Who are 'Indigenous Peoples'?

Indigenous Peoples represent a diverse community and are considered as custodians of some of the worlds' diverse biological territories. They are responsible a great deal for the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity. Their traditional knowledge has been and continues to be an invaluable resource that benefits all of the mankind.

It is estimated that Indigenous Peoples constitute 370 million individuals, representing 5,000 distinct groups, living in more than 90 different countries.  Of some 7,000 languages today, more than 4,000 are spoken by Indigenous Peoples. The majority of Indigenous Peoples live in the developing world.  In both developing and developed countries, Indigenous Peoples are generally excluded from political participation; they are economically and socially marginalized and disproportionately represented among the victims of human rights abuses and conflicts. Very often, Indigenous Peoples have not been recognized as peoples in the Constitution or other national legislation, and they may not even have the right to identity papers in their own country

Indigenous Peoples do not merely claim to be 'indigenous community' to their countries, but in many cases are indeed 'native' or the 'first settlers' to the lands they live in, being descendants of those peoples that inhabited a territory prior to colonization or formation of the present state. Indigenous Peoples have their own distinct languages, cultures, and social and political institutions that are very different from those of mainstream society.

The situation of Indigenous Peoples in many parts of the world is indeed very critical today. They continue to suffer systematic discrimination, marginalization, extreme poverty and conflict. They continue to over represent among the poorest, the illiterate and the destitute population. Some are being dispossessed of their traditional lands as their livelihoods are being undermined. Meanwhile, their belief systems, cultures, languages and ways of life continue to be threatened, sometimes even by extinction. Indigenous Peoples are displaced by conflict and environmental disasters, are evicted from their ancestral lands and territories and deprived of their resources for survival, both physically and culturally. Of many challenges they face, it is usually a denial of their right to control their own development, though they hold their own diverse concepts of development. Similarly, their perception and interpretation of well-being may not be the same as that of the dominant society in which they live, as it often reflects their own values. In some countries, despite their contribution to the nation-building process, their loyalty to the country has been questioned because their view of development does not correspond to that of the dominant society.

Although they represent 5 per cent of the world’s population, studies have indicated that Indigenous Peoples represent 15 per cent of the world’s poorest people. Inequality in income, education, access to basic public services such as clean drinking water, food, shelter and health and political representation affect almost all Indigenous Peoples.

With the increasing market exploitation, they see that their traditional knowledge, skills and cultural expressions marketed and patented without their consent or participation. More alarming, the linguists predict that 90 per cent of the world’s Indigenous Peoples' languages are likely to become extinct or threatened with extinction by the end of 21st century.

Indigenous Peoples in the world often have much in common with other marginalized segments of society, such as lack of or very poor political representation and participation, lack of access to social services, and exclusion from decision-making processes on matters affecting them directly or indirectly.

However, the situation of Indigenous Peoples is different because of their history and their intimate relationship with their lands, territories and resources which, in many cases, not only provide them with the economic means for living but, more importantly, sustain them as peoples.

As distinct peoples, Indigenous Peoples claim the right to self-determination, including the right to control their own political, social, economic and cultural development as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ILO Convention No. 169, and other human rights instruments. Furthermore, many Indigenous Peoples have a profound spiritual relationship with their land and natural resources. Indigenous Peoples’ rights to manage their traditional lands, territories and relevant resources are fundamental for their physical and spiritual survival. However, all too often, indigenous communities have been displaced and dislocated from their ancestral lands in the name of development, by oil and gas or other natural resource exploitation projects, the construction of dams, conservation parks, roads or other national development priorities, which have been designed without the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples—and indeed, often without any form of consultation with them at all.

Silver lining

As a popular saying goes, 'every cloud has a silver lining', although, the condition of Indigenous Peoples across the world is alarming, there are reasons for optimism. Confronted by multiple crises, Indigenous Peoples remain committed to their struggles, and their cultures continue to be vibrant while their traditional knowledge is an invaluable source of indigenuity.

Indigenous Peoples are the stewards of some of the world's most biologically diverse areas. Their traditional and indigenous knowledge and skills in protection of these bio-diversities are invaluable.

The international community increasingly recognizes the human rights of Indigenous Peoples at the international plane. The most prominent evidence is adoption of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, 1989 (No. 169) famously quoted in short ILO C. 169. Similarly, Indigenous Peoples themselves continue to organize for the promotion of their rights nationally and globally.

Definition of Indigenous Peoples

There is no universally accepted common definition of “Indigenous Peoples”. They neither can be precisely identified, nor can any existing definition be globally applied. But there are a number of criteria which are used to identify indigenous peoples globally. Self-identification is indeed taken as one of the used criteria in determining who the indigenous peoples are.

In some countries, it is controversial to use the term “Indigenous”. There may be local terms such as tribal, first peoples, ethnic minorities) or occupational and geographical labels such as hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, nomadic or semi-nomadic, hill people,  and in many occasions they are referred to as ‘Tribe’, tribal people, First Nations, aboriginal, Adivasi Janajati, indigenous nationalities and so forth, that, for all practical purposes, can be used to refer to 'Indigenous Peoples'.

In some cases, however, the notion of being indigenous has negative connotations and people may choose to refuse or redefine their indigenous origin. Such choices must be respected, while at the same time any discrimination based on Indigenous Peoples’ cultures and identity must be rejected. This different language use is also reflected in international law.

Indigenous Peoples have survived in spite of the discrimination, oppression, diseases, poverty, massacres, miserly inflicted upon them by colonial powers.  The problems of defining Indigenous Peoples exist to varying degrees on all continents. Even in the countries where they constitute a majority, they remain powerless, largely unheard and misunderstood. 

When the UN first time declared 1993, the year of the world’s Indigenous Peoples, one of the problems was that many were unclear about exactly which people were included in the category of 'Indigenous'. The situation now is no different than some two decades ago.

There have been a number of elements for defining who Indigenous Peoples are, those include historical interpretations, anthropological and social aspects, culture, social and economic condition and way of life different from other segments of the national population, language and legal criteria (which differ from country to country) and self-identification or definition of the group concerned.

The term indigenous generally refers to people who were the ‘original’ inhabitants of a given territory. For example, people who were already there before the currently dominant ethnic group arrived or established state borders. This is easier to establish in countries with a history of colonization and massive population movements, mainly in the Americas and Australia.

The term also refers to people who have been living independently or largely isolated from the influence of the claimed governance by a nation-state, such as rainforests. An additional criterion is that such people have maintained at least in part their distinct linguistic, cultural and social/organizational characteristics and are differentiated in some degree from the surrounding populations and dominant culture of the nation-state.

Similarly, another essential factor that universally has been accepted is the self identification, as indigenous and they are recognized as such by other groups. This definition has a number of problematic aspects. Even if all the above criteria are fulfilled, some people may not either consider themselves; as indigenous or may not be considered as indigenous by governments, organizations or scholars. The individual identification might also differ from the collective one.

Moreover, peoples have invaded colonized and migrated into each others' lands since before recorded history and so the division into indigenous and non-indigenous, original inhabitant and settler or colonizer is a matter of judgment. Nevertheless there is also a greater awareness today of the identity and rights of Indigenous Peoples. This awareness has led to greater pride and a demand for recognition.

The most widespread approaches are those proposed in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention no.169 and in the Martinéz Cobo Report to the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination of Minorities (1986).

The approach used by the ILO Convention 169 is:

The ILO Convention no. 169 states that a people are considered indigenous either:

Because they are descendants of those who lived in the area before colonization; or

Because they have maintained their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions since colonization and the establishment of new states.

Furthermore, the ILO Convention 169 says that self-identification is crucial for indigenous peoples. This criterion has for example been applied in a land-claims agreement between the Canadian government and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted in 2007, uses the term “indigenous” in a widely inclusive manner.

Martinez Cobo's working definition

The UN Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, in his famous Study on the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in 1986, Jose R. Martinez Cobo, defined indigenous peoples as follows:

"Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, 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"

The working paper further lists the following factors relevant to the understanding of 'indigenous':

Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them;

Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands;

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.);

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;

Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world;

Other relevant factors

Thus, the prevailing view today is that no formal universal definition of the term 'Indigenous Peoples' is necessary, given that a single definition will inevitably be either over-or under-inclusive, making sense in some societies but not in others.

Understanding who Indigenous Peoples are:

  • They identify themselves as Indigenous Peoples and are, at the individual level, accepted as members by their community;
  • They have historical continuity or association with a given region or part of a given region prior to colonization or annexation;
  • They have strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources;
  • They maintain, at least in part, distinct social, economic and political systems;
  • They maintain, at least in part, distinct languages, cultures, beliefs and knowledge systems;
  • They are resolved to maintain and further develop their identity and distinct social, economic, cultural and political institutions as distinct peoples and communities;
  • They form non-dominant sectors of society.

A brief history of Indigenous Peoples movement at the international level

The history of world’s Indigenous Peoples movement to bring their issues at the international level relating to the marginalization and discrimination dates back to the 1920s, during the existence of League of Nation.

In 1923, Cayuga Chief Deskaheh, the representative from North America, had traveled to the League of Nations to present the claims of his tribal communities, but was not recognized and given a chance to make a claim. The following year, the Maori religious leader W.T. Ratana from New Zealand had traveled to League of Nations to protest against the breach of Treaty of Waitangi (concluded in 1840 which gave Maori ownership of their lands.) made between the British Crown and the Maori chiefs in New Zealand.

In 1957, International Labour Organization adopted Convention Concerning the Protection and Integration of Indigenous and Other Tribal and Semi-Tribal Populations in Independent Countries. This was later criticized as being assimilationist by the indigenous movement, which eventually led to the adoption of ILO Convention No. 169 in 1989.

However, the engagement with UN in real sense began only after the 1970s. But from 1960s to 1970s, a great number of Indigenous Peoples’ organizations were established at national and international level which fuelled the movement ranged from broken treaties and loss of land to discrimination, marginalization, conflict and gross violations of human rights, including massacres.

In 1971, the UN, especially its Economic and Social Council, passed a landmark decision which authorized the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to carry out the study on the problem of discrimination against Indigenous Populations. The study was conducted by the team led by special Rapporteur Jose Martinez Cobo, which was published in different volumes on different dates from 1981 to 1983 as a series of reports known as 'the Martinez Cobo study'.

Based on the recommendations of the report in 1982, the UN formed the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations as an organ of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, a body under the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Working Group produced the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)-- the only an international declaration specifically guaranteeing the various rights of the world’s IPs, including that of IPs’ right to self-determination, land and resource rights, and rights of political autonomy and so forth.

In 1983, in an unprecedented breakthrough, the Working Group decided to allow the participation of representatives of Indigenous Peoples and their organizations.

Between 1984 and 1993, indigenous issues gained increased momentum, as witnessed by the establishment of the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations (1985), the adoption of ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (1989), the proclamation of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People (1993) and, subsequently, the proclamation of two separate International Decades of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004 and 2005-2014).

The First Decade, launched in 1994 and completed in 2004, adopted the special theme of “partnership in action and its programme of action was meant to raise awareness about, and integrate indigenous issues into the intergovernmental and, by extension, the governmental agendas. The First Decade helped to promote awareness and solidified indigenous issues on the agenda of the United Nations and some of its agencies. Indigenous Peoples themselves also took advantage of the Decade, documenting and providing information about human rights violations and carving themselves a niche within various international forum. During the course of the First Decade a number of other achievements were made:

-August 9 was declared as the annual International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

-The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people was appointed by the Commission on Human Rights

-A fellowship programme for indigenous people was established within the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR).

The other major goal of the first Decade was the establishment of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, by the Economic and Social Council in 2000. Despite these important steps forward, a number of challenges remained, most importantly the lack of implementation by states of programmes that promote the development and rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations’ role in assisting them. The other unfinished matter was the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which had not been adopted during the first Decade, despite great efforts by all sides.

In 1993, the Working Group completed a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document held in high esteem by Indigenous Peoples, created with their participation and expressing Indigenous Peoples’ aspirations.

In 1994, the Draft Declaration was approved by the Sub-Commission and, in 1995, the Commission on Human Rights established a Working Group to examine and fine-tune the Draft Declaration. The negotiations were difficult and indigenous representatives again participated actively in the process, which eventually culminated, in June 2006, in the historic decision taken during its first session by the Human Rights Council—the body that succeeded the Commission on Human Rights—to adopt the Declaration. Just over a year later, on 13 September 2007, the General Assembly adopted the UNDRIP which marked a major milestone in the work of the United Nations and Indigenous Peoples’ struggle for the protection and promotion of their rights. [Nepal is also a signatory country to this declaration]

The Working Group on indigenous populations was abolished in 2007 and replaced with the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Expert Mechanism is a subsidiary body of the Human Rights Council, composed of five experts, which provides thematic expertise on the rights of Indigenous Peoples to the Council, focusing mainly on studies and research-based advice. The Mechanism may also suggest proposals to the Council for consideration and approval, although the mechanism does not adopt resolutions or decisions.

Similarly, in 2000, the UN also established the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

The UNPFII, has a broad mandate, namely to discuss economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights and to advise the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the United Nations system on all matters pertaining to its mandate, promote the coordination and integration of indigenous issues in the United Nations system, raise awareness about indigenous issues and produce information materials on indigenous issues. This high-level body in the United Nations’ hierarchy demonstrates the increasing political engagement of states in terms of cooperating with Indigenous Peoples to address a multiplicity of issues. More than 1,500 indigenous participants from all parts of the world attend the annual sessions of the UNPFII in New York, in addition to representatives from some 70 countries and around 35 UN agencies and inter-governmental entities.

In 2001, the UN also created the post of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedom of indigenous peoples, under the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to examine the situation of Indigenous Peoples worldwide on the basis of communications received and country-specific visits. The first special Rapporteur was Prof. Rodolfo Stavenhagen a well-known Mexican anthropologist, Mr. Stavenhagen was succeeded by the Native American law professor, Mr. S. James Anaya on 1 May 2008 and currently from December 2014, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, from Philippine taking the position.