Indigenous peoples

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An accurate definition of indigenous peoples is particularly hard to produce because of the great diversity amongst the peoples to whom the term has been applied. Even the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not provide a formal definition. Rather, it identifies elements of historical experiences that indigenous peoples generally have in common. Much of this comes from the lengthy preamble; in particular, the sixth paragraph reads:

Concerned that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests,

While the eleventh paragraph of the preamble infers a connection to the land and Article 25 notes indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional lands, prior occupation of the land is not enough to be considered indigenous. The French in France, for example, would not normally be considered indigenous. Indigenous peoples have also suffered “historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, colonization and dispossession.” They have been victims of racism and forced assimilation. They have been occupied both militarily and socially, having been denied the right to practice their traditional religions, speak their traditional languages, develop local political and economic institutions, or educate their children in their own culture according to their own customs. They have been betrayed by broken treaties and denied their right to self-determination. Their traditional knowledge and customs have been unabashedly appropriated by their past or current colonizers.

Scholars who write about indigenous peoples or indigenous rights often implicitly follow the definition also implied here by the UN declaration.


The term "indigenous" come to the social sciences from biology, in which field it indicates a species that originates in or is native to a particular place. This "original" or "native" meaning is retained in the social sciences when indigeneity is ascribed to groups of people, but it also acquires connotations of ethnic, political and historical positionality.