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Umm…what should I call you?

As a non-Indigenous writer, I’ve been clinging to “Indigenous” as my safe word – and I make sure to capitalize it.

I was reassured last year when I heard a representative of the newly renamed Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations give the rationale that “Indigenous” was the word they chose to call themselves.

“Great!” I thought. “Some clarity!”

Then a few weeks ago, I was interviewing a prominent Indigenous leader and it struck me just how casual and calm he was at navigating what would be a minefield for a non-Indigenous person. I think he used just about every term in popular use: Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nations, Métis, Native, even Indian.

I was filled with unease. “You’re not off the hook yet, fella,” I thought. So, what word or words should I be using to be both accurate and respectful?

I started poking around online. We have the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers. We have Thomas King’s excellent award-winning book, The Inconvenient Indian. No consistency there.

Like any writer with a journalism background, I turned to that familiar talisman, the Canadian Press Stylebook (CP). “Aboriginal Peoples” is listed first in the section on “Sensitive Subjects.” Oh-oh.

According to CP, we should use upper case on both “Aboriginal” and “Peoples” when referring to all of Canada’s first peoples. So far so good. Avoid “Indian” – except for Status Indians that prefer it. Be careful with “native” and “tribe.”

Okay. Still confused here, folks.

Next, I turned to university policies. Universities are filled with smart people who’ve been pondering this question, right? Surely, they’ve got answers. The University of British Columbia has its Indigenous People’s Language Guidelines posted online.

Be very careful, the Guidelines advise. It’s not just the terms, but how you use them. For example, “Canada’s First Nations” can be seen as deeply offensive, since the phrase is in the possessive form. First Nations people do not “belong” to Canada; they live in Canada (or more accurately, within the territories they consider their own).

Okay, now I’m getting scared of my keyboard. I should take up knitting or maybe mime. I feel like a white guy squirming in the crowd at a Don Burnstick comedy show: “You look like salt on a piece of moose meat!” But, as Don reassures us non-Indigenous types, you don’t have to be uncomfortable. We’re all human. It’s okay to laugh.

So, what to make of all this? CP offers some solid advice: “use fairness, sensitivity and good taste.” If you’re not sure whether someone prefers to be called Cree or Nehiyaw, ask. Approach with open heart and open hands.

For day-to-day use, I’m going to keep “Indigenous,” though. It seems safest. A few years ago, I wrote an article on Dwight Newman, a University of Saskatchewan law professor with expertise on the duty to consult. Evidently, “Aboriginal” is falling out of favour, he told me, particularly in other parts of the world. So far, “Indigenous” seems okay.

Of course, if I’m really stuck and don’t know what to do, I’ll go ask Bonnie or Sean.