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Who are the Indigenous People?

Who are the Indigenous Peoples?

Indigenous peoples number about 300 million, representing over 5,000 languages. They live in more than 70 countries in all of the world's regions, from the Arctic to the Amazon, from the Sahara to the Pacific Islands. The majority - more than 150 million - live in Asia, in countries such as Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Around 30 million indigenous peoples live in Latin America. In Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru, indigenous peoples make up over half the population.

Also called ‘native’ or ‘tribal’ people, indigenous peoples live in every continent, and have ancient ties to the land, water and wildlife of their ancestral domain
There is no official definition on Indigenous Peoples, and actually, definitions developed in the past carry flaws or create confusions.

The generally accepted descriptions on Indigenous Peoples may give you the basic ideas about who they are:

· The First People : Indigenous Peoples refer to the first to settle in the country, with other names such as aborigines.
· Cultural Difference: In Africa and Asia where processes of conquests and colonial structures took place, indigenous peoples refer to groups that clearly distinguish themselves in a socio-cultural context from the surrounding population. They are characterised by a common culture and language, common spiritual ideas, an identifiable territory and a certain economic structure.

The Covenant of the League of Nations, referred to non-self-governing or colonized peoples as “indigenous” peoples. In the 1950s, ILO began referring to the problems of “indigenous populations in independent countries,” which is to say culturally and geographically distinct communities that were non-self-governing, marginalized, and colonized inside the borders of independent states.


The terms “indigenous peoples,” “indigenous ethnic minorities,” and “tribal groups” are used to describe social groups that share similar characteristics, namely a social and cultural identity that is distinct from dominant groups in society. United Nations human rights bodies, ILO, the World Bank and international law apply four criteria to distinguish indigenous peoples:

Indigenous peoples usually live within (or maintain attachments to) geographically distinct ancestral territories;

They tend to maintain distinct social, economic, and political institutions within their territories;

They typically aspire to remain distinct culturally, geographically and institutionally rather than assimilate fully into national society; and
They self-identify as indigenous or tribal.

Despite common characteristics, there does not exist any single accepted definition of indigenous peoples that captures their diversity as peoples. Self-identification as indigenous or tribal is usually regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining whether groups are indigenous or tribal, sometimes in combination with other variables such as “language spoken,” and “geographic location or concentration.”

“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” (Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations, J. Martinez Cobo, United Nations Special Rapporteur, 1987).

A definition developed by Mr. José Martinez Cobo, Special Rapporteur on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, was accepted by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (Sanders 1989):

"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."

Flaws Created:
1. The definition freezes the identity of indigenous peoples in a historical-chronological axis: By identifying indigenous peoples with those who 'inhabited' an area before it was conquered or colonised by 'people from other parts of the world', it has limited the applicability of this definition mainly to pre-colonial populations. It refers to only 500 years of European colonialism while ignores the history of non-European civilisations.

2. The definition on the indigenous culture, customs, religion, society and history is too simplistic: The survival of the indigenous identity is explained by its isolation on the one hand and its marginalisation and discrimination on the other. It treats the indigenous peoples in terms of an ‘ethnographic present', as if the thousands of years of human history and interactions had never substantially altered the cultures of different peoples.


3. The definition fails to explain the phenomena of survival of the 'indigenous' identity in the face of adversity: Ethnic identities have also survived. But not all ethnic communities have lived in isolation. Many ethnic communities have completely lost control over their 'homeland' or the terrain which was the cradle of their culture. Yet their identities have survived. What then are the differences between the ethnic groups and the indigenous peoples?

1983: More Inclusive
Realising that Mr. Cobo's original definition was not adequate to cover the isolated and marginal tribal populations of the Asian continent, the scope and the ambit of the 'working definition' was enlarged. It was decided that all those marginal and isolated groups existing in many countries who may not have suffered conquest or direct colonisation might be considered as indigenous peoples if they fulfilled the following criteria:
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
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 they are, even if only formally, placed under a state structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to their own
(FICN. 41Sub.211983121 Adds. para. 3 79)

1986: Self-identification
It was 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). This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.
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