Definition of indigenous peoples

The Indigenous peoples view themselves as having a historical existence and identity that is separate and independent of the states now enveloping them. Lands located in a specific geographic area form a central element in their history and identity and are central regarding their contemporary political demands.

“Without the land and the knowledge that comes mainly from use of the land, we as Indigenous peoples cannot survive”. Indigenous identity is distinct and is produced and reproduced in concrete situations, through concrete activities and by enacting different discourses (political, environmental social, cultural, etc.).

From: Report on Biological Diversity in the Arctic

Recognition of the Saami as indigenous people

There are approximately 90,000 Saami living in the northernmost regions of North Calotte and Kola Peninsula. Of these, the Norwegian Saami constitute the largest group, numbering approximately 50-65,000 people, followed by Sweden (20,000), Finland (8,000) and Russia (2,000).

Currently (2007), the Saami are recognized as an indigenous people—not only a minority group—in the constitutions of Finland and Norway. In Sweden, there is no constitutional recognition of the Saami and they are treated as an ethnic minority and/or indigenous people. In the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the Saami constitute one of the many indigenous ‘small in number’ peoples of the north. Only Norway has become a party to the ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, the only modern international convention specifically dealing with the rights of indigenous peoples.

Read more from "Draft Nordic Saami Convention" in European Yearbook of Minority Issues (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers), Volume 6, 2006/7, pp. 103-136

General definition by the ILO

A definition of indigenous peoples is stated in Article 1 (1b) of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ILO No. 169 ):

This Convention applies to […] people in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present State boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.

Furthermore, Article 1 (2) leaves significant discretionary power to the peoples themselves to evaluate whether they regard themselves as indigenous:

Self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply.

It is noteworthy that the term used is "indigenous" despite the fact that it is not a common term for all Arctic countries. In Alaska, the most common reference is "Alaska Native" while the Constitution of Canada uses the term "aboriginal". "First nations" is also a widely used term in Canada as it is preferred by Indian people themselves. The Russian legislation defines indigenous peoples based on their population size. Groups with less than 50,000 people are defined as "indigenous numerically-small peoples" whereas non-Russian peoples with a population size of over 50,000 are denied indigenous status.

See video interviews of researcher Tanja Joona on ILO Convention No. 169 at the Cool Experts website.