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The Right Words Matter: Aboriginal Terminology in Mainstream Media

The best measure of the under-representation of Indigenous peoples in mainstream Canadian media is the common misuse of the terminology related to them, their communities, and their issues. There are numerous examples to cite, but the one I hear regularly that irritates me the most is referring to a community as a “First Nations reserve”.

The term “First Nations reserve” is sort of redundant and it doesn’t really make sense. A community is either a “First Nation” or a “reserve”. No one who’s Indigenous would refer to their home as a “First Nations reserve”. I notice broadcasters from across the country make this mistake often. The CBC, where I work, is no exception. I actually addressed this recently in an email to my colleagues, which I’m adapting here. I explained that when we use a misnomer like that, Indigenous viewers and listeners roll their eyes and we instantly lose credibility.

I understand how that particular term came about and why it causes confusion. Recently, “First Nations” has arisen as an adjective to describe Indigenous people. Along the way, someone decided that a reserve needed to be described as “First Nations” (using the adjective), and it stuck. But by that logic, it’s like calling a small, non-Indigenous community a “towny town”, or in another way, a “white town”. It just sounds silly and weird. It’s perfectly acceptable to simply call a community a First Nation. I come from Wasauksing First Nation. It’s kind of like saying New York City (although Wasauksing is far less glamorous but far more gorgeous).

Being correct with the terminology used in mainstream media means a lot to Indigenous readers, viewers, and listeners. There’s still a big rift between Canadian media and people from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, so it’s imperative that journalists be sensitive and diligent with their words. Mainstream media outlets are sometimes the only connection between Canadians and Indigenous people, so in order to tell the stories properly, journalists need to get the words and ideas right. In many ways, they’re making up for the historical shortfalls of the Canadian education system.

As mentioned, “First Nations reserve” is just one common error of many, and my motive for bringing this up is to highlight two essential online resources for covering Indigenous communities, issues, and stories in Canada. One is Reporting in Indigenous Communities, the brainchild of CBC’s Duncan McCue. It’s a comprehensive hub for context, terminology, scenarios, protocol and other vital information and pointers for journalists about to embark on the Indigenous beat. It should be the first stop for the unsure, the unfamiliar, and the unaware.

For an extremely useful reference on proper terminology, the Strategic Alliance of Broadcasters for Aboriginal Reflection (SABAR) created a handy guidebook on key terms. You can either download it or search the online database. A quick visit there prior to making a call to do research or set up an interview can help ensure the right words are used for the right people/communities. Those words can make or break a story.

While it’s easy gloss over proper parlance and cultural sensitivity as tedious political correctness, the foundation of journalism is supposed to be telling a story fully and correctly. That includes getting the words right to do the stories (and the people in them) justice.


From the archives: Ancient Anonymous Aggression

One of my favourite albums of the last decade or so has been Tomahawk‘s Anonymous. To sum it up in a sentence, it’s a collection comprised mostly of contemporary arrangements of traditional Sioux and Apache songs. I was listening to it on a drive back from the rez on the weekend and was reminded that I wrote a little article on it back in 2007 for SPIRIT Magazine. Unfortunately, that issue was never printed and the great magazine is no more. So I dug up the article and decided to post it here. While I greatly enjoy the album, it opens up the debate around cultural tribute versus cultural appropriation. I’d love to hear what you think.


The way Duane Denison sees it, it was a kind of bizarre rock n’ roll destiny.

“We didn’t intend to end up here – a band of white guys called ‘Tomahawk’ playing rock versions of pow wow music,” he says with a laugh on the phone from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “We just picked the name because it sounded aggressive.”

But it was an almost ancient aggression that inspired Tomahawk’s third album, Anonymous: thirteen tracks that explore traditional Native American songs with a more contemporary rock treatment. The result is a modern interpretation of some of the darker and more haunting traditional melodies and beats from the North American southwest through heavier, more intricate percussion, guitars, and complex vocal samples.

It’s an idea Tomahawk guitarist Denison had been kicking around since 2000, after touring as a guitarist for Hank Williams III on the reservation casino circuit across the American southwest. “I was a little disappointed with some of the Native bands I was seeing in some of those communities,” he says. “They were usually very conventional, kind of blues and country type stuff, or too much like ‘new age’ music. I figured there must be Native music somewhere that was more aggressive, spookier, and more kinetic.”

After doing some research, Denison (formerly of The Jesus Lizard) found some historical music books that dated back to the early 1900s with transcriptions of traditional Sioux and Apache ceremonial music. He was blown away. “I couldn’t believe how meticulously transcribed these songs were – right down to tempo and key changes,” he says. “The music just sat in these books for decades and decades. There were no recordings; no listening reference to learn from. I was just really interested in the way they sounded.”

So he got together in Nashville with drummer John Stanier (formerly of Helmet) and worked on some demos. They then sent the guitar and drum tracks to vocalist Mike Patton (of Mr. Bungle, Faith No More and Fantomas fame) in San Francisco. The original idea was to use them as interludes and segues on a new Tomahawk album – which was supposed to be a straight-up rock record like the band’s first two releases. “I played it for Mike, and he thought it sounded amazing,” says Denison. “He said we should try to make a whole album out of these songs.”

What resulted was an eclectic and intriguing collection of songs on what became Anonymous. Heavy beats that drive straightforward, then wildly stray. And guitar and vocal melodies that are both haunting and beautiful. “Mescal Rite 1” is a concise marriage of all three, based on a rhythmically complex chant that seems almost universal – i.e. something you’d hear at any powwow across North America. “Cradle Song”, meanwhile is an ambient, chilly departure that’s much more contemporary, with lyrics in English. And “Sun Dance” is probably the most “rock” in nature, but the vocals make it almost ancestral.

“I’ve always been worried that our approach might offend some Native people,” says Denison. “But we wanted to be as respectful and true to these traditional songs as possible. The bottom line is, we want to make music that sounds good.” He says the “Anonymous” title pays tribute to the countless individuals who contributed to these songs, but went uncredited throughout history.

“This music belongs to everybody, and I’m really fortunate and honoured to have been able to play it.”

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