What’s in a Word?

Sue Eagle, Indigenous NeighboursProgram Co-Coordinator, MCC Canada
June 8, 2015

When I attend Indigenous events or meetings, I listen for themes or for wisdom that might give my work direction. I try to pay special attention to those voices that are not often listened to.

A few weeks ago, I was at one of the most highly attended meeting sat the United Nations in New York City. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) is 14 years old. It has become an event where Indigenous Peoples world-wide gather to build solidarity, inform other Indigenous nations and organizations about what is happening in their homelands and find ways to bring their issues to the attention of the United Nations. One of the common threads that I found weaving in and out of the sessions and events was that words hold power.

The word Indigenous was claimed back in 1974 by the people who gathered to work on their rights at the United Nations level. They spent some time deciding what they should collectively call themselves. They chose “Indigenous”. The word was claimed in an act of solidarity and resistance.

“Peoples” with an “s”, turns a generic group of individuals into distinct nations, according to Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy and long-time leader in Indigenous rights work at the United Nations level. With the “s”, they become Arapahos, Dakotas, Haudenosaune, Dene, Anishinabee, Cheyenne, Sami, Metis, and Mayans. The use of that word is part of the movementto get member status for each of these Indigenous nations within the United Nations. An “s” can change reality for vast numbers of Peoples/people

In a session on “Indigeneity and Spirituality”, LeMoine LaPointe, Sicangu Lakota, clarified that Indigenous culture was not “lost”, but it has been interrupted. A change in words turns a passive action into an intentional act. The concept that culture has been interrupted highlights the strength and resiliency of Peoples, overwhelmingly evident at the Permanent Forum.

In speaking about her plans to introduce an intervention on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women at the UNPFII, Dr. Dawn Lavell-Harvard,Ph.D., president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, adamantly stated that “car keys go missing”. Indigenous women are “being stolen” from their families and communities. To say that they are missing does not do justice to the reality that they and their loved ones are facing. Again, the verb “missing” is passive, while “stolen”refers to a deliberate action.

Words can turn human beings into concerns. “We are Peoples, not issues”. I heard one person say. The reference was to the title for the meetings – The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. There has been talk around changing the name of the gathering. In fact it was one of the recommendations put forward in a previous UNPFII. Some Indigenous people present have decided to start using the words “United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples”, rather than wait for the powers that be to approve it.
Words hold power and they need to be chosen carefully. Choosing words is not simply about semantics or being politically correct. It is about visibility, strength and identity. It is about resistance.