Department of Public Information, The International Year for the World's Indigenous People. 1992. Who are the world's indigenous peoples? New York: United Nations. Posting to Internet mailing list NATIVE-L, available from firstname.lastname@example.org; INTERNET.
Subject: UN:Who are indigenous peoples?
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Organization: Texas A&M University
Date: Wed, 25 Nov 1992 19:42:53 GMT
Original-Sender: Charles Scheiner <email@example.com>
/* Written 5:49 pm Nov 24, 1992 by firstname.lastname@example.org in igc:unic.news */
WHO ARE THE WORLD'S INDIGENOUS PEOPLES?
People everywhere, often without realizing it, have been
influenced by the cultures and achievements of indigenous peoples
-- through the foods on our tables, the words in our languages and
the medicines we use daily for everything from headaches to heart
Many of the world's staple foods, such as peppers, potatoes,
lentils, peas, sugar cane, garlic and tomatoes, were first
cultivated by indigenous peoples. From the various indigenous
languages of the Americas come familiar words like canoe,
barbecue, squash, powwow and moccasin. An estimated 75 per cent
of the world's plant-based pharmaceuticals, including aspirin,
digitalis and quinine, have been derived from medicinal plants
found in tribal areas. Indeed, the contribution of indigenous
peoples to modern civilization is pervasive.
Indigenous peoples are descendants of the original
inhabitants of many lands, strikingly varied in their cultures,
religions and patterns of social and economic organization. At
least 5,000 indigenous groups can be distinguished by linguistic
and cultural differences and by geographical separation. Some are
hunters and gatherers, while others live in cities and participate
fully in the culture of their national society. But all
indigenous peoples retain a strong sense of their distinct
cultures, the most salient feature of which is a special
relationship to the land.
HOW MANY INDIGENOUS PEOPLES ARE THERE,
AND WHERE DO THEY LIVE? The world's estimated 300 million
indigenous people are spread across the world in more than 70
countries. Among them are the Indians of the Americas, the Inuit
and Aleutians of the circumpolar region, the Saami of northern
Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia
and the Maori of New Zealand. More than 60 per cent of Bolivia's
population is indigenous, and indigenous peoples make up roughly
half the populations of Guatemala and Peru. China and India
together have more than 150 million indigenous and tribal people.
About 10 million indigenous people live in Myanmar.
WHAT ARE THE LIVING CONDITIONS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES? Despite
their diversity, they face similar problems. Under the march of
colonialism, the spread of non-indigenous religions and the
relentless pace of development and modernization, indigenous
groups have seen their traditional cultures eroded and their
landholdings confiscated or signed away as part of the economic
coercion to which they were subjected. This legacy has helped to
make indigenous peoples some of the most disadvantaged groups on
More generally, indigenous peoples who are
integrated into a
national society face discrimination and exploitation in housing,
education and in matters having to do with language and religion.
Those remaining in their traditional territories face disruption
of their cultures and forced displacement as their lands and
natural resources are claimed for national development. It is no
exaggeration to say that some indigenous peoples live under the
threat of extinction.
- Most of India's tribal peoples live below the poverty line.
- The life expectancy of indigenous people in northern Russia
is 18 years less than the national average.
- Unemployment among Australia's Aborigines is five times the
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES? The growing awareness
about human rights in the post-war era of the past 40 years or so
has not been matched by parallel progress in enhancing the rights
of indigenous groups. However, a new activism by Indian,
tribal and aboriginal groups in the last decade or so has produced
signs that a different attitude is developing.
Still, despite these
successes and their growing political
and organizational competence, indigenous peoples continue to lose
their lands, resources and identities.
- In 1979, the Parliament of Denmark granted self-government
to Greenland and jurisdiction over education, health care,
social welfare and economic development.
- Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico have adopted
far-reaching laws on the rights of indigenous people.
- The Government of New Zealand and the National Maori
Congress are engaged in a constructive dialogue that aims to
resolve a number of disputes, including the issue of self-rule.
- In Canada, one million indigenous people, among them
Mohawk, Cree and Inuit, have increased their visibility,
attained a level of political power previously unimagined and
used their newfound position to protect their lands and carve
out new social and economic gains.
WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES? Among the issues
that concern indigenous peoples are:
Indigenous peoples see themselves as the legitimate claimants
to their territories and natural resources, and consider control
over local economy, social planning, land use and taxation
essential to their existence. Thus they are seeking greater
degrees of autonomy and self-rule.
- land and resources
- human rights
- internal colonization
- cultural survival
- intellectual property rights
- social and economic conditions
The lives of the 50 million indigenous people who inhabit the
world's tropical rainforests are threatened by deforestation. But
while indigenous people are on the frontlines of environmental
degradation, they also have a vital role to play in environmental
protection. For centuries, they have engaged in sustainable land
management and land-use in the areas in which they live.
The annual market value of drugs derived from medicinal
plants discovered, developed and passed from generation to
generation by indigenous peoples exceeds $43 billion. Drug
companies tap into this indigenous knowledge basis but rarely
share the profits with indigenous peoples. Thus indigenous
peoples are attempting to gain greater protection for their
The high quality of indigenous artworks and cultural
artifacts generates great demand for them, but theft and the
unauthorized sale of indigenous items robs the creators of both
money and their cultural patrimony. Thus indigenous peoples are
looking to secure the right to their cultural property.
Indigenous peoples want to maintain their distinct cultures
and transmit their cultural heritage to subsequent generations.
Thus they are demanding the right to educate their children in
their own languages, with their own textbooks and school
WHAT ARE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DOING TO ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS?
Indigenous peoples have been demanding justice from the
international community for many years. They have organized
locally, nationally and regionally and are active in the
international diplomatic arena, seeking respect for their cultures
and ways of life and full participation in the decisions that
Twelve indigenous peoples' organizations have consultative
status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council
(ECOSOC). These are: Four Directions Council, Grand Council of
the Crees (Quebec), Indian Council of South America, Indian Law
Resource Center, Indigenous World Association, International
Indian Treaty Council, International Organization of Indigenous
Resources Development, Inuit Circumpolar Conference, National
Aboriginal and Islander Legal Services Secretariat, National
Indian Youth Council, Nordic Saami Council and World Council of
Indigenous communities have also resorted to the legal
system, in some cases winning recognition of their claims. The
Passamaquaddy and Penobscot Indians of Maine were recently awarded
$80 million over a violation of the Non-Intercourse Act, which was
passed in 1790 and provided that no one could buy or take land
from Indians without official United States approval. The tribes
used part of the award to purchase 300,000 acres of timberland.
WHAT IS THE UNITED NATIONS DOING FOR INDIGENOUS PEOPLES? The
United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations is the
centre of indigenous rights activities within the United Nations
system. The Working Group:
Increasingly, indigenous organizations make use of the United
Nations complaints procedures for human rights violations. For
example, the "1503" procedure established by the ECOSOC enables
indigenous organizations to voice their concerns before the United
Nations and to appeal for redress.
- reviews Government policies covering the protection of the
human rights of indigenous peoples;
- makes recommendations to the United Nations Sub-Commission
on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities
and to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which
promote action on issues related to indigenous peoples; and
- is drafting, as part of its mandate to develop
international standards concerning the rights of indigenous
peoples, a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples, which is expected to be completed in 1993.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was the first
international body to take steps to promote the rights of
indigenous groups. ILO Convention No. 169
on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples affirms that no State or social group
has the rights to deny the identity to which an indigenous people may
lay claim, and places responsibility on States for ensuring, with the
participation of indigenous peoples, their rights and integrity. The
ILO has also launched a number of technical assistance programmes.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE INTERNATIONAL YEAR? The 1993
International Year for the World's Indigenous People was
proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly "to strengthen
international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by
indigenous communities in areas such as human rights, the
environment, development, education and health".
The Year was requested by indigenous organizations and is the
result of their efforts to secure their cultural integrity and
status into the twenty-first century. It aims above all to
encourage a new relationship between States and indigenous
peoples, and between the international community and indigenous
peoples -- a new partnership based on mutual respect and
To assist with the Year's programmes and activities, and to
foster educational and cultural events, the Secretary-General of
the United Nations opened the Voluntary Fund for the International
Year for the World's Indigenous People, to which Governments are
invited to contribute. For further information, contact:
International Year for the World's Indigenous People Centre for
Human Rights United Nations 1211 Geneva 10 Switzerland
The International Year for the World's Indigenous People
Department of Public Information Room S-1040 United Nations New
York, N.Y. 10017