Defining “indigenous peoples”

In the past, the indigenous peoples of a country were referred to as “natives”, “aborigines” or “primitive peoples”. These terms do not reflect the ways of life of the indigenous peoples however, and have therefore been deemed ‘incorrect’. What’s more, the terms have a negative slur, being associated with a primitive and under-developed way of life. The term “indigenous peoples” first developed in the 1980s and is today the most internationally-recognised designation. “Indigenous” means as much as “born in a country”, which is intended to express the special bond of all indigenous peoples with their natural environment. By definition, indigenous peoples are...

•    ... the descendants of those first to settle in a region;
•    ... colonised by other peoples over the course of history, and driven from their ancestral territory;
•    ... marginalised politically, economically and socially (existence on the fringes of society);
•    ... distinct from national society with regard to their self-identification as well as their linguistic, ethnic, cultural, social and economic ‘otherness’.

       (Source: Kraas, Frauke in: PGM 2002/1 “Indigene Völker”)

Despite this, there is still disagreement about the term “peoples”. With regard to the Charter of the United Nations, this implies claims according to international law, which some states reject, preferring the term “people”. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) avoids these two terms completely, instead opting to use the unencumbered term “community”.

Indigenous peoples around the world

Worldwide, approximately 5,000 different indigenous peoples are differentiated between, comprising a total of around 450 million people.

This includes:

•    Countless Native American tribes (e.g. Cheyenne, Cree, Shoshonen, etc.),
•    The Maori (New Zealand),
•    The Aborigines (Australia),
•    The Saami (Norway, Sweden, Finland),
•    The Inuit (Canada, Greenland, Alaska),
•    The !Kung of the Kalahari
•    The Tuareg (Sahara states)
•    The Mbuti (Democratic Republic of Congo)
•    The U’wa (Colombia)
•    The Ya̧nomamö, Tukuna, Uruku, Timbira and Krahó (Brazil)
•    The Iban and Penan (Malaysia)
•    The Piaroa, Warao, Yukpa, Ya̧nomamö (Venezuela)
•    The Aeta and Igorot (Philippines)
•    Mountain peoples of the South-East Asian mountain chain (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam)
•    A large proportion of the population of the Pacific islands
•    The Ainu (Japan)
•    The Chukotko, Yukaghir, Negidals (Siberia)

Despite their different cultures, most of these indigenous peoples share a special bond with and approach to nature. At an international level, they have won themselves a voice to protect both their culture and their rights (see International Policy).