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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, M├ętis, 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.

Apps-Dependent Hedonist Disorder

Silence is rare. Many nights of the week I find myself sitting legs-up on the couch, laptop nestled in place, sports or news on the TV, and iPhone and Blackberry on the coffee table to my left. I click on links, turn my head whenever the TV program projects a loud voice, and reach for whichever phone emits a notification. It’s a brutal vortex of information technology that is difficult to stay out of more than a decade into the new millennium.

I never used email or the internet until I was forced to in my first year of university. I used to hate watching TV. I only bought one because I got a full-time job working for a television broadcaster. I bought a cell phone because the roommates I lived with at the time got rid of our landline. Now all of the current implements that are conduits for these media command my attention at almost every waking moment.

Because of this barrage of information, I find it hard to be really productive or even hold basic linear thoughts when all these things are within reach. So I often shut them off, pick up a book, put on music, play guitar, go for a run, or even sit in silence. The hilarious irony is that I worked hard and saved money to purchase these gadgets and have all kinds of information at my fingertips. As the fictional, misguided visionary Tyler Durden said, “The things you own end up owning you.”

In my line of work, and living in urban North America, it’s almost impossible to live without them. They’re half status symbols and half knowledge necessities. It’s imperative to know what’s going on and to stay connected in these complex layers of relationships and interactions in the city. That being said, I don’t really need to be playing Angry Birds on the bus or in those few minutes between meetings/appointments.

And that’s where balance comes in. When I talk to my grandparents on the rez and in small-town Ontario (face to face), they’re both mind-blown and vexed that we walk around with computers in our pockets these days. They never needed them, and they still don’t. Because that wholesome attitude still exists, smartphones should be obsolete in the grand scheme of life.

But they aren’t, nor will they ever be. They’ve made my life easier, and I’m not abandoning any of these toys to become a born-again Luddite. The other day a random couple stopped me on the street to ask where a certain restaurant was. I didn’t know, so I pulled out my phone and called up an app – and within seconds I sent them in the right direction. My phone made me a hero for a moment. But silence and balance are golden, and I’ll never forget about the things that challenged and captivated my mind before 21st Century attention defects.

By the way, my favourite apps are Word With Friends, Angry Birds, Twitter, Instagram, and the new CBC News App.

Indian is the new Black

Working at Canada’s public broadcaster has allowed me lots of pretty cool opportunities, and one of them is to collaborate on a summer radio show called ReVision Quest. When it launched in 2008, its original concept was to bust myths about contemporary life in Aboriginal Canada, and today it focuses more on the day-to-day issues we face. There’s a great crew of really talented Aboriginal journalists behind it, and it’s hosted by the always hilarious Darrell Dennis. We’re always looking at different things to cover, and last week my fellow producer Ruth pointed us to YouTube for material. It’s a gold mine.

Mainstream popular culture has always had an odd infatuation with “Indians”, even though that’s never really carried over to real life. It’s more of an obsession with the imagery rather than some of the wholesome ideals all of our cultures are based on. Take the following Cher video, for example:

Granted, Cher claims to in fact be a half-breed (half “Cherokee”, as many of them say). But this must have been early on in her own personal cultural renaissance. The video opens with a totem pole, and then cuts to Cher in a Lakota-like headdress and getup – two things that have nothing to do with each other. Pure exploitation of the image. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song. I’ve belted it out more than once at karaoke bars (I’m a half-breed myself). But Cher wasn’t doing any of her native brothers and sisters any favours with this video. For me, the real star is the totally stoic horse, who’s obviously totally gooned on PCP.

Then there’s this gem from Loretta Lynn called “Your Squaw is on the Warpath”

I’ve always been a big fan of Loretta Lynn for blazing a trail for female musicians. And this song is kinda awesome, if you follow the narrative in the lyrics. You can easily argue she’s simply using Indian metaphors for the plight of a frustrated woman. But I can’t excuse the use of the word “squaw”. It’s one of the most offensive terms out there referring to Aboriginal women. I have trouble even saying it. Apparently she’s also part “Cherokee”, which is her supposed license to sing such a song.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find any Cherokees in this crowd…

Shifting from pop music to sports, baseball fans will be familiar with this. It’s the “Tomahawk Chop”, insensitively popularized by Atlanta Braves fans in the early 1990s. This dumbfounded me as a 12 year old, and it blows my mind even today. I made a more comprehensive commentary (see “Indians Finally Win One!) a few years ago on Native American imagery in pro sports (originally an article turned down by VICE Magazine), so I won’t go more into this now. But the chop is alive and well, proving white suburbanites in Georgia still want to be Indian. Scalp those Pittsburgh Pirates!

Such examples are varied and far-reaching, so a post like this could go on and on. But fear not, we’re slowly taking over the mainstream media and we’ll do our best to eradicate exploitation! Cue the pow-wow intro music…

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