Definitions and identity of indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples are peoples defined in international or national legislation as having a set of specific rights based on their historical ties to a particular territory, and their cultural or historical distinctiveness from other populations that are often politically dominant. [1] The concept of indigenous peoples defines these groups as particularly vulnerable to exploitation, marginalization and oppression by nation states that may still be formed from the colonising populations, or by politically dominant ethnic groups. As a result, a special set of political rights in accordance with international law have been set forth by international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and the World Bank.[2] The United Nations have issued a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to guide member-state national policies to collective rights of indigenous peoples—such as culture, identity, language, and access to employment, health, education, and natural resources. Although no definitive definition of "indigenous peoples" exists, estimates put the total population of post-colonial indigenous peoples who seek human rights and discrimination redress from 220 million to 350 million.[3]

Terms and etymologies

The adjective indigenous is derived from the Latin etymology meaning "native" or "born within".[4] According to its meaning in English, any given people, ethnic group or community may be described as indigenous in reference to some particular region or location that they see as their traditional tribal land claim.[5] However, during the late twentieth century the term Indigenous people evolved into a legal category, which refers to culturally distinct groups that had been affected by the processes of colonization.

Other terms used to refer to indigenous populations are: aboriginal, native, original, first, and hereditary owners in indigenous law.

The use of the term peoples in association with the indigenous is derived from the 19th century anthropological and ethnographic disciplines that Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as "a body of persons that are united by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship, which typically have common language, institutions, and beliefs, and often constitute a politically organized group".[6]

Definition of indigeneity

There is no single, universally accepted definition of the term "indigenous peoples"; however, the four most often invoked elements are:[7]

  • a priority in time[ambiguous]
  • the voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness
  • an experience of subjugation, marginalisation and dispossession
  • and self-identification
Martínez-Cobo's[8] working definition of “indigenous communities, peoples and nations” found in the WGIP's Study on the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the 1980s[9]

They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system. This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present of one or more of the following factors:
a. Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them
b. Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands
c. Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.)
d. Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language)
e. Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world

f. Other relevant factors.

On individual basis, an indigenous person is one who self-identifies as indigenous (group consciousness), and is recognized and accepted by these populations as one of its members (acceptance by the group). This working definition is recognised and employed by international and rights-based non-governmental organizations, as well as among national/sub-national governments themselves. However, the degree to which indigenous peoples' rights and issues are accepted and recognised in practical instruments such as treaties and other binding and non-binding agreements varies, sometimes considerably, from the application of the above definition.

Academics who define indigenous peoples as "living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest"[10] have encounter criticism as they fail to consider regions and states where indigenous peoples constitute a majority as in PRC, Fiji, Bolivia, and Mexico, or where the entire population is indigenous, as in Iceland, Tonga and the Papua New-Guinea.

Legal definitions

Legal definitions of indigenousness have changed over time to reflect the changing perceptions of the people within the framework of conceptualisation Indigenousness, for example in Africa:[11]

1. from the advent of the colonial rule until decolonisation, the concept was used to refer to all non-European natives on territories conquered and colonised by European powers
2. under the early years of the post-colonial era, indigenousness was popularised as a concept referring to non-Europeans in countries where peoples mainly descending from european settlers remained dominant
3. the indigenous rights movement was internationalised to cover other (marginalised) groups, in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Pacific

The first attempt for a legal definition was made by the International Labour Organization's The Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 (No. 107).

International organisations

International Labour Organisation

The International Labour Organisation (Convention No. 169, concerning the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, 1989) in Article 1 contains a statement of coverage rather than a definition, indicating that the Convention applies to:

a) tribal peoples in independent countries whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations;
b) peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations that inhabited the country, or a geographical region where the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonization or the establishment of present state boundaries and who irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.

The World Bank

A description of Indigenous Peoples given by the World Bank (operational directive 4.20, 1991) reads as follows:

Indigenous Peoples can be identified in particular geographical areas by the presence in varying degrees of the following characteristics:
a) close attachment to ancestral territories and to the natural resources in these areas;
b) self-identification and identification by others as members of a distinct cultural group;
c) an indigenous language, often different from the national language;
d) presence of customary social and political institutions;
and e) primarily subsistence-oriented production.

The World Bank's policy for indigenous people states:

Because of the varied and changing contexts in which Indigenous Peoples live and because there is no universally accepted definition of "Indigenous Peoples," this policy does not define the term. Indigenous Peoples may be referred to in different countries by such terms as "indigenous ethnic minorities", "aboriginals", "hill tribes", "minority nationalities", "scheduled tribes", or "tribal groups."[12]

United Nations

In 1972 the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) accepted as a preliminary definition a formulation put forward by Mr. José R. Martínez-Cobo, Special Rapporteur on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations. This definition has some limitations, because the definition applies mainly to pre-colonial populations, and would likely exclude other isolated or marginal societies. In 1983 the WGIP enlarged this definition (FICN. 41Sub.211983121 Adds. para. 3 79), and in 1986 further added that any individual who identified himself or herself as indigenous and was accepted by the group or the community as one of its members was to be regarded as an indigenous person (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7/Add.4. para.381) as per the Martínez-Cobo working definition. However, the report was based on data gathered from the 37 respondent countries, of which 18 were from the South and Latin America, and three from North America, while not one African country was represented.[13] Because the study terms of reference were concerned with discrimination, those instances where the indigenous populations are not subjected to discrimination because they remain the dominant demographic, or were never subject to colonisation were omitted.[14] From this evolved the more-often cited definition [15]
Indigenous communities, peoples, and nations are those that, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.
Although Special Rapporteur to the UN on Indigenous peoples Erica-Irene Daes in 1995 stated that a definition was unnecessary because "historically, indigenous peoples have suffered, from definitions imposed by others" [16] Indigenous representatives also on several occasions have expressed the view before the Working Group that
...a definition of the concept of 'indigenous people' is not necessary or desirable. They have stressed the importance of self-determination as an essential component of any definition that might be elaborated by the United Nations System. In addition, a number of other elements were noted by indigenous representatives...Above all and of crucial importance is the historical and ancient connection with lands and territories[17]
The Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples prepared by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations[18] was adopted on the 13 September 2007 by the General Assembly as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is used to produce a definition of indigenous peoples or populations based on the Annex and 46 Articles. This is because
...there is a perceived erosion of indigenous claims as nothing prevents groups whose indigenousness is resisted — if not resented — by widely recognized groups to equally invoke this identity. Countries, mostly from Africa and Asia, continue to oppose domestic applicability of the concept.[19]
In particular Article 33 is used by many national lawmakers in producing indigenous definitions based on
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States where they live.

2. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine the structures and to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own procedures.

The primary impetus in considering indigenous identity comes from the post-colonial movements and considering the historical impacts on populations by the European imperialism. The first paragraph of the Introduction of a report published in 2009 by the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues published a report,[20] states
For centuries, since the time of their colonization, conquest or occupation, indigenous peoples have documented histories of resistance, interface or cooperation with states, thus demonstrating their conviction and determination to survive with their distinct sovereign identities. Indeed, indigenous peoples were often recognized as sovereign peoples by states, as witnessed by the hundreds of treaties concluded between indigenous peoples and the governments of the United States, Canada, New Zealand and others.[21]

Another recent publication by the UNPFII [22] includes the following passage with regard to the term "indigenous",
Understanding the term “indigenous”
Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by

any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following:

  • Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • Form non-dominant groups of society
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and

Another recent statement from the UNPFII [22] holds that,
Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by

any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following: • Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member. • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources • Distinct social, economic or political systems • Distinct language, culture and beliefs • Form non-dominant groups of society • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and


According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, the following organisations currently represent the indigenous peoples rights internationally:[24]

National definitions

Throughout history different states designate the groups within their boundaries that are recognized as indigenous peoples according to international legislation by different terms. Indigenous people also include people indigenous based on their descent from populations that inhabited the country when non-indigenous religions and cultures arrived—or at the establishment of present state boundaries—who retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions, but who may have been displaced from their traditional domains or who may have resettled outside their ancestral domains.

The status of the indigenous groups in the subjugated relationship can be characterized in most instances as an effectively marginalized, isolated or minimally participative one, in comparison to majority groups or the nation-state as a whole. Their ability to influence and participate in the external policies that may exercise jurisdiction over their traditional lands and practices is very frequently limited. This situation can persist even in the case where the indigenous population outnumbers that of the other inhabitants of the region or state; the defining notion here is one of separation from decision and regulatory processes that have some, at least titular, influence over aspects of their community and land rights. In a ground-breaking decision involving the Ainu people of Japan, the Japanese courts recognised their claim in law, stating that "If one minority group lived in an area prior to being ruled over by a majority group and preserved its distinct ethnic culture even after being ruled over by the majority group, while another came to live in an area ruled over by a majority after consenting to the majority rule, it must be recognised that it is only natural that the distinct ethnic culture of the former group requires greater consideration."[27]

The presence of external laws, claims and cultural mores either potentially or actually act to variously constrain the practices and observances of an indigenous society. These constraints can be observed even when the indigenous society is regulated largely by its own tradition and custom. They may be purposefully imposed, or arise as unintended consequence of trans-cultural interaction. They may have a measurable effect, even where countered by other external influences and actions deemed beneficial or that promote indigenous rights and interests.

Commonwealth of Australia

In the early 1980s, the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs proposed a new three-part definition of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.
An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander are people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and are accepted as such by the community where they live.[28]

The Philippines
Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines (Tagalog: Katutubong Tao sa Pilipinas; Cebuano: Lumad or Tumandok; Ilocano: Umili a Tattao iti Filipinas) refers to a group of people or homogenous societies, identified by self-ascription and ascription by others, who have continuously lived as an organized community on communally bounded and defined territory, and who have, under claims of ownership since time immemorial, occupied, possessed and used such territories, sharing common bonds of language, customs, traditions and other distinctive cultural traits, or who have, through inroads of colonization, non-indigenous religions, and cultures, become historically differentiated from the majority of the Filipinos.[29]

Russian Federation

According to Russian law, the recognition of ethnic groups as indigenous peoples in Russia is based on
...their lifestyle, livelihoods, ethnic identity and population size. Of these criteria, only population size is relatively straightforward, whereas the others involve substantial subjectivity. In practice, historical administrative categories play an important role in determining which small groups to consider indigenous. According to the restrictions on population size, only groups that number less than fifty thousand people can be considered numerically small indigenous peoples.5 Hence, notwithstanding their claim to autochthony, larger non-Russian groups, such as the Sakha, Komi or Chechens, are not included in this concept because they count too many members. This is not to say that they are not considered indigenous (korennye) in a broader sense, but rather that this indigenousness does not entail the type of rights bestowed on the smaller peoples in Russia or on indigenous peoples of all sizes internationally.[30]


A composite definition of indigenous people can be assembled from the above examples. This definition includes cultural groups (and their continuity or association with a region and who formerly or currently inhabit that region) under at least one of these conditions:

  • Before or its subsequent colonization or annexation
  • Alongside other cultural groups during the formation or reign of a colony or nation-state
  • Independently or largely isolated from the influence of the claimed governance by a nation-state


  • Have maintained at least part of distinct cultural, social, or linguistic characteristics, and remain differentiated in some degree from surrounding populations and dominant culture
  • Self-identify as indigenous, and are recognized as such by other groups

Another defining characteristic for an indigenous group is that it has preserved traditional ways of living, such as present or historical reliance upon subsistence-based production (based on pastoral, horticultural and/or hunting and gathering techniques), and a predominantly non-urbanized society. Not all indigenous groups share these characteristics. Indigenous societies may be either settled in a given locale/region or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory, but are generally historically associated with a specific territory on which they depend. Indigenous societies are found in every inhabited climate zone and continent of the world.[2][31]

Population and distribution

Indigenous societies range from those who have been significantly exposed to the colonizing or expansionary activities of other societies (such as the Maya peoples of Mexico and Central America) through to those who as yet remain in comparative isolation from any external influence (such as the Sentinelese and Jarawa of the Andaman Islands).

Precise estimates for the total population of the world's Indigenous peoples are very difficult to compile, given the difficulties in identification and the variances and inadequacies of available census data. Recent source estimates range from 300 million[32] to 350 million[33] as of the start of the 21st century. This would equate to just fewer than 6% of the total world population. This includes at least 5000 distinct peoples[33] in over 72 countries.

Contemporary distinct indigenous groups survive in populations ranging from only a few dozen to hundreds of thousands and more. Many indigenous populations have undergone a dramatic decline and even extinction, and remain threatened in many parts of the world. Some have also been assimilated by other populations or have undergone many other changes. In other cases, indigenous populations are undergoing a recovery or expansion in numbers.

Certain indigenous societies survive even though they may no longer inhabit their "traditional" lands, owing to migration, relocation, forced resettlement or having been supplanted by other cultural groups. In many other respects, the transformation of culture of indigenous groups is ongoing, and includes permanent loss of language, loss of lands, encroachment on traditional territories, and disruption in traditional lifeways due to contamination and pollution of waters and lands.

Historical cultures

The migration, expansion and settlement of societies throughout different territories is a universal, defining thread that runs through human history. Many cross-cultural interactions that arose from these historical encounters involved societies that were considered indigenous by themselves or others.

Most often, these past encounters between indigenous and non-indigenous groups lack contemporary account or description. Any assessment or understanding of impact, result and relation can at best only be surmised, using archaeological, linguistic or other reconstructive means. Where accounts do exist, they frequently originate from the viewpoint of the colonizing, expansionary or nascent state or from rather scarce and fragmented ethnographic sources compiled by those more congenial with indigenous communities and/or representatives thereof.

Classical antiquity

Greek sources of the Classical period acknowledge the prior existence of indigenous people(s), whom they referred to as "Pelasgians". These peoples inhabited lands surrounding the Aegean Sea before the subsequent migrations of the Hellenic ancestors claimed by these authors. The disposition and precise identity of this former group is elusive, and sources such as Homer, Hesiod and Herodotus give varying, partially mythological accounts. However, it is clear that cultures existed whose indigenous characteristics were distinguished by the subsequent Hellenic cultures (and distinct from non-Greek speaking "foreigners", termed "barbarians" by the historical Greeks). Greco-Roman society flourished between 250 BC and 480 AD and commanded successive waves of conquests that gripped more than half of the globe. But because already existent populations within other parts of Europe at the time of classical antiquity had more in common culturally speaking with the Greco-Roman world, the intricacies involved in expansion across the European frontier were not so contentious relative to indigenous issues.[34] But when it came to expansion in other parts of the world, namely Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, then totally new cultural dynamics had entered into the equation, so to speak, and one sees here of what was to take the Americas, South East Asia, and the Pacific by storm a few hundred years later. The idea that peoples who possessed cultural customs and racial appearances strikingly different to that of the colonizing power is no new idea borne out of the Medieval period or the Enlightenment.

European expansion and colonialism

The rapid and extensive spread of the various European powers from the early 15th century onwards had a profound impact upon many of the indigenous cultures with whom they came into contact. The exploratory and colonial ventures in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific often resulted in territorial and cultural conflict, and the intentional or unintentional displacement and devastation of the indigenous populations.

The Canary Islands had an indigenous population called the Guanches whose origin is still the subject of discussion among historians and linguists.[35]


One product of globalization has been a revolt against the forces of cultural uniformity and the state appropriation of indigenous peoples' sovereignty. Globalization may—by relocating indigenous people, denying indigenous cultural knowledge in state schools, eliminating indigenous languages—"...imposing a gray uniformity on all of humanity, stifling and suppressing the creative cultural energies of those who are most knowledgeable and prescient about the forces of nature."[36] "Those who would destroy their way of life would first have us believe that this task is already accomplished. We now have proof to the contrary, and we have received, with gratitude, the message of harmony and respect for all life brought to us by an ancient people whose culture may still yet be allowed to make a worthy contribution to the world community of nations." [37]

Indigenous peoples by region

Indigenous populations are distributed in regions throughout the globe. The numbers, condition and experience of indigenous groups may vary widely within a given region. A comprehensive survey is further complicated by sometimes contentious membership and identification.


In the post-colonial period, the concept of specific indigenous peoples within the African continent has gained wider acceptance, although not without controversy. The highly diverse and numerous ethnic groups that comprise most modern, independent African states contain within them various peoples whose situation, cultures and pastoralist or hunter-gatherer lifestyles are generally marginalized and set apart from the dominant political and economic structures of the nation. Since the late 20th century these peoples have increasingly sought recognition of their rights as distinct indigenous peoples, in both national and international contexts. Though the vast majority of African peoples are indigenous in the sense that they originate from that continent and middle and south east Asia—in practice, identity as an indigenous people per the modern definition is more restrictive, and certainly not every African ethnic group claims identification under these terms. Groups and communities who do claim this recognition are those who by a variety of historical and environmental circumstances have been placed outside of the dominant state systems, and whose traditional practices and land claims often come into conflict with the objectives and policies promulgated by governments, companies and surrounding dominant societies. Given the extensive and complicated history of human migration within Africa, being the "first peoples in a land" is not a necessary precondition for acceptance as an indigenous people. Rather, indigenous identity relates more to a set of characteristics and practices than priority of arrival. For example, several populations of nomadic peoples such as the Tuareg of the Sahara and Sahel regions now inhabit areas where they arrived comparatively recently; their claim to indigenous status (endorsed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights) is based on their marginalization as nomadic peoples in states and territories dominated by sedentary agricultural peoples. The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC) is one of the main trans-national network organizations recognized as a representative of African indigenous peoples in dialogues with governments and bodies such as the UN. IPACC identifies several key characteristics associated with indigenous claims in Africa:

  • political and economic marginalization rooted in colonialism;
  • de facto discrimination based often on the dominance of agricultural peoples in the State system (e.g. lack of access to education and health care by hunters and herders);
  • the particularities of culture, identity, economy and territoriality that link hunting and herding peoples to their home environments in deserts and forests (e.g. nomadism, diet, knowledge systems);
  • some indigenous peoples, such as the San and Pygmy peoples are physically distinct, which makes them subject to specific forms of discrimination.

With respect to concerns expressed that identifying some groups and not others as indigenous is in itself discriminatory, IPACC states that it:

  • "...recognises that all Africans should enjoy equal rights and respect. All of Africa's diversity is to be valued. Particular communities, due to historical and environmental circumstances, have found themselves outside the state-system and underrepresented in governance...This is not to deny other Africans their status; it is to emphasise that affirmative recognition is necessary for hunter-gatherers and herding peoples to ensure their survival."

At an African inter-governmental level, the examination of indigenous rights and concerns is pursued by a sub-commission established under the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), sponsored by the African Union (AU) (successor body to the Organization of African Unity (OAU)). In late 2003 the 53 signatory states of the ACHPR adopted the Report of the African Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and its recommendations. This report says in part (p. 62):

  • ...certain marginalized groups are discriminated in particular ways because of their particular culture, mode of production and marginalized position within the state[; a] form of discrimination that other groups within the state do not suffer from. The call of these marginalized groups to protection of their rights is a legitimate call to alleviate this particular form of discrimination.

The adoption of this report at least notionally subscribed the signatories to the concepts and aims of furthering the identity and rights of African Indigenous peoples. The extent to which individual states are mobilizing to put these recommendations into practice varies enormously, however, and most Indigenous groups continue to agitate for improvements in the areas of land rights, use of natural resources, protection of environment and culture, political recognition and freedom from discrimination.


Indigenous peoples of the American continents are broadly recognized as being those groups and their descendants who inhabited the region before the arrival of European colonizers and settlers (i.e., Pre-Columbian). Indigenous peoples who maintain, or seek to maintain, traditional ways of life are found from the high Arctic north to the southern extremities of Tierra del Fuego.

The impact of European colonization of the Americas on the indigenous communities has been in general quite severe, with many authorities estimating ranges of significant population decline due to the ravages of various genocide campaigns, epidemic diseases (smallpox, measles, etc.), displacement, conflict, compulsory boarding schools,[38][39] massacres and exploitation. The extent of this impact is the subject of much continuing debate. Several peoples shortly thereafter became extinct, or very nearly so.

All nations in North and South America have populations of indigenous peoples within their borders. In some countries (particularly Latin American), indigenous peoples form a sizable component of the overall national population—in Bolivia they account for an estimated 56%–70% of the total nation, and at least half of the population in Guatemala and the Andean and Amazonian nations of Peru. In English, indigenous peoples are collectively referred to by different names that vary by region and include such ethnonyms as Native Americans, Amerindians, and American Indians. In Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries one finds the use of terms such as pueblos indígenas, amerindios, povos nativos, povos indígenas, and in Peru, Comunidades Nativas, particularly among Amazonian societies like the Urarina[40] and Matsés.

In Brazil, the term índio (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈĩdʒi.u] or ˈĩdʒju) is used by most of the population, the media, the indigenous peoples themselves and even the government (FUNAI is acronym for Fundação Nacional do Índio), although its Hispanic equivalent indio is widely not considered politically correct and falling into desuse. Nevertheless, Portuguese for Amerindian and amerindio, ameríndio (ameˈɾĩdʒi.u or ameˈɾĩdʒju in the standard South American dialects) is gaining some popularity, still, it seems odd for many. The widespread completely politically correct term is indígena ĩˈdʒiʒenɐ (though its literal translation is indigenous person or peoples from anywhere, it is colloquially a synonym for Amerindian, with no need to specify indigenous peoples of what continent). It has more ethnic meanings than racial ones, and a "Westerner" in Brazil can be an acculturated ameríndio/índio but not an indígena, which officially means indigenous in the narrow sense. [41]

Aboriginal peoples in Canada comprise the First Nations,[42] Inuit[43] and Métis.[44] The descriptors "Indian" and "Eskimo" are falling into disuse in Canada.[45][46] There are currently over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands encompassing 1,172,790 2006 peoples spread across Canada with distinctive Aboriginal cultures, languages, art, and music.[47][48][49] National Aboriginal Day recognises the cultures and contributions of Aboriginals to the history of Canada

The Inuit have achieved a degree of administrative autonomy with the creation in 1999 of the territories of Nunavik (in Northern Quebec), Nunatsiavut (in Northern Labrador) and Nunavut, which was until 1999 a part of the Northwest Territories. The self-ruling Danish territory of Greenland is also home to a majority population of indigenous Inuit (about 85%).

In the United States, the combined populations of Native Americans, Inuit and other indigenous designations totalled 2,786,652 (constituting about 1.5% of 2003 US census figures). Some 563 scheduled tribes are recognized at the federal level, and a number of others recognized at the state level.

In Mexico, approximately 6,011,202 (constituting about 6.7% of 2005 Mexican census figures) identify as Indígenas (Spanish for natives or indigenous peoples). In the southern states of Chiapas, Yucatán and Oaxaca they constitute 26.1%, 33.5% and 35.3%, respectively, of the population. In these states several conflicts and episodes of civil war have been conducted, in which the situation and participation of indigenous societies were notable factors (see for example EZLN).

The Amerindians make up 0.4% of Brazil's population, or about 700,000 people.[50] Indigenous peoples are found in the entire territory of Brazil, although the majority of them live in Indian reservations in the North and Center-Western part of the country. On 18 January 2007, FUNAI reported that it had confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted tribes in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition Brazil has now overtaken the island of New Guinea as the country having the largest number of uncontacted tribes.[51]

Guatemala is 50 to 80% indigenous, depending on whose statistics are used (Nelson, Finger in the Wound 1999)


The vast regions of Asia contain the majority of the world's present-day Indigenous populations, about 70% according to IWGIA figures.

The most substantial populations are in India, which constitutionally recognizes a range of "Scheduled Tribes" within its borders. These various peoples (collectively referred to as Adivasis, or tribal peoples) number about 68 million (1991 census figures, approximately 8% of the total national population). There are also indigenous people residing in the hills of Northern, North-eastern and Southern India like the Ladakhi, Kinnaurs, Lepcha, Bhutia (of Sikkim), Naga (of Nagaland), Bodo, Mizo (of Mizoram), Kodava (of Kodagu), Toda, Badaga, Kurumba, Kota (of the Nilgiris), Irulas and others. Nivkh people are an ethnic group indigenous to Sakhalin, having a few speakers of the Nivkh language, but their fisher culture has been endangered due to the development of oil field of Sakhalin from 1990s.[52]

Ainu people are an ethnic group indigenous to Hokkaidō, the Kuril Islands, and much of Sakhalin. As Japanese settlement expanded, the Ainu were pushed northward, until by the Meiji period they were confined by the government to a small area in Hokkaidō, in a manner similar to the placing of Native Americans on reservations.[53]

The languages of Taiwanese aborigines have significance in historical linguistics, since in all likelihood Taiwan was the place of origin of the entire Austronesian language family, which spread across Oceania.[54][55][56]

There are also indigenous people in Southeast Asia. There are indigenous peoples of the Philippines, which Spain and the United States colonized.

The Assyrians are indigenous to areas of the geocultural region of Mesopotamia.

The plurality of this usage to all of the World's indigenous communities is therefore indigenous peoples'. In the 1970s and 1980s concerns were initially raised by some UN member countries in using the term.[57] The concern was due in part to the use of the same term amongst Maoist-oriented groups of a variation invented by Vladimir Lenin, 'Workers and Oppressed Peoples and Nations of the World, Unite!', that would include emancipation of the indigenous communities. This slogan was the rallying cry of the 2nd Comintern congress in 1920, and denoted the anti-Imperialist and anti-Colonialist agenda of the Comintern, and later the many indigenous Maoist and Communist-leaning liberation movements although the socialist doctrine rejected "indigenous nationalism".[58] China, to comply with this very Maoist doctrine, as recently as 2003 claimed it had no "indigenous peoples".[59]


Since most of Europe in historical times was never colonized by non-European powers with lasting effect (arguably except for Hungary, Bulgaria Turkish Thrace, Tatarstan, Kalmykia and islands such as Malta or Cyprus[60]), the vast majority of Europeans could be considered indigenous. However several widely accepted formulations, which define the term "indigenous peoples" in stricter terms, have been put forward by internationally recognized organizations, such as the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and the World Bank. Indigenous peoples in this article is used in such a narrower sense.

In Europe, present-day recognized indigenous populations are relatively few, mainly confined to northern and far-eastern reaches of this Eurasian peninsula. Whilst there are various ethnic minorities distributed within European countries, few of these still maintain traditional subsistence cultures and are recognized as indigenous peoples, per se. Notable indigenous populations include the Sami people of northern Scandinavia, the Nenets and other Samoyedic peoples of the northern Russian Federation, and the Komi peoples of the western Urals, beside the Circassians in the North Caucasus.


Many of the present-day Pacific Island nations in the Oceania region were originally populated by Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian peoples over the course of thousands of years. European colonial expansion in the Pacific brought many of these under non-indigenous administration. During the 20th century several of these former colonies gained independence and nation-states were formed under local control. However, various peoples have put forward claims for Indigenous recognition where their islands are still under external administration; examples include the Chamorros of Guam and the Northern Marianas, and the Marshallese of the Marshall Islands.

The remains of at least 25 miniature humans, who lived between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago, were recently found on the islands of Palau in Micronesia.[61]

In most parts of Oceania, indigenous peoples outnumber the descendants of colonists. Exceptions include Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. According to the 2001 Australian census, indigenous Australians make up 2.4% of the total population, while in New Zealand 14.6% of the population identify at least partially as indigenous Māori, with slightly more than half (53%) of all Māori residents identifying solely as Māori. The Māori are indigenous to Polynesia and settled New Zealand relatively recently, the migrations were thought to have occurred between 1000–1200 CE. In New Zealand pre-contact Māori tribes were not a single people, thus the more recent grouping into tribal (iwi) arrangements has become a more formal arrangement in more recent times. Many Māori tribal leaders signed a treaty with the British, the Treaty of Waitangi, so that the modern geo-political entity that is New Zealand was established by partial consent. However, the Māori language translation of the Treaty of Waitangi, which they signed, is worded ambiguously and does not fully match the English version. The treaty process gave British citizenship to the "native" population. However, some of the British settlers ignored the Treaty of Waitangi and through some illegal acts of colonization and war (though there were legitimate land sales between Māori and the settlers) Māori lost 95% of their land and resources from the 1850s through to the 1970s, which resulted in the large scale socio-economic marginalization of the vast majority of Māori. Since the 1970s there has been a cultural renaissance by Māori, and a political drive to assert their Treaty rights to their land, resources and culture through the Waitangi Tribunal process. This has resulted in the legal recognition of the Māori language and culture and has resulted in the return of some land, resources and money so that today Māori businesses have an estimated value of over NZD$14 billion. Māori have also formed an important political party.

The independent state of Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a majority population of indigenous societies, with more than 700 different tribal groups recognized out of a total population of just over 5 million. The PNG Constitution and other Acts identify traditional or custom-based practices and land tenure, and explicitly set out to promote the viability of these traditional societies within the modern state. However, conflicts and disputes concerning land use and resource rights continue between indigenous groups, the government, and corporate entities.

Rights, issues and concerns

Indigenous peoples confront a diverse range of concerns associated with their status and interaction with other cultural groups, as well as changes in their inhabited environment. Some challenges are specific to particular groups; however, other challenges are commonly experienced. Bartholomew Dean and Jerome Levi (2003) explore why and how the circumstances of indigenous peoples are improving in some places of the world, while their human rights continue to be abused in others.[62] These issues include cultural and linguistic preservation, land rights, ownership and exploitation of natural resources, political determination and autonomy, environmental degradation and incursion, poverty, health, and discrimination.

The interaction between indigenous and non-indigenous societies throughout history has been complex, ranging from outright conflict and subjugation to some degree of mutual benefit and cultural transfer. A particular aspect of anthropological study involves investigation into the ramifications of what is termed first contact, the study of what occurs when two cultures first encounter one another. The situation can be further confused when there is a complicated or contested history of migration and population of a given region, which can give rise to disputes about primacy and ownership of the land and resources.

A reference page devoted to Indigenous Matters on the website of The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) includes the following passage.

Trask observes that “indigenous peoples are defined in terms of collective aboriginal occupation prior to colonial settlement.”[63] She points one an important difference between indigenous history and that of settler history: settlers can claim a voluntary status-- they chose to relocate to lands where their descendants now claim a legal inheritance. Indigenous peoples have an involuntary status: their physical lives on homeland areas are tied to emergence or other creation stories. Their formal nationalities were imposed upon them by outside governments.[64]

The Bangladesh Government has stated that there are "no Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh".[65] This has angered the Indigenous Peoples of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, collectively known as the Jumma (which include the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tenchungya, Chak, Pankho, Mru, Murung, Bawm, Lushai, Khyang, Gurkha, Assamese, Santal and Khumi).[66] Experts have protested against this move of the Bangladesh Government and have questioned the Government's definition of the term "Indigenous Peoples".[67][68] This move by the Bangladesh Government is seen by the Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh as another step by the Government to further erode their already limited rights.[69]

Wherever indigenous cultural identity is asserted, common societal issues and concerns arise from the indigenous status. These concerns are often not unique to indigenous groups.

Despite the diversity of Indigenous peoples, it may be noted that they share common problems and issues in dealing with the prevailing, or invading, society. They are generally concerned that the cultures of Indigenous peoples are being lost and that indigenous peoples suffer both discrimination and pressure to assimilate into their surrounding societies. This is borne out by the fact that the lands and cultures of nearly all of the peoples listed at the end of this article are under threat. Notable exceptions are the Sakha and Komi peoples (two of the northern indigenous peoples of Russia), who now control their own autonomous republics within the Russian state, and the Canadian Inuit, who form a majority of the territory of Nunavut (created in 1999).

It is also sometimes argued that it is important for the human species as a whole to preserve a wide range of cultural diversity as possible, and that the protection of indigenous cultures is vital to this enterprise.

An example of this occurred in 2002 when the Government of Botswana expelled all the Kalahari Bushmen known as the San from their lands[70] where they had lived for at least twenty thousand years. President Festus Mogai has described the Bushmen as "stone age creatures"[71] and a minister for local government, Margaret Nasha, likened public criticism of their eviction to criticism of the culling of elephants.[72] In 2006, the Botswanan High Court ruled that the Bushmen had a right to return to their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.[73][74]

Health issues

In December 1993, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, and requested UN specialized agencies to consider with governments and indigenous people how they can contribute to the success of the Decade of Indigenous People, commencing in December 1994. As a consequence, the World Health Organization, at its Forty-seventh World Health Assembly established a core advisory group of indigenous representatives with special knowledge of the health needs and resources of their communities, thus beginning a long-term commitment to the issue of the health of indigenous peoples.[75]

The WHO notes that "Statistical data on the health status of indigenous peoples is scarce. This is especially notable for indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe", but snapshots from various countries, where such statistics are available, show that indigenous people are in worse health than the general population, in advanced and developing countries alike: higher incidence of diabetes in some regions of Australia;[76] higher prevalence of poor sanitation and lack of safe water among Twa households in Rwanda;[77] a greater prevalence of childbirths without prenatal care among ethnic minorities in Vietnam;[78] suicide rates among Inuit youth in Canada are eleven times higher than the national average;[79] infant mortality rates are higher for indigenous peoples everywhere.[80]

International bodies concerned with indigenous peoples' rights

Non-governmental Organizations working for indigenous peoples' rights

Various organizations are devoted to the preservation or study of indigenous peoples. Of these, several have widely recognized credentials to act as an intermediary or representative on behalf of indigenous peoples' groups, in negotiations on indigenous issues with governments and international organizations. These include:

International Day of the World's Indigenous People

Main article: International Day of the World's Indigenous People

The International Day of the World's Indigenous People falls on 9 August as this was the date of the first meeting in 1982 of the United Nations Working Group of Indigenous Populations of the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the Commission on Human Rights.

The UN General Assembly decided on 23 December 1994 that the International Day of the World's Indigenous People should be observed on 9 August every year during the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (resolution 49/214). Thereafter, on 20 December 2004, the General Assembly decided to continue observing the International Day of Indigenous People every year during the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (2005–2014) (resolution 59/174).[81]

Knowledge and culture

Main article: Traditional knowledge

The preservation and investigation of specialized Indigenous knowledge, particularly in relation to the resources of the natural environment with which the society is associated, is a goal of both the Indigenous and the societies who thereby seek to identify new resources and benefits (example: partnerships established to research biological extracts from vegetation in the Amazon rainforests).

For some people (e.g. Indigenous communities from India, Brazil, and Malaysia and some NGOs such as GRAIN and Third World Network), Indigenous peoples have often been victims of biopiracy when they are subjected to unauthorized use of their natural resources, of their traditional knowledge on these biological resources, of unequal share of benefits between them and a patent holder.


A range of differing viewpoints and attitudes have arisen from the experience and history of contact between Indigenous and "non-indigenous" communities. The cultural, regional and historical contexts in which these viewpoints have developed are complex, and many competing viewpoints exist simultaneously in any given society, albeit promulgated with greater or lesser force depending on the extent of cross-cultural exposure and internal societal change. These views may be noted from both sides of the relationship.

Indigenous viewpoints

Indigenous peoples are increasingly faced with threats to their sovereignty, environment, and access to natural resources. Examples of this can be the deforestation of tropical rainforests where many native tribe's subsistence lifestyles are threatened. Assimilative colonial policies resulted in ongoing issues related to aboriginal child protection.

Non-indigenous viewpoints

Indigenous peoples have been denoted primitives, savages,[82] or uncivilized. These terms were common during the heights of European colonial expansion, but still continue in modern times.[83] During the 17th century, indigenous peoples were commonly labeled "uncivilized". Whilst there was a swell in bringing back creative elements of classical antiquity in artistic pursuits, there was also the not so creative side of regurgitating xenophobic ideas from that period. Some philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes considered indigenous people to be merely 'savages', while others are purported to have considered them to be "noble savages". Those who were close to the Hobbesian view tended to believe themselves to have a duty to "civilize" and "modernize" the indigenous. Although anthropologists, especially from Europe, used to apply these terms to all tribal cultures, it has fallen into disfavor as demeaning and, according to anthropologists, inaccurate (see tribe, cultural evolution). Survival International runs a campaign to stamp out media portrayal of indigenous peoples as 'primitive' or 'savages'.[84] Friends of Peoples Close to Nature considers not only that indigenous culture should be respected as not being inferior, but also sees their way of life as a lesson of sustainability and a part of the struggle within the "corrupted" western world, from which the threat stems.[85]

After World War I, however, many Europeans came to doubt the morality of the means used to "civilize" peoples. At the same time, the anti-colonial movement, and advocates of indigenous peoples, argued that words such as "civilized" and "savage" were products and tools of colonialism, and argued that colonialism itself was savagely destructive. In the mid 20th century, European attitudes began to shift to the view that indigenous and tribal peoples should have the right to decide for themselves what should happen to their ancient cultures and ancestral lands.

See also



External links

  • Awareness raising film by Rebecca Sommer for the Secretariat of the UNPFII


  • IFAD and indigenous peoples (International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD)
  • IPS Inter Press Service News on indigenous peoples from around the world
  • Indigenous Peoples Issues & Resources
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