Race and Identity What Are Indigenous Populations? By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry Facebook Twitter Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. Learn about our editorial process Updated on January 04, 2021 Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Adah Chung Fact checked by Adah Chung LinkedIn Adah Chung is a fact checker, writer, researcher, and occupational therapist. Learn about our editorial process Print Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Are Indigenous Populations? Identifying Indigenous Groups Why It’s Important Indigenous Rights and Issues How to Learn More 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 StatesFirst Nations and Métis of CanadaSammi of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and DenmarkMaori of New ZealandKurds of Western AsiaMaasai 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 communityA connection to a specific territory, the land, and the resources of that regionA connection to distinct culture, beliefs, spiritual practices, language, beliefs, and political systemsThe 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: TribesFirst PeoplesFirst NationsAboriginal 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 mortalityIncreased risk of diabetes and obesity linked to dietary changesPoor 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. What Is Spirituality? 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 130 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. 15 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. Amnesty International. Indigenous peoples. World Health Organization. Indigenous populations. United Nations. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Who are indigenous peoples?. Muckle RJ. Indigenous peoples of North America. A concise anthropological overview. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 2012. Peters MA, Mika CT. Aborigine, Indian, Indigenous or First nations?. Educ Philosophy Theory. 2017;49(13):1229-1234. doi:10.1080/00131857.2017.1279879 Freemantle J, Ring I, Arambula Solomon TG, et al. 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CMAJ. 2016;188(16):1147-1153. doi:10.1503/cmaj.150787 Kozhimannil KB. Indigenous maternal health—A crisis demanding attention. JAMA Health Forum. Published online May 18, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2020.0517 Markwick A, Ansari Z, Clinch D. et al. Experiences of racism among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults living in the Australian state of Victoria: A cross-sectional population-based study. BMC Public Health. 2019;19:309. doi:10.1186/s12889-019-6614-7 USA Today. Indigenous Peoples Day or Columbus Day? 14 states celebrate, honor Native American histories and cultures. By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? 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