Toronto Star asks: Is "Indian" a derogatory word?

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I've only ever heard the term Indian used by white people in a derogatory context or in ways that are usually historically, geographically, or grammatically incorrect.

Maysie Maysie's picture


An Indian Act
A response to an attempt of genocide

Artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun publicly protested after his painting 'Red Man Watching White Men Trying To Fix A Hole In The Sky' was purchased by the National Art Gallery to be shown in their 'Indian Room.' He didn't want his work to be associated with the notional concept of 'Indians.' Earlier in his career, he had been charged with desecrating an official document when he showed, in one of his professional exhibitions, a photographic series of himself firing a high-powered rifle into a target-mounted official copy of Canada's 'Indian Act.' The photographic series was titled 'An Indian Act.'

Indian. There is no such word in any language indigenous to Turtle Island. In fact, there's no such word in any language indigenous to India. Back when Columbus made his historic voyage, the nation we now call India was called Hindustan, and the people there, because of their all-day-every-day spiritual practice, were characterized by the Spaniards as living in God, "in dios."

'The Admiral of the Ocean Seas' - the name given to Columbus by the Spanish Court for only being half a planet off course -- encountered what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Folks there were living in God too. They weren't white folks either and they just happened to be where the flat-Earth mentality folks thought Hindustan must be. Columbus called them Indians, too.

'Indians' and Europe's international system of wardship came together in Canada as "An Act For The Gradual Civilization Of Indians," an official copy of which Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun was charged for desecrating. This act of Parliament is still in effect; we now know it by its short name, the Indian Act.

As my uncle, Mike Steinhauer, likes to point out, all you need to know about the Indian Act is that it says, "The minister may...." The Indian Act gives the minister sweeping discretionary powers unheard of in modern democracies.

The basic notion behind modern democracy is that the people freely give fully informed consent to be ruled and choose representatives to form the government that decides the what, where, when, why and how of those rules. It's called the 'rule of law.'

Although the version of the Indian Act Canada currently uses dates back to 1876, that version was a rolled together collection of legal notions stemming from the 1550 Council of the Indies. In 1876, the people whose lives would become subject to the discretionary powers of the minister were not Canadian citizens, nor were they consulted, nor did they freely give fully informed consent to be ruled by the Indian Act. In fact, the people so ruled did not become citizens of the nation exercising this rule until March 10, 1960, and became so without being consulted, never mind freely giving fully informed consent. A lot of important events occurred before 1876 and a lot of important events have occurred since 1960, but let's narrow down our focus to the 84-year period when peoples not of the Canadian citizenry -- notionally called Indians -- were ruled by an act of a foreign parliament giving foreign persons dictatorial powers over their day-to-day lives in their own homelands.

Let's start with property rights. Indigenous views of property rights are not the same as European views of property rights, but a concept of property rights did, and still does, exist for indigenous peoples. Under the Indian Act, both original indigenous property rights and property rights as constituted under Canadian law were prohibited. This is still in effect.


In her 1980 'From Colonialism to Economic Imperialism: The Experience of the Canadian Indian,' sociologist Gail Kellough likened the effects of the Indian Act to a forced march through European history because it created a feudal relationship on every reserve in Canada. Writing in 1970, Robertson notes:

"The Indian Affairs Branch is the lord of the manor. The Indian agent is the local manager. The lord has total control over the lives of his serfs, who neither own their land nor rent it. They are "crofters" permitted to live on the land and farm it but not for their own individual benefit. The lord or manager tells them what to plant and when to sow or harvest; he provides the equipment; he tells them when to sell the crop, and at what price."

What Kellough and other well-meaning Canadians looking sympathetically at Canada's "Indian Problem" don't mention is the intentional destruction of the national characteristics of indigenous peoples. Raphael Lemkin, who originated the concept of genocide, called this its stage one. Economy, governance, language, spiritual practice and customary law were all abolished by decree of the Indian Act. During that 84-year period: Indian Act Chief and Councils were established and traditional governance systems suppressed; John A Macdonald ordered forced starvation as collective punishment for the North-West Rebellion; the pass law controlling movement outside of reserves was implemented; and Duncan Campbell Scott's 'kill the Indian and spare the man' residential schools removed up to five generations of children from family homes, leaving the children thus 'schooled' in a mental/emotional state modern psychologists call 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.'


sknguy II


a concept of property rights did, and still does, exist for indigenous peoples.

Colonialised thoughs still guide what we-think we think. What I've come to realize is that there was no historical concept/"Law" of property, at least to the Nakawe people. Certainly our ancestors had obligations based relationships with the gifts they used. Really, the only way property/capitalism would have been allowed is if "spirit" ownership were possible. In the western lexicon... "exclusive use for contractual obligations" would be a better way to look at it.Smile

Sorry for the thread drift... responding to a pet peave.

I should comment on the topic. The term "Indian" doesn't belong to me and I don't identify with it. It's simply a legal term to me, when used here in Canada. I think that the more important point is the underlying intent of the other person or party, and how one is addressed. Are you being respecful to me or not. If I'm being disrespected, then of course I may attach some emotion to the dialogue.


Oh no....two Fidels..Surprised

Maysie Maysie's picture

Thanks for your thoughts, sknguy II.

I need to close this now for length, but if anyone wants please start another thread, or continue in a part 2.


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