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The terms indigenous populations and "indigenous peoples" have no universal, standard or fixed definition, but can be used about any ethnic group who inhabit the geographic region with which they have the earliest historical connection. However several widely-accepted formulations, which define the term "Indigenous peoples" in stricter terms, have been put forward by prominent and internationally-recognised 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.

See also: List of indigenous peoples

Drawing on these, a contemporary working definition of "indigenous peoples" for certain purposes 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, Fourth World, first nations and autochthonous (this last 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 and distribution

Indigenous societies range from those who have been significantly exposed to the colonizing or expansionary activities of other societies (example: the Maya peoples of Mexico and Central America) through to those who as yet remain in comparative isolation from any external influence (example: 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[1] to 350 million[2] as of the start of the 21st century. This would equate to just under 6% of the total world population. This includes at least 5000 distinct peoples[3] in over 72 countries.

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.

Common characteristics

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

Shared cultural norms amongst indigenous global populations differ so drastically from those of the imperial colonizer culture that sociopolitical and economic integration of persons from the former populace to the later has and continues to result in disaster. George Tinker identifies the following 4 fundamental differences that distinguish indigenous cultures from all others:

  • Spatiality as a general frame of reference
  • The priority of communal sustainability over individualistic action
  • Conception of the interrelatedness of all of creation, including humanity’s place within the natural universe
  • Attachment to particular lands or territory

The colonizing Euro-American Western mind is structured around various understandings and attachments to notions of temporality. History itself is designed to perpetuate “structures of cognition and modes of discourse that pay homage to” temporal explanations of civilization progression. All academic discussions of history and development from the West are thus in conflict with indigenous conceptions of civilization. While still possessing a sense of temporal awareness, indigenous populations overwhelmingly understand the world around them through the lens of spatiality, the opposite of Western cultures who perceive things from a temporal perspective almost exclusively, even though possessing a sense of spatial understanding. Time and space are both instrumental determinants of each culture, yet the cognitive placement and analysis of each, changes the normative social base. Indigenous traditions and spiritualities are rooted in a spatial understanding of the universe. Indigenous spirituality is the single most influential aspect of in the formulation of indigenous values and ethics, social and political structures. Therefore indigenous cultural institutions and practices reflect a spatial consciousness that promotes a horizontal, communitarian organization in the interest of maintain balance and harmony in the natural world. The advancement of temporal notions of progress as a result of increased Western imperial efforts over the course of the past 2500 some odd years have served to empower those imposing and pursuing capitalist agendas.

Communitarianism (versus individualism) emphasized in indigenous philosophy is evidenced first and foremost by the various social institutions that evenly distribute power at every level of national organization, from the body politic to nuclear families. This is to ensure that no individual can manipulate or wrest power for self-serving interests or gain at the expense of the greater community or at the cost of disturbing the balance and harmony of existence.

Where the West regards the natural world as something that can be controlled or manipulated or used in the interest of humanity, the Indigenous mentality believes it to be in their best interests to simply manage and work to sustain the natural world. The recognition of the intimate relationship between individuals and communities around the world to everyone and everything in this world is key to understanding the indigenous worldview. To us, all living things are members of their own nations, to be respected as such, and any consumption or utilization of resources is understood as a sacrifice on behalf of the member of that nation to continue the “life of the people” or more generally sustain the natural process of life. Indigenous peoples understand themselves to be a part of the world they live in rather than the center of it.

The resulting mix of emotional, mental, spiritual and psychological attachments to particular lands is the result of the combining of the two previously stated major tenets of communitarianism and interrelatedness. Ownership of land is a foreign concept for indigenous societies, as traditionally they regarded themselves as stewards of their surroundings in exchange for access and managed extraction of natural resources. The relationship between the local indigenous population and the land is one of filial responsibility, rather than systematic consumption for surplus regional production. It is with this understanding that the significance of the loss of land during the course of Euro-American invasion can be viewed in its correct light, and the true devastation of indigenous community structure can be understood.

The resulting wake of 500 plus years of Western physical and cultural invasion surfaced a seemingly never-ending laundry list of humanitarian concerns for every single individual on the face of this planet. From the American Indian perspective, as well as global indigenous populations for that matter, a good place to start working towards a useful understanding of contemporary policy complications will be the exploration of modern national and federal policy with regards to who is eligible for communal, state, national and international recognition as a member of an indigenous national entity. The issues swirling in the storm of enrollment controversies of federally recognized tribes are just the beginning of a greater set of issues regarding American Indian identity. Indigenous, north-American, cultural sociopolitical organization differs from Euro-American organization because of the establishment of national (“tribal”) affiliation as being a modal social institution: membership of the community is not something decided upon by either the individual or the community leaders, it is simply inherent as a birthright. This type of national community structure and organization forms the backbone of all subsequent logistical organizing, including clan and social responsibility designations. Clan membership identifies more specifically whom individuals are related to within the greater national community, as different clans serve different purposes within the national community. All sources of identity and self-signification in the indigenous world are possible as a result of such modal organization, allowing for trade, the maintenance of cultural, political, social institutions, and other basic functions of exchange and municipal operations.

Common 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 challeges 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.[4] 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.

Who is, in the present day context, capable of determining the standards of tribal enrollment once that power has been returned to each national community? Postmodern postcolonial cultural competency must be regarded as demonstrating an ability to continually develop the community in a "consistent trajectory of development from the national community’s aboriginal existence" (Tinker, 33). After physically coercing the colonized, Euro-American imperial colonialist ideology dictates a collective effort on behalf of both church and state organizations to disconnect indigenous peoples from their respective cultures, continuing to blur the lines of ethnic and national authenticity.

The marriage between religious and secular organizations, in both historical and contemporary contexts, act as agents in the organization of reservation life and set precedents that determine the relationship between the federal government and "tribal" political nations. One such meeting, a gathering of influential federal American Indian policy makers named themselves "Friends of the Indian", and collaborated to create "devices and policies" designed to reduce the populations of cultural and ethnic Native Americans to the point of dissolution. Western bureaucratic administrative techniques continue to encourage termination policy, such as establishing a minimum blood quantum requirement for "tribal membership" for what is to be deemed "legal" enrollment.

Enrollment in an indigenous national entity is tied directly to blood quantum measurements. The systematic organization of a population to signify and differentiate it from the dominant population is only a social-engineering weapon that has been employed by Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Inevitable intermarriage and mixing of ethnic populations will lead to diminishing indigenous populations to the point of dissolution.

Questions raised by the insistence on the colonizer to use blood quantum as the determinant of legal national enrollment include the following:

  • What is to be the selected blood quantum measurement for determining ones ethnic authenticity?
  • What minimal measurement of blood quantum is deemed too low for an individual to be eligible for enrollment and tribal membership?

Blood quantum is based on the records of the colonizer. As late the 19th and early 20th century, federal recognition as a legal member of a national tribal entity required proof of blood relation to an individual accounted for on the original documents as members of the coerced nation. New complications thus materialized, such as what should be done to incorporate those who refused to comply with enrollment as a form of protest against the obvious violation of indigenous national sovereignty? Displaying visible indicators of indigenous cultural origin and ethnic behavioral traits, these culturally competent individuals are accepted socially and are identified as one of the nation’s own, yet federal control of native national membership stands testament to the refusal of U.S. policy to recognize the legal and theoretical sovereign powers of North American indigenous nations.

Five critical assessments have been identified as being vital considerations in determining acceptance to a particular native nation:

  1. Does the individual routinely participate authentically with the specific native community they are claiming to be a part of?
  2. Does the individual have obvious family ties identifiable in the community?
  3. Does the land enclosed by reservation boundaries hold a special significance to the individual as a place of national origin or homeland?
  4. How often does the individual visit the homeland throughout the year and for what purpose?
  5. Does the community of the nation recognize the individual’s cultural competency?

To pro-assimilationists, the integration socially, politically and economically of ethnic Native Americans would hopefully result in an intense and immediate exposure of the indigenous population to the colonizing populace. The intended result is a transmission of cultural values and behaviors of the colonizer to the colonized. Such a policy was considered "liberal", as advocates on the other end of the spectrum clamored for conquest in the spirit of Alexander the Great. While this may be perceived as a benevolent gesture on behalf of the colonizer, the lasting affects of such "alternative" policies were engineered to pursue the same end result of termination and assimilation. Rather than finance a physical conquest of death, the powerful were determined to cultivate the raw labor power of the indigenous population. The motivation behind this concentrated effort is traced to the Western Imperial basic tenet of harvesting and profiting from the natural fauna, in this case the indigenous workforce itself, of the newly acquired lands.

In an effort to organize the population for economic integration, colonial powers assume the right of naming the colonized. Reducing the subjugated communities to the depths of poverty and depravation, the colonizing agents act in unison as they present imperialist capitalism based on western notions of individualism. As a result of political marginalization, there is a structural inability of national native communities to properly signify themselves, encouraging the colonizer to assume the right of organization and signification, culturally and politically. The power of the colonizer depends on the colonizing agents continued assumption of the right to politically and culturally dominate national indigenous populations.


The adjective indigenous has the common meaning of "having originated in and being produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment".[5] Therefore, in a purely adjectival sense any given people, ethnic group or community may be described as being indigenous in reference to some particular region or location.

Key to a contemporary understanding of 'indigenousness' is the political role an ethnic group plays, for all other criteria usually taken to denote indigenous groups (territory, poverty, race, history, dependency on natural resources, etc.) can to a greater or lesser extent also be applied to majority cultures. Therefore, the distinction applied to indigenous ethnic groups can be formulated as: “a politically underprivileged group, who share a similar ethnic identity different to the nation in power, and who have been an ethnic entity in the locality before the present ruling nation took over power” (Greller, 1997).

However, the specific term indigenous peoples has a much more restrictive interpretation when it used in more formalised, legalistic and academic settings, associated with the collective rights of human populations. In these contexts, the term is used to denote particular peoples and groups around the world who, as well as being native to or associated with some given territory, meet certain other criteria (such as those expressed in the definitions detailed below). This article is concerned with the latter, and not the former, sense of the term.

There are various formulations of these defining characteristics in existence. Most are commonly drawn from a few widely-acknowledged authorities, in particular the Martinez Cobo - WGIP statement. These several definitions are nonetheless widely recognised and employed by international and rights-based non-governmental organizations, as well as among national/sub-national governments themselves —although this is decidedly not universal or free from dispute. 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.

The identification of an indigenous peoples under these terms can be 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.

The status of the indigenous group in this relationship can be characterized in most instances as an effectively marginalized, isolated or minoritised one, in comparison to other 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 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[6]

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 for certain purposes 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. José Martínez 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 exclude 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 18th 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.

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.


Main article: Indigenous peoples of Africa
See also: Category:Indigenous peoples of Africa

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 which comprise most modern, independent African states contain within them various peoples whose situation, cultures and pastoralist or hunter-gatherer lifestyles are generally marginalised 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.

Although the vast majority of African peoples can be considered to be indigenous in the sense that they have originated from that continent and nowhere else, in practice identity as an "indigenous people" as per the term's modern application 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 pre-condition 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 in which they arrived comparatively recently; their claim to indigenous status (endorsed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights) is based on their marginalisation 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 recognised 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 marginalisation 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."

A Berber family crossing a ford - scene in Algeria

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 Organisation 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 mobilising 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.

The Americas

Main article: Indigenous peoples of the Americas
See also: Category:Indigenous peoples of the Americas
Qichwa conchucos 01

Peruvian indigenous people, learning to read.

Indigenous peoples of the American continents are broadly recognised 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 was in general quite severe, with many authorities estimating ranges of significant population decline due to the ravages of various epidemic diseases (smallpox, measles, etc), displacement, conflict 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 sizeable 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 several different terms which vary by region and include such ethnoynms as Native Americans, Amerindians, Indians. In Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries one finds the use of terms such as pueblos indígenas, povos, nativos, indígenas, and in Peru, Comunidades Nativas, particularly among Amazonian societies like the Urarina and Matsés. The Aboriginal peoples in Canada include the Inuit, Métis and other peoples designated as members of First Nations. The combined indigenous population is an estimated in almost a million (976,305). This means they represented 3,3% of the Canadian population. Their status is recognized by Canada's Constitution Act, 1982. The Inuit have achieved a degree of administrative autonomy with the creation in 1999 of the territory of Nunavut.

The self-administering 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, Yucatan and Oaxaca they constitute the 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).


Main article: Indigenous peoples of Asia
See also: Category:Indigenous peoples of Asia

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

The most substantial populations are in India, which constitutionally recognises 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).

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 is spread across the whole of Oceania.[7] [8] [9]

Indigenous peoples of Iran include the Bakhtiari, Laks, Lurs, and Qashqai. The Assyrians and Marsh Arabs are also indigenous to areas of the geocultural region of Mesopotamia which includes parts of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The Lurs also inhabit parts of Iraq close to the Iranian border with the provinces of Lorestan and Ilam.


Saami Family 1900

A Sami family in northern Scandinavia around 1900

Main article: Indigenous peoples of Europe
See also: Category:Indigenous peoples of Europe

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 Basques [How to reference and link to summary or text], the Nenets and other Samoyedic peoples of the northern Russian Federation, and the Komi peoples of the western Urals.


Main article: Indigenous peoples of Oceania
See also: Category:Indigenous peoples of Oceania

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.

In New Zealand, the indigenous Māori (see also Iwi) constitute nearly 15% of the total population.

Indigenous Australians, including Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, account for 2.4% of the total population of Australia (2001 census figures).

The independent state of Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a majority population of indigenous societies, with some 700+ different tribal groups recognised 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 sets out to promote the viability of these traditional societies within the modern state. However, several conflicts and disputes concerning land use and resource rights continue to be observed between indigenous groups, the government and corporate entities.

Viewpoints on indigenous societies

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, 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 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.[How to reference and link to summary or text] These events passed almost without comment in the world's media [How to reference and link to summary or text], 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 perhaps adversely affected the environment, examples given (but not necessarily universally accepted) including catastrophic deforestation on Easter Island, or the disappearance of Australian and North American megafauna, believed by some to have been caused by hunting activities.

Indigenous knowledge and culture

Main article: Traditional 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).

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 [How to reference and link to summary or text].


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.

In cooperation, representants of indigenous peoples have met in The World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), which held its first conference in British Columbia in 1975. Cooperation has continued in the research and education organization The Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS), founded in 1984, in Olympia, Washington, USA.

United Nations

Indigenous peoples and their interests are represented in the United Nations primarily through the mechanisms of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP). In April 2000 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution to establish the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) as an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council with a mandate to review indigenous issues.

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 accredited organizations

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:

List of indigenous peoples

Main article: List of indigenous peoples

Other (external) lists


  1. WGIP (2001). "Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations System". Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Office at Geneva.
  2. Indigenous issues. International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs. URL accessed on September 5, 2005.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bartholomew Dean and Jerome Levi (eds.) At the Risk of Being Heard: Indigenous Rights, Identity and Postcolonial States University of Michigan Press (2003)[1]
  5. "indigenous". Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary. (2006—07). Merriam Webster. Retrieved on 2007-04-05. 
  6. Ibid.
  7. Blust, R. (1999), "Subgrouping, circularity and extinction: some issues in Austronesian comparative linguistics" in E. Zeitoun & P.J.K Li, ed., Selected papers from the Eighth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics. Taipei: Academia Sinica
  8. Fox, James J."Current Developments in Comparative Austronesian Studies"PDF (105 KiB). Paper prepared for Symposium Austronesia Pascasarjana Linguististik dan Kajian Budaya. Universitas Udayana, Bali 19-20 August 2004.
  9. Diamond, Jared M. "Taiwan's gift to the world"PDF (107 KiB). Nature, Volume 403, February 2000, pp. 709-710
  • 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)
  • FRITZ Jean-Claude, La nouvelle question indigène. Peuples autochthones et ordre mondial (en co-direction avec Frédéric Déroche, Gérard Fritz et Raphaël Porteilla), Paris, L'Harmattan, 2006.
  • FRITZ Jean-Claude, L'humanité face à la mondialisation. Droit des peuples et environnement (en co-direction avec Charalambos Apostolidis et Gérard Fritz), Paris, L'Harmattan, 1997.
  • Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Issues: An Encyclopedia, by Bruce E. Johansen. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 2003. 506p., ISBN 0-313-32398-4

See also

Look up indigenous in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

External links


Indigenous studies

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