The Grand Council of the Crees

Who are the World's Indigenous Peoples?

Who are the World's Indigenous Peoples?

Posted: 0000-00-00

Indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of many countries. They are also called first peoples, tribal peoples, aboriginal peoples, autochthones and, sometimes, the "Fourth World".

United Nations definition

The UN has not developed a formal definition of indigenous people. As a guide the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations has used the definition prepared by Jose Martinez Cobo.

The Martinez Cobo definition states that indigenous communities, peoples and nations:

How many? Where do they live?

Indigenous peoples number about 300 million. They live in more than 70 countries on all five continents, from Arctic to the Amazon, from the Sahara to Australia. They include the Indians of the Americas, the Inuit of the circumpolar region, the Saami of Northern Europe and the Maori of Aoteoroa (New Zealand).

The majority - more than 150 million - live in Asia, in countries such as Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Around 30 million indigenous peoples live in Latin America. In Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru, indigenous peoples make up over half the population.


During the period of European colonial expansion many indigenous peoples were wiped out and their land taken from them by force. They experienced massacres, forced relocations, removal of their children and other forms of assimilation. In Asia and Africa, artificial colonial borders have separated peoples or turned them into powerless minorities.

Distinct cultures; attachment to land

Indigenous people have diverse cultures, religions and forms of social and economic organization. Some maintain traditional lifestyles. Others live in cities and towns. However, all share a strong sense of their distinct cultures, most of all a profound attachment to their traditional land.

They are united in a desire to maintain their unique identities and to adapt and survive as distinct peoples.

Economic and social disadvantage

Despite their diversity, indigenous peoples face similar problems. They are among the most disadvantaged groups on Earth. They are subjected to slavery and forced labour. They face discrimination, poverty, poor health, unemployment and high rates of imprisonment, their land and resources are threatened by deforestation, mining, dam and irrigation projects, road construction, toxic waste dumping, nuclear testing and other aspects of development

International action

Around the world, indigenous peoples have struggled to gain control over their land and lives and recognition of their rights. The concerns of indigenous peoples have become a concern of the international community.

In 1982, the United Nations established a Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP). In 1993, the WGIP completed its work on a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.