Many people struggle to understand the correct terminology to use when referencing the Indigenous community, but one Indigenous woman explains that she is confused as well.

Words have power. When someone speaks negatively about a group of people, their opinions often influence others to think similarly. Without firmly rooted beliefs people can easily be swayed by stereotypes. 

Indian? Indigenous? Who am I? 

Eileen Clearsky is an Indigenous professor and Anishnaabe woman who is still struggling with the words she uses to define herself.

Clearsky grew up in Winnipeg where many different words were used to describe Indigenous Peoples.

“I was raised in the city and classified as an urban Indian, and I didn’t know anything. I had to learn to be an Indian,” Clearsky says.

“I say Indian because that’s what I was called, and that’s what I’m used to. But I’m trying to change my title to Indigenous.”

Today, Clearsky teaches in the education program at Mount Royal University, mentoring the next generation of educators.

While she teaches students about the Indigenous community, she still struggles with terminology.

“I understand that feeling of lack of understanding or not knowing where’s the truth.”

She says it’s important to teach her students by showing, rather than telling, and bringing them into the Indigenous culture so that they can see and learn themselves.

“I take my students out to the community where I teach them about the landscape, the people, the language, the different languages, the different tribes that we have in Alberta.”

She also teaches students to break down barriers and seek relationships. Clearsky encourages people to look past stereotypes.

“Our terminology kind of separates us,” she says.

“Start talking to each other about what’s important in your life.”

Eileen ClearskyProperSize
Eileen Clearsky is an Anishnaabe woman that grew up in Winnipeg. While she teaches students at Mount Royal University about the Indigenous community, she still struggles with terminology. Photo courtesy of Eileen Clearsky. 

The role of casual conversation in reinforcing stereotypes

Terminology, language and stereotypes are intertwined.

A 2008 study in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations looks at the impacts of casual communication regarding negative speech.“Overhearing another person make racist remarks can enhance a listener’s tendency to express racist opinions.”

The spread of negative messages remains an issue in Canada when it comes to Indigenous stereotypes. The terminology used by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people has long-lasting effects on Canada’s view of the community.

‘Saying is believing’ — the effect explored in the 2008 study — occurs when listening to a message that supports prior beliefs. This affirmation allows individuals and groups of people to strengthen their beliefs of a negative message.

“Our finding that the SIB [Saying is Believing] effect can occur when the topic of communication is a group rather than an individual suggests a potentially powerful mechanism by which communication within a group can create or consolidate stereotypes about outgroups.”

The authors of this study also suggest that social validation is necessary to escalate these harmful stereotypes. The solution to avoid perpetuating negative messaging might be as simple as asking where the stereotype comes from.

The importance of asking questions

Kathy Offet-Gartner works on Mount Royal’s student counselling team and has experience working with Indigenous Peoples. She says it all comes down to communication regarding the changing stereotypes about Indigenous Canadians.

“We have to ask questions. We have to be humble. We have to come with a really good heart, and we have to be willing to be challenged,” she says.

She adds that to this day, our education system is still flawed.

Clearsky explains that while we have deep-rooted stereotypical teachings, we can still work to change our perception of others. She also encourages people to help change the dangerous narrative of those around them.

“We can’t change what we have been taught, but we can change what we do with it and how we move forward. It is about challenging other people. It is about asking people about their beliefs.”

Offet-Gartner also says that her role as an ally is to understand that words have different meanings for everyone. Asking about preferred terminology is a good place to start when building relationships.

“This [Indigenous] group of people have been called so many things by so many people. I think it’s time we ask.”

Clearsky highlights the importance of respecting the correct terminology of different people and/or tribes. Seeing as the Indigenous community has not — until recently — been in control of the title they were given there is tremendous value in being able to self-identify.

“For myself, I introduced myself as Anishnaabe because that’s who I am. I’m Indigenous, but I’m Anishnaabe first — so for me, that would be an important factor to consider when you’re speaking and asking questions.”

Missteps are unavoidable when navigating stereotypes and trying to challenge them. Clearsky and Offet-Gartner both say that is alright, as long as you’re using the experience as a lesson and continually trying.

“I’ve been teaching for over 25 years, and I still make mistakes every day,” says Clearsky. 

Editor | Megan Atkins-Baker 

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