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Indigenous people

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Indigenous people is a term applied to what explorers and anthropologists, especially from Europe, used to call "primitive tribes". The latter term has fallen into disfavor as being demeaning and, according to anthropologists, inaccurate (see tribe, cultural evolution). Generally, the term refers to the people living in an area prior to European colonization, and to their descendents. It may also apply to people living in an area prior to the formation of a nation-state, but who do not belong to the dominant nation of a nation-state.

By the 17th century, indigenous peoples were commonly labeled "uncivilized". Critics of civilization, such as J.J. Rousseau, considered them to be "noble savages"; proponents of civilization, like T. Hobbes, considered them merely savages. Such proponents of civilization believed themselves to have a duty to civilize and modernize them.

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, Europeans began to recognize that indigenous and tribal peoples should have the right to decide for themselves what should happen to their ancient cultures and their ancestral lands.

Various organizations are devoted to the preservation or study of tribes, such as Survival International. Anthropologists generally try not to interfere with tribal life, but usually do not interfere with attempts by government or business to relocate or "civilize" them.

The United Nations defines indigenous peoples as follows:

"Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them."

Advocates of the concept of indigenous peoples argue that, despite the diversity of indigenous peoples, 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. 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.

Several criticisms of the concept of indigenous peoples are:

  • In many cases, such as with some Native American tribes, some people claim that the group arrived in an area after the people termed non-indigenous.
  • Lumping indigenous peoples into one group ignores the vast amounts of diversity among them and at the same time imposes a uniform identity on them, which may not be historically accurate.

Some feel that those who argue that indigenous people should have the right of self-determination often are simply replacing the stereotype of the barbaric savage with another stereotype, that of the noble savage possessing mystic truths and at peace with nature, and that this second stereotype ignores some of the real issues of indigenous peoples such as economic development.

However, advocates of rights for indigenous peoples consider these arguments to be specious; if a tribe has lived self-sufficiently in an area for many centuries, why should "economic development" suddenly now be an issue when it never has been before? These kinds of arguments are usually put forward by industrialists (normally oil, mining or logging companies) who want to exploit the land for economic gain, or by governments who consider the indigenous population to be inferior and to be an obstruction to their plans for development.

An example of this occurred in 2002 when the Government of Botswana expelled all the Kalahari Bushmen from the lands they had lived off for at least twenty thousand years. Government ministers described the Bushmen[?] as "stone age creatures" and likened their forced eviction to a cull of elephants. These events passed almost without comment in the world's media, at a time when the eviction of a number of white people from land in nearby Zimbabwe was headline news.

For some people (e.g. indigenous communities from India, Brasil, and Malaysia and some NGOs, such as GRAIN, ETC and Third World Network), indigenous people may be victims of biopiracy when they are submitted 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.

List of some indigenous peoples of the world:

Some international organisations that work for the rights of indigenous peoples:


  • United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, from Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations, J. Martinez Cobo, United Nations Special Rapporteur (1987)

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