Native Peoples v. Indigenous Peoples v. Aboriginals…Are any of the terms really any good?

One of the first major projects I undertook in my new position dealt with finding a proper way to describe the people who used to bluntly be called “Indians”. Native Americans, First Nations, Aboriginals, Indians of North America… we’ve all been challenged by this very important, yet frustrating access issue. As a Canadian library, we tend to follow LC’s rules, only they use the term “Indians of North America”. As an American, I understand the term and really, if you are from the States, it remains politically correct to use it. Are there better descriptions, perhaps, but I’ll be addressing my issues at a Canadian library.

In this area, the authority work was quite daunting. We used “Native Peoples”, “Indians of North America — Canada” and “Indians”. Wait a minute…Indians? And yet, there was no see also reference for “First Nations”. In Canada, that is one of the key terms used. I also needed to know what term we could collectively use for all the original peoples of Canada – First Nations, Metis and Inuit combined. What followed was an immense undertaking on how Canada describes her First Peoples and what we were going to do about it.

Reading, looking at other libraries and perusing various authorities were among my first steps. Following that, I sent an email to the National Library of Canada. They were quite willing to provide feedback but, ultimately no firm position. Unfortunately, they are in the middle of revamping this too. I believe they are just as confused.  However, they are taking a serious look the steps we are taking and considering them in their decisions.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Next, I went to my good friend and fellow librarian Reegan ( Reegan specializes in this area and always recommends excellent resources, besides having a multitude of patience for my questions. She referred me to several resources. I’ll include them at the bottom of this post for your convenience.

In the end, what followed was a lot of questions, reviewing of our own collection, reviewing subject headings and numerous drafts of the proposed changes. I found this challenging and stimulating. I hadn’t ever been “let loose” with the authorities before. I drafted mock authorities that I wanted to use, including additional notes for our cataloguers. These notes included exceptions to our new rules and direction as to how to appropriately use the term.

I would like to say that we’re done with this project, but I think it is ongoing. We did add a First Nations reference in our catalogue. This allows patrons who search for First Nations to find our subject heading “Indians of North America — Canada”. We no longer use the terms Native Peoples or Indians. They exist only as references to guide users to the correct and more appropriate terms. We decided that the best term for works collectively describing the First Nations, Metis and Inuit was Aboriginal Peoples. And, after much consideration, Indigenous Peoples was selected for all aboriginals residing outside of North America/Canada.

This is by no means black and white. There is so much grey and we have created quite a few exceptions. After all, what if there was a work about the Inuit of Canada, the Aztecs of Central America and the Aboriginals of Australia? In that case, we would assign the term “Indigenous Peoples” as it is more of a work about aboriginals around the world. Then, of course, there is our 4 or more rule…but, I don’t think I have the time to go into all of our exceptions and rules. However, if you are interested, please send me an email (

I think the lesson in all of this is to be thorough. I learned a lot with this project. Canadian libraries face challenges. We are, in a way, married to the United States, but we are unique. We seek guidance from the Library of Congress yet we have our own terms and our own people. Seek out other professionals, ask for their input and advice. Also, go to your cataloguers, they are an amazing resource. Finally, don’t be afraid to take a step forward and lead the way. Sometimes it is scary, sometimes it is frustrating but, it is always an education with a potential for extreme satisfaction.

I’ll let you know about this adventure as it continues and the challenges we face at HPL as they present themselves. However, feel free to check out the Halifax Public Libraries’ catalogue at and our use of these terms.

Aboriginal Resources

First Peoples’ Libraries Wiki –

Words First, An Evolving Terminology Relating to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada



Filed under Access Issues, Authority Work, Subject Headings

2 responses to “Native Peoples v. Indigenous Peoples v. Aboriginals…Are any of the terms really any good?

  1. Pingback: Indigenous and Aboriginal Peoples Resources « The Cataloguing Librarian

  2. Pingback: Aboriginal Peoples in Canada – LAC’s Canadian Subject Headings Announcement « The Cataloguing Librarian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s