Indigenous peoples

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The term indigenous peoples has no universal, standard or fixed definition. Several widely-accepted formulations have been put forward by important internationally-recognised organizations, such as the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and the World Bank. Template:Wikisourcepar Drawing on these, a contemporary working definition of "indigenous peoples" has criteria which would seek to include cultural groups (and their descendants) who have an historical continuity or association with a given region, or parts of a region, and who formerly or currently inhabit the region either:

  • before its subsequent colonization or annexation; or
  • alongside other cultural groups during the formation of a nation-state; or
  • independently or largely isolated from the influence of the claimed governance by a nation-state,

and who furthermore

  • have maintained at least in part their distinct linguistic, cultural and social / organizational characteristics, and in doing so remain differentiated in some degree from the surrounding populations and dominant culture of the nation-state.

To the above, a criterion is usually added to also include:

  • peoples who are self-identified as indigenous, and those recognised as such by other groups.

Other related terms for indigenous peoples include aborigines, native peoples, first peoples, first nations and autochthonous (the latter term having a derivation from Greek, meaning "sprung from the earth"). Indigenous peoples may often be used in preference to these or other terms, as a neutral replacement where these terms may have taken on negative or pejorative connotations by their prior association and use. It is the preferred term in use by the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations.


Characteristics of indigenous peoples: overview

Population, distribution and common features

Indigenous societies range from those who have been significantly exposed to the colonizing or expansionary activities of other societies (example: the Maya of Central America) through to those who as yet remain in comparative isolation from any external influence (example: remote highland communities of New Guinea).

Numerically, it can be estimated that as of the start of the 21st century at least 350 million people worldwide would be considered as indigenous under these criteria. Contemporary distinct indigenous groups survive in populations ranging from only a few dozen to hundreds of thousands or more. Many indigenous populations have undergone a dramatic decline and even extinction, and remain threatened in many parts of the world. In other cases, indigenous populations are undergoing a recovery or expansion in numbers.

Certain indigenous societies persist even though they may no longer inhabit their "traditional" lands, owing to migration, relocation, forced resettlement or having been supplanted by other cultural groups.

Characteristics common across many indigenous groups include present or historical reliance upon subsistence-based production (based on pastoral, agricultural and/or hunting and gathering techniques), and a predominantly non-urbanized society. Indigenous societies may be either essentially settled in a given location or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory. Indigenous societies are found in every inhabited climate zone and continent.

Indigenous issues

Indigenous peoples confront a diverse range of issues and concerns associated with their status and interaction with other cultural groups, and changes in their inhabited environment. These challenges may be either specific to particular groups, or are commonly experienced by many such groups.

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 a complex one, 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.

Indigenous knowledge

Indigenous societies possess an often unique body of cultural and environmental knowledge. The preservation and investigation of specialised indigenous knowledge, particularly in relation to the resources of the natural environment with which the society is associated, is an increasingly sought-after goal of both the indigenous and the societies who thereby seek to identify new resources and benefits (example: partnerships established to research useful biological extracts from vegetation in the Amazon rainforests).


Indigenous peoples are represented in the United Nations by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP). In late December 2004, the United Nations' General Assembly proclaimed 2005-2014 to be the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People. The main goal of the new decade will be to strengthen international cooperation around resolving the problems faced by indigenous people in areas such as culture, education, health, human rights, the environment, and social and economic development.

Other organizations have been formed with the object of advancing the causes of indigenous peoples, and to explore and establish a degree of political autonomy. Several indigenous communities have achieved this to a certain extent (example: the creation in 1999 of the Nunavut territory of the Inuit in northern Canada).


An indigene is literally someone or something that is native to or originating from a given place. Therefore, when indigenous is used purely as an adjective, an indigenous people is a group or culture regarded as "coming from" a given place. In this broad sense almost any person or group is indigenous to some location or other.

As a contemporary cultural description, however, the term indigenous peoples has a much narrower common meaning. The more restrictive criteria as outlined need to be satisfied in order to identify an indigenous group as such in the sense interpreted here.

The identification of a people as indigenous under these terms can in practice be further refined by examining the nature and status of their interactions with other communities. These other, external communities or nation-states are those having some degree of association, claim or control over the same territory inhabited (or formerly inhabited) by the indigenous group.

In this relationship the status of the indigenous people can in most instances be characterised as being effectively marginalised, isolated and/or as forming a minority, when compared to other groups from whom they are distinct, or the nation-state as a whole. They have limited participation and influence over external policies concerning their territorial, environmental and societal governance.

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 having some at least titular effect over aspects of their community and lands.

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; and have a measurable effect even where countered by other external influences and actions deemed to be beneficial or which serve to promote indigenous rights and interests within the wider community.

Thus many organizations advocating for indigenous rights, and the indigenous communities themselves, seek to particularly and explicitly identify peoples in this position as indigenous. This identification may also be made or acknowledged by the surrounding communities and nation-state, although there are some instances where the identity claim is the subject of some dispute, particularly with regard to recognizing assertions made over territorial rights.

In contrast, the term non-indigenous might well be applied to describe these other communities; however, its application may be inaccurate or contested in some circumstances where the cultural group has or lays claim to lengthy prior association with the territory.

Some formal contemporary definitions which have been offered and widely accepted are described below.

In 1972 the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) accepted as a preliminary definition a formulation put forward by Mr. Jos Martinez Cobo, Special Rapporteur on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations:

Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a state structure which incorporates mainly national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant.

This definition has some limitations which were subsequently noted by the organization. The definition applies mainly to pre-colonial populations, and would likely exlude other isolated or marginal societies. In 1983 the WGIP enlarged this definition (FICN. 41Sub.211983121 Adds. para. 3 79) to include the following criteria:

  • (a) they are the descendants of groups, which were in the territory at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origin arrived there;
  • (b) precisely because of their isolation from other segments of the country's population they have almost preserved intact the customs and traditions of their ancestors which are similar to those characterised as indigenous;
  • (c) they are, even if only formally, placed under a state structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to their own.

In 1986 it was 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).

The draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples prepared by the DWIG does not provide a specific definition of indigenous peoples or populations. According to the Chairperson, Ms. Erica Irene Daes, Rapporteur of the Working Group, this was because "historically, indigenous peoples have suffered, from definitions imposed by others" (E/CN.4/Stib.2/AC.4/1995/3, page 3).

A definition as used by the International Labour Organisation (Convention No. 169, concerning the working rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, 1989) applies to:

both tribal peoples 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, and to peoples who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabit the country at the time of conquest or colonisation.

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.

Historical indigenous cultures

The migration, expansion and settlement of societies throughout different territories is a universal, almost defining thread which runs through the entire course of human history. Many of the cross-cultural interactions which arose as a result of these historical encounters involved societies which might properly be considered as indigenous, either from their own viewpoint or that of external societies.

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.

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.

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 Americas

When the Spanish conquistadors invaded the new land, the indigenous behavior is portrayed as welcoming, friendly, and humble human being, but in actuallity the majority of the submissive attitude towards the Spanish was because they feared the strength of the Spaniards. In other words the Spaniards greatly outpowered the Indians. The Spaniards actually killed some of the indigenous peoples when they first invaded the indigenous territory. In most related history films the indigenous peoples are compared to child-like social animals that were being mistreated by the Spaniards. In actuality many indigenous peoples hated and envied the Spaniards.

The early church was closely related to the indigenous people and the Spanish. Catholic missionaries often times served as mediators of the Spanish government and the indigenous people. The Spanish had many agendas such as profiting for the New World and taxing the indigenous people. There were many members in indigenous life that were a part of a ayllu.

the Pacific

Contemporary distribution and survey

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. Nevertheless, a brief review of indigenous societies, by regional distribution, is (to be) attempted below.

East Asia
South Asia
Pacific, Australia and New Zealand
  • South America
Central America
  • Mexico- 12.7 millions (approx. 12% of total population) are indentified as indigenous, with at least 60 distinct indigenous languages in use.
  • Guatemala- 6 millions (approx 60% of total population), representing some 21-23 different groups.
North America
Southern Africa
Central Africa
Northern Africa
Middle East

Viewpoints and relations of indigenous and non-indigenous groups

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
"Non-indigenous" viewpoints

Indigenous peoples have variously been identified as primitives, savages, or uncivilized. These terms were common during the heyday of European colonial expansion. By the 17th century, indigenous peoples were commonly labeled "uncivilized". Proponents of civilization, like Thomas Hobbes, considered them merely savages; critics of civilization, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, 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 indigenes. 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).

After World War I, however, many Europeans came to doubt the value of civilization. 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, Europeans began to recognize that indigenous and tribal peoples should have the right to decide for themselves what should happen to their ancient cultures and their ancestral lands.

Several criticisms of the concept of indigenous peoples are:

  • In many cases, such as with some Native American tribes, some people claim that the people termed indigenous arrived in an area after the people termed non-indigenous.
  • Peoples have invaded or colonised each other's lands since before recorded history and so the division into indigenous and non-indigenous is a matter of judgement. Even in recent centuries there are difficulties: for example, are the Zulu people indigenous to South Africa?
  • Lumping indigenous peoples into one group ignores the vast amounts of diversity among them and at the same time imposes a uniform identity on them, which may not be historically accurate.

Some feel that those who argue that indigenous peoples should have the right of self-determination often are simply replacing the stereotype of the barbaric savage with another stereotype, that of the noble savage possessing mystic truths and at peace with nature, and that this second stereotype ignores some of the real issues of indigenous peoples such as economic development.

Indigenous rights, issues and concerns

Wherever indigenous cultural identity is asserted, some particular set of societal issues and concerns may be voiced which either arise from (at least in part), or have a particular dimension associated with, their indigenous status. These concerns will often be commonly held or affect other societies also, and are not necessarily experienced uniquely by indigenous groups.

Despite the diversity of indigenous peoples, in 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 Siberia), who now control their own autonomous republics within the Russian state.

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 from the lands they had lived off for at least twenty thousand years. Government ministers described the Bushmen as "stone age creatures" and likened their forced eviction to a cull of elephants. These events passed almost without comment in the world's media, at a time when the eviction of a number of white people from land in nearby Zimbabwe was headline news.

In response, many have pointed out that in many cases the indigenous peoples often haven't been living self-sufficiently in an area for centuries, and that economic development was not an issue before because it was not an option. They point out that when given a choice, indigenous peoples themselves often want economic development, and that this has indeed caused conflicts with environmental groups when indigenous peoples have been given title to land and then proceed to develop just like non-indigenous people. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that indigenous peoples are not necessarily any more self-sufficient or in tune with nature, and that indigenous peoples have themselves created environmental disasters such as those experienced by Easter Islanders, the Maya civilization, or the disappearance of Australian and North American megafauna.

Indigenous knowledge and culture

Main article: Indigenous knowledge

For some people (e.g. indigenous communities from India, Brazil, and Malaysia and some NGOs such as GRAIN and Third World Network), indigenous peoples may be victims of biopiracy when they are subjected to unauthorised use of their biological resources, of their traditional knowledge on these biological resources, of unequal share of benefits between them and a patent holder. A controversial case of biopiracy was reported on human genes of a tribal community reported to be resistant to malaria and leprosy.

Representation and organizations

The rights, claims and even identity of indigenous peoples are apprehended, acknowledged and observed quite differently from government to government. Various organizations exist with charters to in one way or another promote (or at least acknowledge) indigenous aspirations, and indigenous societies have often banded together to form bodies which jointly seek to further their communal interests.

Governmental recognition, representation and autonomy
United Nations, subsidiaries and other international bodies
Other organizations and associations

Various organizations are devoted to the preservation or study of indigenous peoples, such as

Anthropologists generally try not to interfere with tribal life, but usually do not interfere with attempts by government or business to relocate or "civilize" them.

List of indigenous peoples

Main article: List of indigenous peoples

Other (external) lists

See also


  • United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, from Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations, J. Martinez Cobo, United Nations Special Rapporteur (1987)

External links

de:Indigene Vlker als:Ureinwohner iu:ᓄᓇᖃᖅᑳᖅᓯᒪᔪᑦ it:Popoli indigeni ja:先住民 no:Urfolk nn:Urfolk pt:Povo indgena ru:Коренные народы sv:Naturfolk zh:原住民


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