A Style Guide for Indigenous Writing

Elements of Indigenous Style : A Guide For Writing By And About Indigenous Peoples by Gregory Younging

This book is the first of its kind and a much needed reference tool for authors, writers, and creators to make sure they are using culturally appropriate publishing practices. If you are writing about Indigenous Peoples in any way, shape, or form, this is a must have for your bookshelf.

Younging covers 22 style principles, terminology that should and should not be used, how to avoid biased language, and which words and phrases should be capitalized.

Here are some interesting things I took not of while reading it.

First Novel

The first novel from a First Nations woman published in Canada was Slash and it was released in 1985.

Time is Different

I have worked in and taught on several First Nation reserves in Ontario. I have a close relationship with many First Nations people and we often joke about “Indian Time.” While I didn’t find any mention of it specially in this book, Lee Maracle has a bit to say about it here . . .

“When you’re introducing something—I’m talking as a writer now—the first line is always the most significant. It’s the point you’re making. It’s there on purpose. Indigenous writing is about writing from the centre to the edge, to create a circle. We don’t say things in a linear way. We have long sentences and we grocery-list things with lots of semicolons. Editors with a European frame of mind, when they read that kind of writing, react that there are too many things running around in their heads. There aren’t too many things for me. It’s all connected to the first line and wraps up with the last line in a wheel of understanding. To put something into “Eurostructure,” I have to find a way of breaking it down into a line-by-line linear map. I’ll do that in some cases, but if something has gone on for ten thousand years, I’m not changing the way we say that.”

Don’t use the word artifact!

When you see artifact, you are most likely looking at content that needs reworking and vetting. Consult the Indigenous People at the centre of the content, and ask them for the words to describe the purpose and significance of what is at issue. Do your best to be as specific as possible.

Legends and Myths can be seen as offensive terms.

“These terms are often applied to Oral Traditions. This is offensive to Indigenous Peoples because the terms imply that Oral Traditions are insignificant, not based in reality, or not relevant. The term legends can also be construed this way, although legends can be acceptable to Indigenous Peoples in the sense that Oral Traditions describe past events that are legendary. To avoid misunderstanding, it’s best to use terms such as Oral Traditions and Traditional Stories.”

Adjectives, not nouns

“Aboriginal is always an adjective, never a noun: an Aboriginal person, Aboriginal Peoples.”

“The term Indigenous Peoples is used to refer to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada collectively, and also to refer to Indigenous Peoples worldwide collectively. In some contexts, specific language adds useful clarity, as in the Indigenous Peoples in what is now Canada or Indigenous Peoples around the world. Indigenous is always an adjective. In Canada, use of the term goes like this:

  • An Indigenous person is an individual who identifies as First Nations, Inuit, or Métis.  
  • Indigenous Peoples are the distinct societies of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada. This term recognizes the cultural integrity and diversity of Indigenous Peoples.
  • An Indigenous People is a single one of the distinct societies of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada. Inuit, for example, are an Indigenous People. So are the Nisga’a, the Siksika, and the Haudenosaunee. 
  • Indigenous people refers to people who identify as First Nations, Inuit, or Métis in a context where their specific identity is not at issue. In chapter 1, Wendy Whitebear uses the term in reference to anyone who identifies as Indigenous—a use I also occasionally need in this book. In chapter 3, Lee Maracle uses it as a way to note the tendency of mainstream society to think of Indigenous Peoples as ‘all the same.’

Involve First Nations People in your work

“If you are non-Indigenous, have an Indigenous editor evaluate the work and your editorial changes. Or, if you are Indigenous, get another Indigenous editor to give you a second opinion.”

Be mindful of words

“I regret that English has swallowed these words. These words bear witness to the history of Indigenous Peoples in contact with Europeans. They often represent technologies and foods that Indigenous Peoples introduced to Europeans. Their presentation as “English” terms fails to acknowledge the contributions Indigenous Peoples have made to mainstream culture and the English language, and fails to educate readers who may not be aware of these contributions.

Another solution is to include notes about words of Indigenous origin in an etymological glossary in the back.”

Great Advice for Everyone

This book is a must-have resource for every writer. It would be nice to see it in classrooms across this country as well. I learned a lot while reading it and I think you will too.

My Reading Log of 2021 – I read this one last year so it’s going in this list