The world’s 370 million Indigenous peoples: Shared experiences in 70 different countries – United Nations

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Indigenous Foundations (First Nations Studies Program, University of British Columbia, Canada) | Learn more >>

There are an estimated 370 million Indigenous peoples worldwide, living in 70 different countries, according to the United Nations (U.N.) Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Despite vast diversity among Indigenous groups around the world, Indigenous populations share similar experiences and struggles. Settler states and governments typically represent settler society, which is often more populous and powerful than the Indigenous inhabitants of the country. In this situation, Indigenous populations have become socio-economically disadvantaged and vulnerable to discriminatory state policy and even to outright armed repression. A major thrust of much colonial and state policy has been the attempt to assimilate Indigenous groups both by force of arms and through more subtle pressures to conform to the dominant society. Some assimilation policies, such as child apprehension, have taken similar forms across the globe. In Canada during the Sixties Scoop, Indigenous children were removed from their homes and handed over to non-Indigenous families; in Australia the targets of a similar policy are known as the Stolen Generation. In many countries, governments ran programs of indoctrination under the guise of education (the residential school system in Canada, and the industrial schools of the United States, for example).

What do we mean by Indigenous?

Under international law, there is no official definition of Indigenous, although the United Nations generally identifies Indigenous groups as autonomous and self-sustaining societies that have faced discrimination, marginalization and assimilation of their cultures and peoples due to the arrival of a larger or more dominant settler population. The word Indigenous was adopted by Aboriginal leaders in the 1970s after the emergence of Indigenous rights movements around the world as a way to identify and unite their communities and represent them in political arenas such as the United Nations. Indigenous was chosen over other terms that leaders felt reflected particular histories and power dynamics, or had been imposed by the colonizers. Given the diversity of Indigenous experience, no universally accepted definition has been drafted. […]

Indigenous leaders began to unite with other Aboriginal groups to increase their effectiveness in the fight for their rights. Since the 1970s, increasing numbers of Indigenous peoples have organized across geographic and political borders, bringing international attention to their common struggles despite their vastly different cultures and locations. These organizations vary from global organizations such as the World Council of Indigenous Peoples to smaller organizations, such as the Coast Salish Gathering, that reunite cultural groups divided by political borders.

The first major period of international organizing among Aboriginal populations occurred during the 1970s. In 1973, the first Arctic Peoples’ Conference was held in Copenhagen to acknowledge and address common issues and rights among Arctic populations. The conference comprised representatives from its Greenlandic founding organizations, Canada (members of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the National Indian Brotherhood), as well as the Saami of Scandinavia. […]

Transnational Indigenous organizations have been created all around the world. The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee is an umbrella organization representing Indigenous peoples across the African continent.  The Asian Indigenous Women’s Network unites Indigenous women of the Asian continent, and the Asia-Pacific Indigenous Youth Network similarly organizes Indigenous youth in Asia.

In the Arctic, aside from the ICC, the Sami are represented in the Sami Parliaments of Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Norway was the first country to establish a Saami Parliament in 1989, with Sweden to follow in 1993 and Finland in 1996.

In Canada, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) gives a unified voice to First Nations across Canada, in federal politics as well as on the international stage. The AFN participated in drafting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in negotiations of the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement. On the domestic front, the AFN worked on constitutional amendments in the 1980s, the Charlottetown Accord, and the Meech Lake Accord.

In the Pacific Northwest, The Coast Salish Gathering represents Coast Salish peoples on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. The Gathering was the first transnational political organization to represent Coast Salish peoples. Members meet several times a year to analyze policy and propose recommendations on issues that impact Coast Salish peoples collectively despite the political border. These include fishing, resource extraction and other environmental issues affecting their shared ancestral homeland.

Organizing at the United Nations

In 1982, the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Peoples was established by Indigenous organizations and U.N. member states. The UNWGIP was made up of five independent experts and advised by Indigenous volunteers. One of the UNWGIP’s goals was to increase international standards in regards to Indigenous rights, and in 1994 the group drafted the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Thirteen years later, the UNDRIP was finalized and adopted by the U.N. General Assembly. The Working Group continues to meet annually in Geneva. […]

Over time, Indigenous members of the UNWGIP felt unrepresented in the United Nations and unable to adequately address the concerns that most affected Indigenous people. In 2000, a new body was established—the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII)—with a structure designed to allow for effective Indigenous participation. The UNPFII is an advisory body that submits recommendations and reports to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

Accessed: 7 February 2018

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people

The US, Canada and New Zealand have all moved to recognise Aboriginal people in their respective constitutions. But Australia is still struggling: politicians are adamant to go beyond symbolic gestures, and many Aboriginal people want a treaty instead.

Video: A humorous view of constitutional recognition

Adam Briggs takes on constitutional recognition for indigenous peoples.

Watch this video of The Weekly for a tongue-in-cheek view of the topic.

National constitutional recognition

Nationally efforts started in 2011 to have Aboriginal people recognised in Australia’s constitution.
Australia’s constitution does not recognise Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples’ prior occupation and custodianship of their land.

Accessed: 7 February 2018

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