When it comes to Indigenous terminology, this is an area that can be tricky to navigate. Here’s a brief guide to keywording Indigenous content. 

Editorial Note: Some of the terms identified in this article are examples of racist language to avoid and may be triggering. Please consider this notice before reading this article. If you have any editorial considerations that should be included in this article, please email us.

Words hold incredible power — they can evoke emotion, communicate ideas, inflict harm, and define identity. Language is nothing short of a sociological, cultural, historical, and psychological phenomenon. 

For all underrepresented communities, language matters. And Indigenous terminology can be tricky to navigate. Here’s a brief guide to keywording Indigenous content. 


The Power of Words

According to the United Nations, “languages play a crucial role … not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration, and development, but as … a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions, and memory.” Language is also forward-thinking. It’s how we learn, share ideas, uphold values and beliefs, construct future possibilities, and build upon societies.

Language can empower communities’ right to self-identity and expression — but language also holds the incredible power to strip these away.

Anasazi Pictographs
Anasazi pictographs found and photographed in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Northern Arizona. Image by Nina B.

Language and Indigenous Terminology

For Indigenous Peoples, language can represent “certain colonial histories and power dynamics.” They’re critical for Indigenous populations, as Bob Joseph, author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act and Indigenous Relations: Insights, Tips & Suggestions to Make Reconciliation a Reality, says. “[T]he term for a group may not have been selected by the population themselves, but instead, imposed on them by colonizers…. A term can be a loaded word, used as a powerful method to divide people, misrepresent them, and control their identity.” 

Consider the word “Aboriginal.” It’s an English word, and was once implied to suggest its meaning as “first inhabitants” or “from the beginning.” But looking at the origin and root meaning of the word, this may not be true. According to CBC, “Ab” is a Latin prefix that means “away from” or “not,” implying that “Aboriginal” means “not original.” In Canada, for example, the term Aboriginal is no longer considered acceptable terminology. However, in certain countries around the world, such as Australia, while the term “Indigenous Australian” has been used in the past to encompass both Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have stated that they don’t like to be referred to as “Indigenous,” as the term is considered too generic. This is where the complexities of Indigenous terminology begin.

Alaskan Pole Carving
A totem carving sculpture in a gift shop in Alaska. Image by Maridav.

Navigating Indigenous Language Around the World

According to the United Nations, “It is estimated that there are more than 370 million Indigenous people spread across seventy countries worldwide. These and most other Indigenous Peoples have retained distinct characteristics, which are clearly different from those of other segments of the national populations.” 

While the term “Indigenous” is widely accepted as an all-encompassing term (more on that below), remember that Indigenous Peoples are distinct and have unique communities with unique names. It was through colonization that governments and their subjects imposed collective terminology. 

Indigenous Terminology Should Come Directly from Indigenous Peoples

A term that might be acceptable to some might be considered by others as offensive. When it comes to Indigenous terminology, we must remain sensitive to the respective name, spelling, and identity of each unique community — and respect and acknowledge their preference in defining what they’re most comfortable with. When you’re photographing an Indigenous model, ask them what terminology they prefer to be recognized as. This is the best way to ultimately ensure that you are respectful in your description, keyword, and terminology when uploading Indigenous imagery to stock.

By empowering yourself with the history and context of certain terms, you’ll be able to better use Indigenous terminology with more ease and comfort.

Portrait of Sitting Bull
A portrait of Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota leader who challenged US government policies and resisted domination against his people. This portrait was captured during his years as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Image on Everett Collection.

A Brief Guide to Indigenous Terminology and Keywording

It’s impossible to cover the full context and nuance of Indigenous terminology in this article. But to get you started, here’s a brief guide on what terms to use and what to avoid when referring to Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Australia, the United States of America, and South America. 

Indigenous Peoples

First, a note on the term “Indigenous Peoples.” This is widely considered to be an all-encompassing and appropriate term when referring to the First Peoples of an area (also a term that can be used interchangeably). Indigenous Peoples is widely adopted, so much so that the United Nations uses the term as seen in UNDRIP (the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

Canada

Broadly, the Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Indigenous Peoples: First Nations (of which there are many), Métis, and Inuit. In the province of British Columbia alone, there are nearly 200 distinct and recognized First Nations (for example: Haida and Haíɫzaqv).

What to Use: Indigenous, Indigenous Peoples, First Nations, Inuit, Metis, specific Nations (e.g. Haida Nation)

What to Avoid: Indian, Native, Natives, Eskimo, Tribes

There are some specific nuances behind the terms Aboriginal Peoples, Aboriginals, and Indians. Refer back to Bob Joseph’s insightful and comprehensive guide for further context. 

Australia

According to Common Ground, in Australia “‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Torres Strait Islander’ refer to different groups of peoples. Aboriginal refers to the original peoples of mainland Australia. Torres Strait Islander refers to the original peoples of the 274 islands located north of Australia, in the Torres Strait.”

What to Use: Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders, First Nations, specific Nations or communities (e.g. Koorie)

What to Avoid: Indigenous (see the above Common Ground article for helpful nuance for navigating this term in Australia), Aborigine, Black, Blackfella, First Australians (again, see Common Ground’s explanation for the nuance behind this word)

United States of America

Constitutionally, language within the United States of America still refers to Indigenous Peoples as “Indians.” However, the terminology has begun to shift in recent years thanks to the reclamation of words and terminology by Indigenous Peoples living in America. Most have recognized their specific tribal name, although, broadly speaking, many individuals and communities collectively refer to themselves as Native Americans.

What to Use: Native American, Indigenous Peoples, or by specific Nation, band, or tribe (e.g. Cowlitz)

What to Avoid: Indian, Amerindians, Natives, Eskimo, Native Alaskans

South America

Indigenous Peoples living in South America are the first habitants of South America and their descendants (otherwise referred to as the pre-Columbian Peoples). They are not of Spanish, African, or other descent. In Spanish, Indigenous Peoples are often referred to as Indígenas or Pueblos Indígenas.

What to Use: Indigenous Peoples, Indigenas, Pueblos Indigenas, specific Nations or communities (e.g. Huichol or Wixáritari)

What to Avoid: Pinches Indios, Pinches Indios, Indios, Mestizo, Mulatto

Cultural Ceremony in Queensland, Australia
Aboriginal artwork on men at a cultural ceremony in Queensland, Australia. Image by ChameleonsEye.

Punctuation

In navigating inclusive terminology, punctuation is just as important. We’ll quote Bob Joseph, a leading figure on Indigenous terminology in Canada:

  • Always capitalize Indigenous, First Nation, Inuit, Métis as a sign of respect the same way that English, French, Spanish, and so on are capitalized.
  • Avoid using possessive phrases like “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples” or “our Indigenous Peoples” as that has connotations of ownership. Try framing it as “Indigenous Peoples of Canada.”
  • The plural possessive for First Nations and Indigenous Peoples does not generally use the apostrophe. So you won’t see, for example, “First Nations’ land” (Source: Indigenous Corporate Training).

While this is specific to Canada, generally speaking, Indigenous Peoples should be capitalized when referring to any Indigenous Peoples of the world. When in doubt, research the name of the community you’re referring to, and if unclear, respectfully ask!

The Goal of Using Inclusive Language

When creating diverse content, the goal is to be sensitive with titling and describing the visuals, as well as using appropriate keywords to tag stock art. This allows the content to share the stories of a community with accuracy, integrity, and without causing harm. 

Keyword Accurately
Respect your models by keywording work that features them accurately. Image by Independence_Project.

Taking the time to review content for these purposes helps to remove inaccurate ideas and biases against marginalized communities. It benefits stock seekers and users in finding wonderful content that is welcoming and inclusive and offers a positive experience for all who are creating and sharing their stories with an audience.


Cultural Appropriation in Visual Imagery

Navigating visual imagery is just as important as language when it comes to inclusivity. While many Indigenous Peoples welcome creative storytellers, it’s important that before you create an image, ask! Unless you’re from that community, it’s vital that you seek permission and consent first. This is especially important given that for many Indigenous Peoples, certain objects, places, and people hold significant cultural meaning. Examples of this include burial grounds, poles, regalia, crests, Elders, knowledge keepers, Chiefs, and children.

We hope this guide provides greater context into why language (and visual imagery) matters for Indigenous Peoples, and provides a sense of comfort for creative storytellers when it comes to using terminology. Here at Shutterstock, we are working to eliminate the ability to include offensive language or outdated terminology within the content we feature on our marketplace. We ask that our contributors are mindful of the keywords they use, and to refer to educational resources like this before publishing content with sensitive keywords. If you spot any offensive terminology on our marketplace that you’d like to flag to our team, please contact us.


Top image by evgenii mitroshin.

For more tips on navigating inclusive language, check out these articles: