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.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has developed an understanding of the term based on the following:

  • Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • Form non-dominant groups of society
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

Factsheet "Who are indigenous peoples?

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.