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  • Defining 'Indigenous Peoples'

    "There is no hard and fast distinction between indigenous peoples and other kinds of localized ethnic groups.
    Who then are the peoples generally considered as 'indigenous'?"

    David Maybury-Lewis, Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups, and the State (1997), p. 9. [copyright by Allyn & Bacon]


    NativeWeb strives to provide quality content by and about indigenous peoples around the world. This means that we examine suggested site links to determine whether and how they relate to indigenous peoples.

    The difference between 'indigenous peoples' and 'ethnic groups' or 'minority groups' is sometimes difficult to determine. NativeWeb generally tries to err on the side of inclusion in deciding whether a suggested site is suitable for the database. Nevertheless, NativeWeb must respect some limits to maintain integrity and coherence.

    We have found that there is a spectrum ranging from sites directly related to peoples who have the distinction of living in their own lands since 'time immemorial' [indigenous peoples] to sites that relate to groups whose only distinction is that they are marginalized in the countries where they live [minority groups]. The former we generally include; the latter we generally reject. In the middle of this spectrum are a variety of sites that require careful analysis to decide whether they are proper to include in NativeWeb. The fact that a site relates to people who are ethnically or culturally different from the 'mainstream' of the country where they live does not necessarily mean the site relates to 'indigenous peoples.'

    Please note that a rejected site may be well-designed and contain useful information on other topics, but it is rejected because it does not fit NativeWeb's mission, which is to provide information by and about indigenous peoples.

    The following statement helps us to differentiate between 'indigenous peoples' and 'ethnic groups' or 'minority groups.' It is a scholarly presentation excerpted from David Maybury-Lewis, Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups, and the State (1997) [copyright by Allyn & Bacon]. Page references to the paperback edition are in brackets.


    "When the Spanish landed in the Americas they referred to all the natives of the New World as Indians, following Columbus' famous confusion. It was clear though that the Indians were indigenous to the Americas and the Europeans were not. It was some time later that people of European descent but born in the Americas started to think of themselves as "indigenous" to the Americas too. Nevertheless, Indians or Native Americans are to this day still considered the truly indigenous Americans as opposed to others born in the Americas whose ancestors, however distant, came from overseas.

    "This ambiguity is not peculiar to the Americas. The very term indigenous peoples is confusing because most people in the world are "indigenous" to their countries in the sense of having been born in them and being descended from people who were born in them. Indigenous peoples are clearly native to their countries in this sense too, but they also make another claim, namely that they were there first and are still there and so have rights of prior occupancy to their lands. This criterion...works well in other parts of the world that have been colonized from overseas. There is no problem in distinguishing the Aborigenes of Australia or the Maoris of New Zealand as "indigenous" in contrast to the settlers who came later to those lands; but such distinctions are not so easy to draw in Europe or Asia or Africa. In those continents peoples have eddied this way and that, often for thousands of years, leaving in place a mosaic of different peoples who dispute the land and sometimes dispute the claim to prior occupancy of it. There are therefore additional criteria that must be used to define indigenous peoples for the purposes of any general discussion.

    "Indigenous peoples claim their lands because they were there first or have occupied them since time immemorial. They are also groups that have been conquered by peoples racially, ethnically or culturally different from themselves. They have thus been subordinated by or incorporated in alien states which treat them as outsiders and, usually, as inferiors." [7-8]

    "In Africa it is particularly difficult to distinguish between indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities.... Some African...peoples are conventionally considered to be tribal outsiders in their own countries, such as the San and related peoples (Bushmen) of the Kalahari desert, the Efe and related peoples (Pygmies) of the Ituri rainforest in Zaire and the nomads who roam the Sahara or who follow their herds in East Africa....

    "Indigenous peoples, though they are difficult to define..., in fact make up about 5% of the total population of the globe. They are the descendants of peoples who were marginalized by the major powers and especially the expanding empires in their regions of the world--the European overseas empires in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia, and the Russian and Chinese land empires in the heartland of Eurasia." [10-11]

    "Indigenous peoples are defined as much by their relations with the state as by any intrinsic characteristics that they may possess.... Indigenous peoples are always marginal to their states and they are often tribal [in the sense that they belong to small-scale preindustrial societies that live in comparative isolation and manage their own affairs without the centralized authority of a state]. ... The point is that there are no hard and fast distinctions that enable us to place societies unambiguously within these categories." [54-55]

    "In spite of all these definitional difficulties, the indigenous peoples who are the focus {of NativeWeb} have a sufficiently clear sense of themselves, their problems and their place in the world to have finally succeeded in getting their issues onto the agenda of the United Nations. A [UN Draft Declaration of] Indigenous Rights [includes the following items]: 1) Self determination within existing states 2) Protection against genocide 3) Protection against ethnocide 4) Protection of their own cultures 5) Protection of their own institutions of governance 6) Protection of their own special relationship to the land 7) Protection of their traditional economic activities 8) Representation on all bodies making decisions about them.

    "The declaration [embodies] ... the mainstream agenda of indigenous peoples... [: the right] not to be massacred (protection against genocide)... [; the right] to maintain their own traditions, their own ways of governing themselves and their own ways of making a living off the land... [; and the right to be] represented on all bodies that make decisions about them. These requests, if granted, would entail a rethinking and reorganization of most states in the world, as well as a rethinking of the ways in which economic activities are organized within them. The indigenous charter thus poses a direct challenge to the [current global system of states]." [56-57]


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