “Treaty Indians” because they are covered by treaties that give them rights other First Nation, Métis and Inuit people may not have.  All Canadians whether Aboriginal or not, can be considered “Treaty People” because the Government of Canada signs treaties on behalf of all Canadians.

Treaty Days These are days when the signing of a treaty is remembered and celebrated and contemporary implications of the treaty are discussed.  Treaty payments come in various forms and are distributed at that time to every member of the community.  these days are significant community events where community members from far and wide gather.  They may be referred to as Treaty Day or Bread and Cheese Day (Six Nations).

Tribe This term is generally not used in Canada, but is used in the United States.  The term First Nation is preferred in Canada.

Turtle Island Many First Nations have creation stories that refer to Mother Eartch being covered in water.  In these stories a woman falls from the sky and needs a place to live, so many animals swim down, deep into the water, to find some mud for her to live on.  Only the tiniest of them (a muskrat) is able to do this.  A turtle then volunteers to have the mud placed on its back.  Bit by bit, the mud and the turtle then grow to become Turtle island–the land also known as North America.

Voyageurs These men were typically French Canadian or Métis.  They transported furs and trade goods along the lakes and rivers of Canada.

Wampum Belt These ceremonial objects made form quahog shells were used by some First Nations to commemorate important agreements.  The Two Row Wampum is a famous best showing two purple lines on a white background.  It symbolizes the agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ditch in 1613.  The purple beads signify the courses of the two vessels – an Iroquois canoe and a European ship–travelling down the river of life together, parallel but never touching.

Worldview The way in which people perceive the world based on the totality of their cultural knowledge and background.


About lauragroome

I am a high school teacher for the Toronto District School Board, this site is meant for my students to have greater access to what is going on in class and to raise some topics of interest.
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