What Are Indigenous Populations?

An Indigenous woman smiling in an art studio.

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Indigenous people make up an estimated 5% of the world's population. While they have different backgrounds, cultures, and traditions, they often have a shared history of being uprooted and forced from their ancestral lands.

Along with this, many face marginalization and discrimination in various forms including being prevented or denied the ability to live their traditions, express their cultures, and even speak their language.

In order to understand many of the unique issues that Indigenous populations face, it is essential to gain a better understanding and awareness of Indigenous peoples, their history, and their cultures.

What Are Indigenous Populations?

According to the World Health Organization, Indigenous populations identify as part of a distinct group or are descended from people who originate in areas that were their traditional lands that existed prior to the establishment of modern-day borders.

Indigenous People

Indigenous populations, often also referred to as Indigenous peoples, are distinct cultural and social groups that share ancestral connections to lands where they live or peoples from an area where they have been displaced. Indigenous people are the original inhabitants of a geographical area or country before people from other countries or cultures arrived.

After arrival, these new inhabitants eventually gained dominance of the area, often through settlement, occupation, or conquest.

In North America, Indigenous people were often forcibly removed from their ancestral lands or assimilated into the mainstream culture. Examples of this include the forcible resettlement of Indigenous people onto reservations in the United States, and the use of residential schools to assimilate Indigenous children in Canada. 

Some Indigenous populations found in different areas of the world include:

  • Native Americans of the United States
  • First Nations and Métis of Canada
  • Sammi of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark
  • Maori of New Zealand
  • Kurds of Western Asia
  • Maasai of East Africa

Indigenous populations often share social identities, cultural traditions, political institutions, and economic practices that are distinct from those of the now dominant culture of the region.

Demographical Statistics

The United Nations (U.N.) estimates that there are more than 370 million Indigenous people living in 70 countries worldwide. However, estimates of the total world population vary between around 250 and 600 million.

Exact estimates are difficult to make because of the different ways that Indigenous peoples are identified and recognized in different countries.

Identifying Indigenous Groups

When learning about Indigenous populations, it is important to remember that while these groups are often included under the umbrella of the term “Indigenous peoples,” each group has its own unique history shaped by forces that may be specific to their history, culture, traditions, and experiences.

Characteristics

According to the U.N., Indigenous populations can be identified by a number of different characteristics. Indigenous refers to:

  • A self-identity which suggests that an individual claims and is claimed by a community
  • A connection to a specific territory, the land, and the resources of that region
  • A connection to distinct culture, beliefs, spiritual practices, language, beliefs, and political systems
  • The maintenance of distinct social identities, ancestral environments, and cultural practices

"Indigenous" is a widely used term, but people in different countries and regions may have their own preferences for how they want to be referred to as. Other terms that may be used or preferred include:

  • Tribes
  • First Peoples
  • First Nations
  • Aboriginal groups

Countries or regions may also have other specific terms for groups that live in those areas. In the U.S., for example, Indigenous peoples are often referred to collectively as Native Americans.

The word Indigenous is derived from the Latin words indigena and indigenus which means "native." The Old Latin prefix "indu-" means "in." The word Indigena was first used in the 1640s to describe animals, plants, and people that were native to a particular region.

Indigenous populations have their own histories, languages, knowledge, and ways of learning. Their ancestral background is important in their values, needs, and relationships with each other and the land that they inhabit.

Challenges

While Indigenous populations are diverse and have their own needs and priorities, they also often share a number of common challenges and experiences. These may include concerns related to:

  • Lack of political representation
  • Economic marginalization
  • Racism and discrimination
  • Lack of access to services, including healthcare
  • The protection of rights and treaty agreements
  • Recognition of their way of life and identity
  • Land and resource rights
  • Education
  • Displacement
  • Violence

Understanding Indigenous Populations

There are many reasons to learn more about Indigenous groups. Not only can it give you a greater appreciation of the different people who have contributed to the history of a region, but it can also help stop the loss of these cultures.

Learning about and celebrating Indigenous culture is one way to foster and encourage cultural pride.

Improving cultural pride can also help members of that group to preserve their languages, spirituality, history, traditions, and cultural practices.

The Past Influences Indigenous People Today

When learning about Indigenous populations, it is important to understand both the current events as well as the past. While historical events may seem as if they are in the distant past and no longer relevant, these events continue to exert forces that influence the lives of Indigenous people.

As the authors of one review looking at Indigenous mortality suggested, "The invasion, disruption, and displacement of Indigenous people by Europeans who ventured across the Atlantic to the Americas in 1492 and across the Pacific to Australia in 1770 (settling in 1788) and New Zealand in the 1790s continues to adversely affect the physical, social, emotional, and mental health and well-being of Indigenous peoples.”

Why You Should Learn About Indigenous Groups

Learning about Indigenous populations can give you a better, more comprehensive, and honest understanding of history. You cannot truly understand the history of a region until you look at all the people, groups, and events that fostered the birth of a land and contributed to its current culture.

A few of the reasons why it is important to learn more about Indigenous populations are listed below.

You Will Have a Better Understanding of History

It can be helpful to re-learn history from an Indigenous point of view because people often learn their own history purely from a settler or colonialist perspective.

Indigenous people have long been marginalized by mainstream society. In order for nations to fully understand their own history, they also need to understand the history and contributions of the Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples of the region.

You Will Understand the Struggles of Indigenous Groups

In order to understand the needs and priorities of Indigenous peoples today, it is essential to learn more about how they are marginalized by society. Indigenous peoples often face unique issues that require special consideration. The long-term effects of practices such as forced assimilation have intergenerational consequences.

You Will Learn About a Different Culture

Indigenous peoples have their own unique worldview. While each culture is different, Indigenous worldviews often focus on the transmission of knowledge and wisdom through oral tradition, the interconnectedness of all beings, and the connections of humans to the lands they inhabit. Understanding these worldviews can help others to better understand Indigenous perspectives.

You Can Understand Someone Else's Struggles

When you take the time to learn about another culture, it facilitates acceptance, empathy, and respect for those in that group.

For many people throughout the world, the history and impact of Indigenous peoples were not well-recognized or understood. Such histories are often erased or minimized from mainstream narratives.

Without this understanding, non-Indigenous people cannot have knowledge of the ways that governments have attempted to assimilate Indigenous peoples, the contributions that Indigenous people have made to society, and the treaties that have been made between governments and Indigenous populations.

It also ensures that dominant groups better understand, acknowledge, and protect treaty agreements. Such agreements exist to protect the rights of Indigenous groups and ensure their sovereignty and continued relationship to their ancestral lands.

Indigenous Rights and Issues

Indigenous populations are often faced with issues or concerns that are linked to their history and relationship with other groups. Such issues center on access to resources and land rights, preservation of their culture, environmental injustices, ownership of natural resources, and discrimination from other groups.

Treaty and Land Rights

The rights of Indigenous populations vary depending on the country and region in which they live. While treaties were often negotiated in the past to ensure the rights of Indigenous groups, whether these treaties are honored varies from one place to the next.

In some places, Indigenous groups also face conflicts over the ownership and exploitation of the natural resources found in their ancestral lands.

For example, over the last 400 years, hundreds of treaties have been made between the U.S. and Canadian governments and individual groups. There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. and hundreds of treaties have been signed that cover issues such as peace, land boundaries, protection from enemies, and hunting and fishing rights.

Today, legal battles continue to wage as Indigenous groups of North American fight to have the rights promised by these treaties upheld.

International Rights

International groups also recognize the rights of Indigenous populations. These rights are detailed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was first adopted in 2007.

When it was introduced, four members of the U.N., the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, voted against the declaration. While not considered law, the declaration outlines recognition for the rights of Indigenous peoples including land ownership and specifies that states cannot relocate people without their freely given informed consent.

Health

Indigenous populations also often approach health differently than other Western cultures. Dominant mainstream medicine views health in terms of physical symptoms and the treatment of disease.

Indigenous approaches to health, on the other hand, often take a much more holistic approach and consider how physical, emotional, and spiritual factors contribute to health and well-being.

Indigenous populations also face health issues that are often linked to the loss of their traditional practices and poor funding for health services. Some examples include:

  • Increased infant mortality
  • Increased risk of diabetes and obesity linked to dietary changes
  • Poor prenatal care

Discrimination and Racism

Indigenous populations have often experienced various forms of discrimination and racism. This can be seen in the extreme forms of racism perpetrated in the past that included genocide and forced relocations as well as in more recent discriminatory acts including the government removal of children from their families to be placed in state-run schools or with non-Indigenous families.

How to Learn More

Individuals and governments are increasingly becoming aware of the need to honor and celebrate Indigenous cultures.

Indigenous Peoples' Day

In the U.S., 14 states—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin—as well as the District of Columbia, over 100 cities, and many schools across the country now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Indigenous Peoples' Day is often celebrated in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. It's meant to honor the Indigenous and Native people of the Americas and help non-Indigenous people learn and celebrate Indigenous culture and history.

Some other ways that you can learn more and celebrate Indigenous people are listed below.

Explore Online

Podcasts such as Media Indigena can help you learn more about modern Indigenous issues. Other websites that you may find helpful include Big Myth (where you can explore Indigenous creation stories) and Native Knowledge 360 (from the National Museum of the American Indian).

Take a Class

There are a number of free online classes available including Indigenous Canada (from the University of Alberta) and Indigenous Peoples' Rights (from Columbia University).

Read More

There are also a number of excellent books written by Indigenous authors that can help you better understand the history and issues that impact Indigenous populations today.

Some books to consider reading include An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (also available as a version adapted for younger readers) and Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing by Suzanne Methot.

A Word From Verywell

Learning more about Indigenous populations throughout the world can help you better understand the history, experiences, and cultures of groups that have been historically marginalized. Not only can such understanding foster greater empathy, but it can also help you understand and support Indigenous people in their efforts to preserve their culture, advocate for their rights, and combat discrimination.

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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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