Who are the First Nations? - People & Tribes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The relationship between ancestrally indigenous communities and Western governments in North America has been tricky. In this lesson, we'll see how terminology plays into that relationship, and explore the concept of First Nations identity.

The First Nations People

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He then bumped into the Caribbean, assumed he was somewhere around Indonesia and started calling the people he found Indios. With that, Columbus started a debate that would last centuries.

In English, Indios translates to ''Indians'', which is a problematic term. If the ancestrally indigenous peoples of the Americas are Indians, then what do we call people from India?

Over time, people have tried to find alternative names for ancestrally indigenous people. Some like the term ''Native Americans'', but that's potentially misleading since anyone born in the hemisphere can claim to be native. Other terms like ''indigenous'' or ''aboriginal'' can carry dangerous imperialist connotations, so most people avoid those.

One term that has gained a lot of traction over the last few decades, however, is First Nations. This label recognizes the political and cultural sovereignty of tribal communities, as well the fact that (simply put) their ancestors were here first.

Who Is First Nation?

The term 'First Nation' is becoming a more popular way to describe ancestrally indigenous communities, but we do need to note that not everyone uses this term the same way. In fact, the usage of this term varies significantly by nation.

First, however, we need to acknowledge that the very concept of a First Nations identity is inherently tricky. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, First Nations groups shared no sense of common identity. They were ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse.

We use terms like ''First Nations'' to describe the pan-Indian identity today, but it is still always best to identify somebody by their specific nation whenever possible. We need to get away from the idea that there is only one First Nation culture, and remember that each nation is truly it's own.

In the United States

In the United States, any person who belongs to a federally recognized tribe may claim to be a First Nations person. While this is an accepted term, it's actually not the most popular in the USA. The US government, and many US-based academics and ancestrally indigenous community leaders, prefer the term ''Amerindian'', a contraction of ''American Indian''.

Amerindian lands in the USA
Amerindian lands

There are 562 federally recognized Amerindian nations in the United States. 229 of these live in Alaska alone; the rest are distributed between roughly 33 other states. The largest Amerindian nation is the Navajo, with a population of over 300,000. The Cherokee, Sioux, Chippewa, and Choctaw round out the rest of the list of top five largest Amerindian nations in the USA.

In Mexico

Mexico is similar. While the term ''First Nations'' is gaining some traction here, it's even less widely used than in the USA. In many parts of Mexico, people still use the term Indio. This is possible in Mexico (and throughout Latin America), because there is a more modern word for people from India: Indiano. So, there's no confusion as to someone's genealogy.

Still, the term Indio carries certain colonialist implications, so it's not accepted by all. Pueblos indígenas, indigenous peoples, is a more modern label that has become popular.

Mexico has the highest percentage of Amerindian people among North American nations. In fact, roughly 30% identify as Amerindian, while another 62% identify as mestizo, with mixed Amerindian and European heritage.

The Mexican national identity embraces Amerindian heritage in a different way than either the USA or Canada does, but it's not an equal distribution. While the country elevates Maya or Mexica (Aztec) heritage, it has historically downplayed its nearly 70 other federally recognized nations. Efforts are being made to change that today.

In Canada

So, who actually uses the term ''First Nations'' then? The country where this identity has the strongest impact is in Canada. The Canadian government recognizes 'First Nations' as its official term, notably in interactions between the Canadian government and First Nations governments.

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