Indigenous Peoples - Definitions

Definitions

The adjective indigenous has the common meaning of "from" or "of the original origin". Therefore, according to its meaning in common usage in English, any given people, ethnic group or community may be described as being indigenous in reference to some particular region or location. However during the late twentieth century the term Indigenous peoples evolved into a legal category that refers to culturally distinct groups that had been affected by the processes of colonization. These are usually collectives that have preserved some degree of cultural and political separation from the mainstream culture and political system that has grown to surround or dominate them economically, politically, culturally, or geographically.

The status of the indigenous group in this relationship can be characterized in most instances as an effectively marginalized, isolated or minoritised one, in comparison to other groups or the nation-state as a whole. Their ability to influence and participate in the external policies that may exercise jurisdiction over their traditional lands and practices is very frequently limited. This situation can persist even in the case where the indigenous population outnumbers that of the other inhabitants of the region or state; the defining notion here is one of separation from decision and regulatory processes that have some, at least titular, influence over aspects of their community and lands.

The presence of external laws, claims and cultural mores either potentially or actually act to variously constrain the practices and observances of an indigenous society. These constraints can be observed even when the indigenous society is regulated largely by its own tradition and custom. They may be purposefully imposed, or arise as unintended consequence of trans-cultural interaction; and have a measurable effect even where countered by other external influences and actions deemed to be beneficial or which serve to promote indigenous rights and interests within the wider community.

A definition of "indigenous people" has criteria which includes 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:

  • before or its subsequent colonization or annexation, or
  • alongside other cultural groups during the formation or reign of a colony or nation-state, or
  • independently or largely isolated from the influence of the claimed governance by a nation-state,

and who:

  • have maintained at least in part their distinct cultural, social/organizational, or linguistic characteristics, and in doing so remain differentiated in some degree from the surrounding populations and dominant culture of the nation-state, and
  • are self-identified as indigenous, or those recognized as such by other groups.

Another defining characteristic for an indigenous group is that it has preserved traditional ways of living, such as present or historical reliance upon subsistence-based production (based on pastoral, horticultural and/or hunting and gathering techniques), and a predominantly non-urbanized society. Not all indigenous groups share these characteristics. Indigenous societies may be either settled in a given locale/region or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory, but are generally historically associated with a specific territory on which they are dependent. Indigenous societies are found in every inhabited climate zone and continent of the world.

There are various formulations of these defining characteristics in existence. Most are commonly drawn from a few widely-acknowledged authorities, in particular the Martínez Cobo – WGIP statement. These several definitions are recognised and employed by international and rights-based non-governmental organizations, as well as among national/sub-national governments themselves. The degree to which indigenous peoples' rights and issues are accepted and recognised in practical instruments such as treaties and other binding and non-binding agreements varies, sometimes considerably.

Many organizations advocating for indigenous rights, and the indigenous communities themselves, seek to particularly and explicitly identify peoples in this position as indigenous. This identification may also be made or acknowledged by the surrounding communities and nation-state, although there are some instances where the identity claim is the subject of some dispute, particularly with regard to recognizing assertions made over territorial rights. 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.


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