Drawing on these, a contemporary working definition of "Indigenous peoples" for certain purposes has criteria which would seek to include cultural groups (and their continuity or association with a given region, or parts of a region, and who formerly or currently inhabit the region either:
and who furthermore:
To the above, a criterion is usually added to also include:
Note that even if all the above criteria are fulfilled, some people may either not consider themselves as indigenous or may not be considered as indigenous by governments, organizations or scholars.
Other related terms for Indigenous peoples include Aborigines Aboriginal peoples, native peoples, First peoples, 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.
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". 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, race, history, subsistence lifestyle, 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 more restrictive interpretation when it used in the more formalised, legalistic and academic sense, 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 having reached a social and technological plateau thousands of years ago). This article is concerned with the latter, and not the former, sense of the term .
Indigenous societies range from those who have been significantly exposed to the colonizing or expansionary activities of other societies (such as the Maya peoples of Mexico and Central America) through to those who as yet remain in comparative isolation from any external influence (such as 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 to 350 million 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 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. Some have also been assimilated by other populations or have undergone many other changes. In other cases, Indigenous populations are undergoing a recovery or expansion in numbers.
Certain Indigenous societies survive even though they may no longer inhabit their "traditional" lands, owing to migration, relocation, forced resettlement or having been supplanted by other cultural groups. In many other respects, the transformation of culture of indigenous groups is ongoing, and includes permanent loss of language, loss of lands, encroachment on traditional territories, and disruption in traditional lifeways due to contamination and pollution of waters and lands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
With respect to concerns expressed that identifying some groups and not others as indigenous is in itself discriminatory, IPACC states that it:
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):
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.
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 has been in general quite severe, with many authorities estimating ranges of significant population decline due to the ravages of various genocide campaigns,epidemic diseases (smallpox, measles, etc), displacement, conflict, compulsory boarding schools, massacres 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 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. The combined Indigenous population is over a million (1,172,790). This means they represent 3.8% 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 territories of Nunavik (in Northern Quebec), Nunatsiavut (in Northern Labrador) and Nunavut, which was until 1999 a part of the Northwest Territories. 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 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).
The Amerindians make up 0.4% of Brazil's population, or about 700,000 people. Indigenous peoples are found in the entire territory of Brazil, although the majority of them live in Indian reservations in the North and Centre-Western part of the country. On 18 January 2007, FUNAI reported that it had confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted tribes in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition Brazil has now overtaken the island of New Guinea as the country having the largest number of uncontacted tribes.
Guatemala is 50 to 80% Indigenous, depending on whose statsitics are used (Nelson, Finger in the Wound 1999)
The vast regions of Asia contain the majority of the world's present-day Indigenous populations, about 70% according to IWGIA 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.
Indigenous peoples of Iran include the Bakhtiari, Laks, Lurs, Kurds, 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.
Ainu people are an ethnic group indigenous to Hokkaidō, the Kuril Islands, and much of Sakhalin. As Japanese settlement expanded, the Ainu were pushed northward, until by the Meiji period they were confined by the government to a small area in Hokkaidō, in a manner similar to the placing of Native Americans on reservations.
Since most of Europe in historical times was never colonized by non-European powers with lasting effect (arguably except for Hungary, Turkish Thrace, Tatarstan, Kalmykia and islands such as Malta or Cyprus), the vast majority of Europeans can be considered "indigenous". However several widely-accepted formulations, which define the term "Indigenous peoples" in stricter terms, have been put forward by important 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.
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 Nenets and other Samoyedic peoples of the northern Russian Federation, and the Komi peoples of the western Urals.
The Basque people, Indigenous people who inhabit northern Spain and southwestern France, are the oldest Indigenous ethnic group in Europe. The main theory about Basque origins suggests that they are a remnant of Paleolithic Europeans inhabiting continuously the Franco-Cantabrian region since at least Magdalenian times, and maybe as early as the original colonization of Europe by Homo sapiens. The only archaeological evidence for an invasion of the Basque Country dates to some 40,000 years ago when Cro-Magnon people first arrived in Europe and superseded Homo neanderthalensis.
Caucasus is unique in its ethnic diversity, with a greater variety of languages spoken there than in any region of similar size in the world. Caucasus region is the home of over 50 indigenous ethnic groups.
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 most parts of Oceania, indigenous peoples outnumber the descendents of colonists. Exceptions include Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. According to the 2001 Australian census, Indigenous Australians make up 2.4% of the total population, while in New Zealand 14.6% of the population identify at least partially as indigenous Māori, with slightly more than half (53%) of all Māori residents identifying solely as Māori. Indigenous Hawaiians make up nearly a quarter of the general Hawaiian population.
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.
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, and the Canadian Inuit, who form a majority of the territory of Nunavut (created in 1999).
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 known as the San from their lands on which they had lived for at least twenty thousand years President Festus Mogai has described the Bushmen as "stone age creatures" and a minister for local government, Margaret Nasha, likened public criticism of their eviction to criticism of the culling of elephants In 2006, the Botswanan High Court ruled that the Bushmen had a right to return to their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve
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.
In cooperation, representatives 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.
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.
In September 2007, after a process of preparations, discussions and negotiations stretching back to 1982, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The non-binding declaration outlines the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to identity, culture, language, employment, health, education and other issues. Four nations with significant indigenous populations voted against the declaration: the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Eleven nations abstained: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Samoa and Ukraine. Thirty-four nations did not vote, while the remaining 143 nations voted for it.
The International Day of the World's Indigenous People falls on August 9 as this was the date of the first meeting in 1982 of the United Nations Working Group of Indigenous Populations of the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the Commission on Human Rights.
The UN General Assembly decided on 23 December 1994, that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People should be observed on August 9 every year during the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (resolution 49/214). Later on 20 December 2004 the assembly decided to continue observing the International Day of Indigenous People every year during the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (2005-2014) (resolution 59/174).
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 have often been 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 .
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, European attitudes began to shift to the view 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: