Background readings

Topic: “Who is Indigenous?”

Rather than providing one definition of who are indigenous people, we are offering a place to start to read about and understand the rich and complex aspects of indigeneity. As a preface to this discussion, we offer the following excerpt from an article by Dr. Loriene Roy (Roy, Loriene, “Indigenous Matters in Library and Information Science: An Evolving Ecology,” Focus in International Library and Information Work 40 (2) (July 2009): 8-12.

Indigenous is one powerful word. In many ways, the definition within the Facebook group Introduction is sufficient: indigenous people know who they are. While those who are indigenous may not overly spend effort on seeking a universal definition, it is of concern by those who are not indigenous, especially those who have contemporary experiences with political situations involving indigenous peoples in their own geographic borders.

In 1999, Te Ropu Whakahau, the organizers of the first International Indigenous Librarians Forum, defined indigenous peoples as “those who have become minority peoples in their places of cultural origin.”1 Over time, this has become more of a working definition since it does not acknowledge indigenous peoples who are majority in their lands or who have, over time and through generations, moved away from homeland areas.

This working definition of indigeneity does recognize the unique relationship original people have to the land. Maori use the phrase, tangata whenua, people of the land. This connection is built into protocol or etiquette. In many parts of the world, indigenous people introduce themselves by the landmarks that demarcate their homelands—“this is the mountain, river, rock near where I was born.” The land holds them to their genealogy. Some may, for example, know where their umbilical cord is buried and, furthermore, this may be the land where their bodies will return after death. In fact in the Maori language, whenua or land has the same meaning as placenta.

Trask observes that “indigenous peoples are defined in terms of collective aboriginal occupation prior to colonial settlement.”2  She points one an important difference between indigenous history and that of settler history: settlers can claim a voluntary status-- they chose to relocate to lands where their descendants now claim a legal inheritance. Indigenous peoples have an involuntary status: their physical lives on homeland areas are tied to emergence or other creation stories. Their formal nationalities were imposed upon them by outside governments. Trask summarizes these differences:

Unlike settlers in Hawai’i (haole, Asians, and others), who voluntarily gave up the nationality of their homelands when they became permanent residents of Hawai’i, Hawaiians had their nationality forcibly changed in their own homeland.3

Indigenous people know who they are.


[1] Makoare, Bernard and Chris Szekely. International Indigenous Librarians’ Forum 1999. [Preliminary Program]. Auckland, New Zealand: National Library of New Zealand, 1999, 8.

[2] Trask, Haunani-Kay. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999, 2nd ed., 33.

[3] Trask, From a Native Daughter, 30.

Additional definitions

1. “Indigenous Peoples are distinct populations in that the land on which they live, and the natural resources on which they depend, are inextricably linked to their identities and cultures.”

This includes “self-identification as members of a distinct indigenous cultural group and recognition of this identity by others; collective attachment to geographically distinct habitats or ancestral territories in the project area and to the natural resources in these habitats sand territories customary cultural, economic, social, or political institutions that are separate from those of the dominant society and culture; and an indigenous language, often different from the official language of the country or region.”

Source: The World Bank. OP 4.10-Indigenous Peoples, July 2005.

2. Jose Martinez Cobo’s working definition of “indigenous communities, peoples and nations”:

“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 on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

“This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present of one or more of the following factors:

  1. Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them;
  2. Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands;
  3. Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.);
  4. Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language);
  5. Residence on certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world;
  6. Other relevant factors.

On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous populations through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by these populations as one of its members (acceptance by the group).

This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.

Source: United Nations Workshop on Data Collection and Disaggregation for Indigenous people. The Concept of Indigenous People Working Paper. New York: UN, 2004 [MS Word document]. 

3. “Indigenous peoples are the inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to other people and to the environment. Indigenous peoples have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, the various groups of indigenous peoples around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples around the world have sought recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources; yet throughout history, their rights have been violated. Indigenous peoples are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world today. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.”

Source: UNPFII: History. United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 2006.

Online resources

The following is a list of some useful online resources on indigenous peoples, indigenous rights, racism and decolonization:

Some key protocols

The following is a list of some key protocols that can form the basis of a broader discussion:

Indigenous Matters

Last update: 23 February 2018