Who Is Indigenous?
There are approximately 370 million Indigenous people in the world, in 90 countries. There is no universally accepted definition for “Indigenous,” though there are characteristics that tend to be common among Indigenous Peoples:
They tend to have small populations relative to the dominant culture of their country.
They usually have (or had) their own language.
They have distinctive cultural traditions that are still practiced.
They have (or had) their own land and territory, to which they are tied in myriad ways.
They self-identify as Indigenous.
Examples of Indigenous Peoples include the Inuit of the Arctic, Native Americans, hunter-gatherers in the Amazon, traditional pastoralists like the Maasai in East Africa, and tribal peoples in the Philippines.
What Problems Do Indigenous Peoples Face?
One of the unfortunate things common to almost all Indigenous Peoples is being under assault—culturally, economically, or physically. In almost every case they suffer all the consequences of extreme marginalization: poverty, lack of government services, shorter lifespans, and poorer health.
Because they look, act, and dress differently from the dominant society, Indigenous Peoples are often discriminated against or seen as less than human. There are enormous pressures on them to give up their unique cultural traditions and be assimilated into the general population. Those pressures may be circumstantial or the result of deliberate government programs. In Australia, Canada, and the United States, for example, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed into government- and church-run boarding schools and other institutions so they could be culturally reprogrammed (click here for more information on this). The damage from those government programs cannot be calculated.
The world’s languages are disappearing at a rate even faster than that of biological diversity, with more than half of the world’s 7,000 predicted to disappear in the next 90 years. The vast majority of those disappearing languages are Indigenous. In the United States alone, 70 Native American languages will disappear in the next five years unless tribes’ revitalization efforts are supported vigorously. These languages are disappearing because of assimilation pressures and government programs like boarding schools. Click here to learn more.
Indigenous lands and environments are under assault on every continent. A recent World Wildlife Fund study named the 200 places on earth that have the highest and most fragile biodiversity, and found that 95 percent of them are on Indigenous territories. Yet those same Indigenous lands are routinely raided for minerals, timber, farmland, oil, and other resources. Governments give industries concessions to use Indigenous land without ever consulting the Indigenous groups who live there, and in almost no case do Indigenous Peoples benefit from the income generated by this activity. Click here to see examples of land issues and ways you can help.
To read more about the issues Indigenous Peoples face, read the UN State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples here.
What are Indigenous Rights?
In 2007, after 25 years of negotiation, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This document, which was created by Indigenous representatives working with government representatives, is the fundamental document spelling out the distinctive rights of Indigenous Peoples. These include the right to live on and use their traditional territories; the right to self-determination; the right to free, prior, and informed consent before any outside project is undertaken on their land; the right to keep their languages, cultural practices, and sacred places; the right to full government services, and, perhaps most significant, the right to be recognized and treated as peoples. The declaration is the basis for all of Cultural Survival’s work. To read a copy of it, click here.