Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.
The 9th August each year offers the world community an opportunity to reaffirm the principles of respect and protection of minorities. Created by the United Nation General Assembly in 1994, this year’s commemoration theme is: “Indigenous designs: celebrating stories and cultures, crafting our own future”.

Who are indigenous people?

There is no ‘official’ definition of the term but the generally accepted description on Indigenous People refers to them as The First People. They are characterised by a common culture and language, common spiritual ideas, an identifiable territory and a certain economic structure. Today there are some 5,000 distinct groups in some 90 countries. They make up more than 5 per cent of the world’s population, around 370 million people.

Indigenous peoples,  ‘natives’, are ethnic or cultural groups who are native to an area, especially before the arrival and intrusion of a foreign and possibly dominating culture. They are a group of people whose members share a cultural identity that has been shaped by their geographical region. A variety of names are used in various countries to identify such groups of people, but they generally are regarded as the “original inhabitants” of a territory or region. Their right to self-determination may be materially affected by the later-arriving ethnic groups.

The Fourth World
This “World” comprises those peoples that strive for autonomy and international recognition. The indigenous people had been victims of invasions, conquests and robbery, and it is their right to claim back their lost rights. While they are aware of their original sovereignty, they also know about their mutual relationship through the “We-feeling” that is firmly established in their consciousness. Nothing seems more natural to indigenous peoples than to go their own self-determined way, independent of the context of the national state surrounding them. They want to be referred to as independent peoples in order to obtain the right to self-determination, or at least to strive for partial autonomy.

What are the challenges they face?

Indigenous peoples face many challenges in maintaining their identity, traditions and customs, and their cultural contributions are at times exploited and commercialised. Not only that but they are often marginalised, suffer extreme poverty and loss of lands, territories and resources. Many endure grave human rights abuses in parts of the world.

How indigenous peoples became a disadvantaged group

Despite their diversity, indigenous peoples are facing similar problems. They are among the most disadvantaged groups on Earth. They are subjected to slavery and forced labour. They face discrimination, poverty, poor health, unemployment and high rates of imprisonment.

  • Colonisation
    During the period of European colonial expansion, many indigenous peoples were wiped out and their land taken by force. They experienced massacres, forced relocations, removal of their children and other forms of assimilation. In Asia and Africa, artificial colonial borders have separated peoples or turned them into powerless minorities.
  • Ecocide/Development
    Indigenous communities are threatened by destruction of the natural basis of existence of their culture. Under the name of development, their land and resources are expropriated or spoiled by activities such as deforestation, mining, dam and irrigation projects, road construction, toxic waste dumping and nuclear testing.
  • Cultural Extinction/Ethnocide
    Many indigenous communities experienced forced assimilation by prohibition of mother tongue, religion and cultural ways of expression, and denial of the existence of whole peoples in the public life of a state. This process normally happens gradually and unnoticed by the public.
  • Non-Dominance
    Indigenous peoples are those who are not in power in modern national states. With a different way of life, they are perceived by the dominant society as being inferior. They normally are not represented by the decision-making elite in their respective national state. In addition, indigenous communities are increasingly marginalized by the population surrounding them, causing the concept of “indigenous peoples” to become a political term.
  • International Ignorance
    Around the world, indigenous peoples have struggled to gain control over their land and lives and recognition of their rights. The concerns of indigenous peoples were not addressed as a concern of the international community until the 1970s. In 1982, the UN established a Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP).

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