Issues Home About Contact Us Issue 30 - July 2024 عربى
Terminology Corner
Indigenous people(s)

Cultural groups (and their descendants) who have a historical continuity or association with a given region, or parts of a region, and who formerly or currently inhabit the region:

  • before its subsequent colonization or annexation; or
  • alongside other cultural groups during the formation of the current State; or
  • independently or largely isolated from the influence of the claimed governance by a State,

And who furthermore:

  • have maintained at least in part their distinct linguistic, cultural and social / organizational characteristics, and in doing so remain differentiated in some degree from the surrounding populations and dominant culture of the state in which they live.

To the above, a criterion is usually added also to include:

  • peoples who are self-identified as indigenous, and those recognized as such by other groups.

“Indigenous peoples” is the preferred term in use by the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations since the foundational study by José Martinez-Cobo’s Study of Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, in the early 1980s, which contains this definition.

Other related terms for indigenous peoples include aborigines, native peoples, first peoples, Fourth World, first nations and autochthonous (this last term derived from Greek, meaning sprung from the earth). “Indigenous peoples” is preferred over these or other terms, as a neutral replacement for other terms that may have taken on negative or pejorative connotations.

The African Commission on Human Rights has ruled in its Advisory Opinion on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that “there is no universally agreed definition of the term and no single definition can capture the characteristics of indigenous populations.” However, the Commission added that, in the African context, indigenous people could mean a social group having the following characteristics:

  1. Self-identification as indigenous;
  2. A special attachment to, and use of their traditional land whereby their ancestral and territory have a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples;
  3. A state of subjugation, marginalisation, dispossession, exclusion, or discrimination because these peoples have different cultures, ways of life or mode of production than the national hegemonic and dominant model;”

The Commission pointed out also that, “in Africa, the term indigenous populations does not mean `first inhabitants’ in reference to aboriginality as opposed to non-African communities or those having come from elsewhere. This peculiarity distinguishes Africa from the other continents where native communities have been almost annihilated by non-native populations. Therefore, the ACHPR considers that any African can legitimately consider him/herself as indigene to the Continent.



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