There are approximately 370 million indigenous people spanning 70 countries, worldwide. Historically they have often been dispossessed of their lands, or in the center of conflict for access to valuable resources because of where they live, or, in yet other cases, struggling to live the way they would like. Indeed, indigenous people are often amongst the most disadvantaged people in the world.
Who are indigenous people and what makes them different?
There does not seem to be one definitive definition of indigenous people, but generally indigenous people are those that have historically belonged to a particular region or country, before its colonization or transformation into a nation state, and may have different—often unique—cultural, linguistic, traditional, and other characteristics to those of the dominant culture of that region or state. (For more details, see this fact sheet from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).)
In some parts of the world, they are very few indigenous people, while in other parts, they may number into the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Over the years, many groups of people have been wiped out, either by diseases of colonizing peoples, or through policies of extermination.
Those indigenous societies that remain today are predominantly subsistence-based (i.e. farming or hunting for food for immediate use), and non-urbanized, sometimes nomadic.
Conflicting Issues such as Environment, “Biopiracy”
Some people have been critical of indigenous peoples’ treatment of the environment, noting examples such as the deforestation of Easter Island or the disappearance of large animals from parts of America and Australia caused by native people.
However, others have argued that more generally, many indigenous people, for decades—even centuries—have accumulated important knowledge and traditions that allow them to work with nature rather than destroy it, because they are dependent on it and thus have a sense of interdependence. (See for example, works by Indian scientist and activist, Vandana Shiva.)
In other parts of the world, such as India, Brazil, Thailand, and Malaysia, multinational companies have been accused of participating in “biopiracy” whereby biological resources used by communities openly for generations (decades, centuries, or even millennia in some cases) have been patented away, leaving the local people unable to use their own local plants and other resources. This is discussed further on this site’s article, Food Patents—Stealing Indigenous Knowledge?. For other indigenous people, logging, dam projects and other activities threaten ways of life, sometimes leading to conflict.
Indigenous people have often had many rights denied
As the UNPFII notes,
Indigenous people have often found their lands and cultures overridden by more dominant societies. During the era of European colonial expansion and imperialism, it was common for Europeans to think of themselves as more superior over others.
Many Europeans at that time saw native peoples from regions such as Africa, Asia and the Americas as “primitives,” or “savages” to be dominated. This would help justify settlement and expansion into those lands, and even slavery. Without civilization these people could be regarded as inferior, and if seen as “non-people” then European colonialists would not be impeding on anyone else’s territory. Instead, they would be settling “virgin territory” (sometimes “discovered”) overcoming numerous challenges they would face with much courage.
Other Europeans saw the same people as perhaps savages, but ones that could be “saved” by being civilized and introduced to Christ. Hence, many European Christian missionaries saw their goal as “civilizing the savages.” (Some of these attitudes still prevail though perhaps not as forthright, or even intentionally, as popular literature of that time that would have depicted non Europeans as inferior or at least to be feared, are still celebrated today. See works by Edward Said for more on this, such as the classic Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979), and Culture and Imperialism, (Vintage Books, 1993).)
Today, celebrations of days such as Columbus Day in the US therefore raise bitter feelings for indigenous people. Interestingly, Christopher Columbus never set foot in the United States, though that day is celebrated there. (Democracy Now! radio show discusses explores this issue in more detail looking at the theme of power and dominance ideology that underpins why this day would still be celebrated.) For people of color and especially native American Indians, Columbus Day causes anger as they object to honoring a man who opened the door to European colonization, the exploitation of native peoples and the slave trade.
Many Europeans and their descendants around the world have tried to look back at history and ask how it was that Europe and the West prospered and rose to such prominence. The late Professor J.M. Blaut accused many historians and others of employing self-congratulation and projecting eurocentric world views, whereby reasons for Europe’s rise were (and still are) attributed to things like favorable conditions for agriculture, for democracy to grow, and for economic superiority to take hold. Race was sometimes claimed to be a factor, too.
Blaut was critical of these and other underlying assumptions and belief systems that guided this view, showing many assumptions to be false, and suggested instead that colonialism and the “discovery” and exploitation of the Americas, with the plunder of silver, gold and other resources helped fund a European rise.
Blaut’s work is presented in two books (though a third was never finished for he passed away), part of a volume called The Colonizer’s Model of the World. His two books are Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (Guilford Press, 1993), and Eight Eurocentric Historians, by J.M. Blaut (Guilford Press, 2000).
It was after World War I and II that movements for indigenous rights starting gaining more traction. Witnessing the immense destruction, violence and barbarism of those wars, colonized people began questioning the European claim that their civilizations were superior and peaceful. Weakened European countries could no longer hold on to their colonies, and a wave of anti-colonial and nationalist movements sprung up as people around the world saw their chance to break free. European countries began conceding territories, and for many indigenous groups, accepted that they should have more rights to determine their own destiny.
Under international law, tribal people, for example, do have some recognized rights. The two most important laws about tribal peoples are Conventions 107 and 169 under the International Labor Organization (ILO), part of the UN system.
Survival International, a prominent organization that presses for the rights of tribal peoples, summarizes that
The struggle for such rights is still not over. Many governments routinely violate the rights of indigenous people. A slow process is, however, raising hope for a more comprehensive set of rights, although some major countries are still against some particular aspects.
The Declaration emphasizes the right of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in accordance with their aspirations and needs.
Major Countries Opposed to Various Rights for Indigenous Peoples
The process to draft the aforementioned declaration moved very slowly, not because of some imagined slowness and inefficiencies of an over-sized bureaucracy, but because of concerns expressed by particular countries at some of the core provisions of the draft declaration, especially the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples and the control over natural resources existing on indigenous peoples’ traditional lands.
Some historically and currently powerful countries have been opposed to various rights and provisions for indigenous peoples, because of the implications to their territory, or because it would tacitly recognize they have been involved in major injustices during periods of colonialism and imperialism. Giving such people’s the ability to regain some lost land, for example, would be politically explosive.
Furthermore, as IPS also noted, the delegation claimed that the indigenous land claims ignore current reality “by appearing to require the recognition to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens.”
The problem with the delegations’ views are that they ignore historical reality. To say that “creating different classes of citizens” is objectionable does sound fair. However, in this case, different classes were created from the very beginning as indigenous people were cleared off their lands and either treated as second class citizens, or, not even considered to be citizens in the first place. Many of these laws then, were often made by a society that never recognized or accepted that such people had rights, and so the law only applied to the new dominant society, not the original people.
There are of course complications to this. For example, there is often a contentious debate about whether some European settlers colonized land that was not inhabited before, or were used by nomadic people, in which case European settlers could argue (from their perspective) that the land was not properly settled. Also, European settlers can also note that sometimes agreements were made with indigenous people to obtain certain lands, but it is also contentious as to whether all these agreements would have been made fairly, as some were made at gun point, while other agreements were achieved through deception and various forms of manipulation.
A key part of the declaration has been the “collective” right of indigenous peoples, for they are seen by many indigenous communities as “essential for the integrity, survival and well-being of our distinct nations and communities. They are inseparably linked to our cultures, spirituality and worldviews. They are also critical to the exercise and enjoyment of the rights of indigenous individuals.” (Letter from 40 indigenous peoples’ organizations to Tony Blair, September 2004, quoted by the above-mentioned article from Survival International.)
A reason such countries may be opposed to collective rights is that it implies land and resource rights, whereas supporting only individual rights would not. Collective rights could therefore threaten access to valuable resources if they cannot be exploited, or if they are used for, and by, the indigenous communities.
As Survival International also notes, individual rights is sometimes an alien concept to some societies, and it can be easier to exploit individuals than a collective people:
When interviewed in the above-mentioned IPS article, Stephen Corry, director of Survival International noted,
The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) has for years worked on these issues. Their world reports detail issues and struggles for indigenous people around the world. Their 570-page report for 2006, The Indigenous World 2006 , for example, details the following areas: