Indigenous or Aboriginal or Both or Neither, eh?

The Prime Minister of Canada, the colonial power in this space, spoke to the UN the other day about the need for Canada to reconcile itself with its aboriginal peoples. Notice that he did not say he was looking for reconciliation with the country’s indigenous peoples. That would be quite hard. Sure, the words are often interchangeable in usage, but they’re not really the same. Aboriginal is a word used for people who lived in a space before colonization. One can define such people as earlier colonists, and then use that definition to erase their claims, or at least to absorb it into a larger, more energetic colonial context. “Aboriginal” people get to be citizens of colonial cities, such as my Vernon, below:

Indigenous is a word for people who are the land, are native to it, and can’t be separated from it without losing their identity. For example, the cat tail below is an indigenous life form in this space of sun and wind in which I live:

In colonial culture, it is considered a weed. Surely, that speaks volumes. Take another look. The person below is indigenous to this space, and even to the wheat grass she is walking through, but not to the system of roads and houses both she and the grass are placed in, or the relatively pure stand of seeded grass (to stabilize infill from road construction) she is passing through. That is Canadian space. Property developers (for what else is colonialism but property development???) are native to that space. Not mule deer.

I hope you don’t mind that I call her a person. Humans indigenous to this space don’t.

Humans indigenous to this space pass through this grass in the same way as well. They don’t stay. There is nothing to stay for. It is a monocultural desert.

The people who stay are the property developers and the colonists who buy their title deeds.

That is Canada. What then is it to be indigenous? It’s very simple. It is to be the land. That really doesn’t need elaboration, but since the words are colonial ones (there was no “land” here before colonial property rights were introduced, for example, which is not the same as saying there were no property rights), it might be best to say a few more things. First, the earth is organic, and her processes are as well. Things fit into other things: the mule deer foot print in mud from a colonial diversion of water through a seasonal subsurface water drainage, creates a healing wetland, which a mule deer steps in, which allows seeds to gather and wait for rain, and growth. What happens to the land, happens in depth.

What happens to the land’s people also happens in depth, and is part of this organic process. This is not a wild deer. It is fenced by a set of ideas. Are human people any different?

The opposite is also true: what happens negatively to the land, happens negatively to indigenous people. If the land is fenced, so are they. If the land is capitalized and divided into property, there is a “Canada Indian Act” to turn indigenous people into aboriginal property, little different than trees or rocks, which can be milled or mined. It is this fundamental de-indigenization that lies behind current cries of protest about cultural appropriation of indigenous cultures for profit. It’s what Canada is for. This transformation of indigenous people into aboriginal people, and then their erasure by time and demographics, is a process often commented on by the political right in Canada: all people in the country are equal. Yes, all people in the country are indigenous to Canada, because it is ever-present, but not all people in Canada are indigenous to the land and share in its fate. That’s a huge difference. It is also something Canadians don’t talk about much: the difficult trails that coyotes and human people walk in urban environments to maintain their contact with the earth, and the difficult forms of taming and domestication that these colonial environments instilled in them, and how to tell the difference. Perhaps people in other countries need philosophies of existence or of individualism or of trade. What we don’t need in Canada is a philosophy of reconciliation. What we need is to make Canada indigenous to this place. We’re going to need new words and philosophies for that. For one thing, people are not a resource. The salmon people below are not a resource.

Canada is the resource. .

4 thoughts on “Indigenous or Aboriginal or Both or Neither, eh?

  1. My head spins as I struggle to understand this whole issue of truth and reconciliation. Does indigenous mean “We got here first, therefore the land is ours.” The entire continent?


    • That’s a different discussion. What I was trying to say was that indigenous means “of the land.” Aboriginal means “before colonial arrival”. The goal is to be of the land. If people come earlier or later and are of the land, then they too, in a complicated way, are of the land. But, you see, the language is tricky: that’s not right, because “land” is the wrong word. It would be better to say “of the story.” One can be indigenous in one place and transfer that well, or one can transfer it badly. A person indigenous to the razor-wire street tops of Kelowna may or may not relate directly to someone indigenous to someone indigenous to Nkwentikw, but it sure would be a lot easier if we had philosophies for negotiating this territory, instead of departments of the philosophies of the colonial powers. >


    • As Canadians, we are native to that space Canada has made for us, unless we are also native to other spaces. What that means is that Kelowna, as a Canadian project, is home to Canadians; the valley may or may not also be home to these people, but if it is it will be so differently. >


  2. there are similar issues in other countries as well, but I feel we cannot go back to the start; to the times when nature was worshipped and personal interest wasn’t the priority.


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