This glossary is intended to assist with discussions about the past and present. Many terms have been ascribed to Indigenous peoples, cultures and society with little understanding. These terms may provide common understandings, but they cannot replace authentic dialogue about what is meaningful and representative of the many nations and communities that Indigenous peoples identify with.

This glossary is not comprehensive and does not reflect the diversity of Indigenous communities around the world but it is intended as a place to begin.

Definitions sources and legend

NAHO - National Aboriginal Health Organization
AFN - Assembly of First Nations
A.I.R. - American Indian Policy Center


Aboriginal Nations: The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) used this term in its final report. RCAP defines Aboriginal nations as a "sizable body of Aboriginal people with a shared sense of national identity that constitutes the predominant population in a certain territory or collection of territories." The term has gained acceptance among some Aboriginal groups. (NAHO)

Aboriginal peoples: This is a collective name for all of the original peoples of Canada and their descendants. The Constitution Act of 1982 specifies that the Aboriginal Peoples in Canada consist of three groups - First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples have unique heritages, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. The term Aboriginal peoples should not be used to describe only one or two of the groups. (AFN)

Aboriginal title: A legal term that recognizes Aboriginal interest in the land. It is based on Aboriginal peoples' longstanding use and occupancy of the land as descendants of the original inhabitants of Canada. (AFN)

American "Indian": American "Indian" is a commonly-used term in the United States to describe the descendants of the original peoples of North America (see also Native Americans). Some people are dissatisfied with this term because it retains the misnomer "Indian" in its name and covers peoples who consider themselves distinct from "Indian" Peoples, namely the Inuit, Yupik and Aleut Peoples in Alaska. The term is not popular in Canada. (NAHO)

Band: A band is an organizational structure defined in the Indian Act which represents a particular group of Indians as defined under the Indian Act. (AFN)

Band council: This is the governing body for a band. It usually consists of a chief and councillors who are elected (under the Indian Act or band custom) for two or three-year terms to carry out band business, which may include education, water and sewer, fire services, community buildings, schools, roads, and other community businesses and services. (AFN)

Comprehensive claim: Comprehensive claims are based on unextinguished aboriginal title. They arise where Aboriginal title has not been dealt with by treaty and other legal means. Comprehensive land claims negotiations address concerns raised by Aboriginal people, governments and third parties about who has the legal right to own or use the lands and resources in areas under claim. They include such things as land title, fishing and trapping rights and financial compensation. (AFN)

Eskimo: Eskimo is the term once given to Inuit by European explorers and is now rarely used in Canada. It is derived from an Algonquin term meaning "raw meat eaters", and many people find the term offensive. The term is still frequently used in the United States in reference to Inuit in Alaska. (NAHO)

Extinguishment: A term used to describe the cessation or surrender of aboriginal rights to lands and resources in exchange for rights granted in a treaty. (AFN)

Fiduciary duty: The legal obligation of one party to act in the best interests of another. Canada has a fiduciary obligation with respect to Indians and lands reserved for Indians under Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act of 1867. (AFN)

First Nation(s): The term First Nations came into common use in the 1970s to replace Indian, which some people found offensive. Many communities have also replaced "band" with "First Nation" in their names.
Despite its widespread use, there is no legal definition for this term in Canada. (AFN)

Indian: The term Indian collectively describes all the Indigenous People in Canada who are not Inuit or Métis. Indian Peoples are one of three peoples recognized as Aboriginal in the Constitution Act, 1982 along with Inuit and Métis.
Three categories apply to Indians in Canada: Status Indians, Non-Status Indians and Treaty Indians. (AFN)

Indian Act: This is the Canadian federal legislation, first passed in 1876, which sets out certain federal government obligations, and regulates the management of Indian reserve lands. The act has been amended several times, most recently in 1985. (AFN)

Indian status: An individual's legal status as an Indian, as defined by the Indian Act. (AFN)

Indigenous: There is no official definition of Indigenous peoples. In part, the term "Indigenous" is described as follows: "Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them..."
Its meaning is similar to Aboriginal Peoples, Native Peoples or First Peoples. It is often used to refer to Aboriginal people internationally. (AFN)

Inherent right: The authority given to Aboriginal people by the Creator for self-determination, including the right to govern themselves. (AFN)

Innu: Innu are the Naskapi and Montagnais First Nations Peoples who live in Quebec and Labrador. They are not to be confused with Inuit or Inuk. (NAHO)

Inuit: Inuit are the Aboriginal People of Arctic Canada. Inuit live primarily in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern parts of Quebec and throughout most of Labrador. They have traditionally lived north of the tree line in the areas bordered by the Mackenzie Delta in the west, the Labrador coast in the east, the southern point of Hudson Bay in the south, and the High Arctic islands in the north. The word Inuit means "the people" in Inuktitut and is the term by which Inuit refer to themselves. The Indian Act does not cover Inuit. However, in 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada interpreted the federal government's power to make laws affecting "Indians, and lands reserved for Indians" as extending to Inuit.
Inuit live in communities and settlements. Inuit never lived on reserves, therefore the terms on-reserve or off-reserve do not apply to Inuit only to First Nations. There are four Inuit comprehensive land claims regions covering one-third of Canada: they are Unuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik and Labrador. Nunavut has three subregions-Kitikmeot, Kivalliq and Qikiqtaaluk. (NAHO)

Inuk: Inuk is the singular form of Inuit. Use Inuk when referring to one person. When referring to two people the correct term is Inuuk while three or more is Inuit. (AFN)

Inuktitut: Inuktitut is the Inuit language and writing system. Inuinnaqtun and Inuvialuit are also languages and writing systems for Western Arctic and Kitikmeot Region; Qaniuyaapiat for syllabics and Qaliuyaapait for Roman orthography or Inuinnaqtun. (NAHO)

Land claims: In 1973, the federal government recognized two broad classes of claims - comprehensive and specific. (AFN)

Métis: This is the French word for "mixed blood". The Constitution Act of 1982 recognizes Métis as one of the three Aboriginal Peoples. Historically, the term Métis applied to the children of French fur traders and Cree women in the Prairies, of English and Scottish traders, and Dene women in the north, and Inuit and British in Newfoundland and Labrador. Today, the term is used broadly to describe people with mixed First Nations and European ancestry who identify themselves as Métis. Note that Métis organizations in Canada have differing criteria about who qualifies as a Métis person. Métis Settlements: in 1938, the Alberta government set aside 1.25 million acres of land for eight Métis settlements, however, Métis never lived on reserves and the terms on/off reserve do not apply to them. (NAHO)

Native: This commonly used term in the United States describes the descendants of the original peoples of North America.
The term has not caught on in Canada because of the apparent reference to U.S. Citizenship. However, some Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have argued that because they are descendants of the original peoples of the Americas, the term Native American should apply to them regardless for their citizenship. Native North American has been used to identify the original peoples of Canada and the United States. (NAHO)

Non-Status Indians: Non-Status Indians are people who consider themselves Indians or members of a First Nation but are not entitled to be registered under the Indian Act. This may be because their ancestors were never registered or because they lost their status under former provisions of the Indian Act. Non-Status Indians are not entitled to the same rights and benefits available to Status Indians. (AFN)

Reservation: A reservation is land set aside by the U.S. government for the use and occupation of a group of Native Americans. The term does not apply in Canada. (NAHO)

Reserve: The Indian Act describes a reserve as lands which have been set apart for the use and benefit of a Band, and for which the legal title rests with the Crown in right of Canada. The federal government has primary jurisdiction over these lands and the people living on them. (AFN)

Section 35: Section of the Constitution Act, 1982 that states that aboriginal rights and treaty rights are recognized and affirmed and makes it clear that treaty rights include rights that now exist by way of land claim agreements or that may be so acquired. As a result of this constitutional protection, government has an obligation not to infringe upon aboriginal and treaty rights without justification. (AFN)

Section 91(24): Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, allocates jurisdiction to the Parliament of Canada to enact laws regarding "Indians and lands reserved for Indians." (AFN)

Self-government: The internal regulation of a First Nation by its own people. (AFN)

Sovereignty: Sovereignty is an internationally recognized concept. A basic tenet of sovereignty is the power of a people to govern themselves. (A.I.R.)

Tribal Sovereignty: American Indian tribal powers originate with the history of tribes managing their own affairs. Case law has established that tribes reserve the rights they had never given away. (A.I.R)

Specific claims: Specific claims arise from the breach or non-fulfillment of government obligations found in treaties, agreements or statutes. (AFN)

Status Indians: Status Indians are people who are entitled to have their names included on the Indian Register, an official list maintained by the federal government. Certain criteria determine who can be registered as a Status Indian. Only Status Indians are recognized as Indians under the Indian Act, which defines an Indian as "a person who, pursuant to this Act, is registered as an Indian or is entitled to be registered as an Indian." Status Indians are entitled to certain rights and benefits under the law. (AFN)

Treaty: A negotiated agreement between a First Nation and the federal and provincial governments that spells out the rights of the First Nation with respect to lands and resources over a specified area. It may also define the self-government authority of a First Nation.
The Government of Canada and the courts understand treaties between the Crown and Aboriginal people to be solemn agreements that set out promises, obligations and benefits for both parties. (AFN)

Treaty Indian: Treaty Indians belong to a First Nations whose ancestors signed a treaty with the Crown and as a result are entitled to treaty benefits. (AFN)

Treaty right: Treaty Rights are special rights to lands and entitlements that Indian people legally have as a result of treaties. Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 recognizes and affirms, the "existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal people of Canada." (AFN)

Tribal Council: A tribal council is a group made up of several bands and represents the interests of those bands. A tribal council may administer funds or deliver common services to those bands. Membership in a tribal council tends to be organized around geographic, political, treaty, cultural, and/or linguistic lines. (AFN)

Tribe: A tribe is a group of Native Americans sharing a common language and culture. The term is used frequently in the Unites States, but only in a few areas of Canada. (AFN)

Other terminology links:

Agreements, Treaties and Negotiatied Settlements Project (Australia)