Indigenous Peoples are the original inhabitants of many countries. We are also called the first peoples, first nations, aboriginal peoples and tribal peoples.
How many? Where do we live?
Indigenous peoples number about 300 million in more than 70 countries. We are found on all five continents from the Arctic, to the Amazon, from the Sahara, to Australia. We include the Native Americans, the Inuit of the circumpolar region (Canada, Alaska, Greenland), the Saami of Northern Europe (Norway, Sweden, Finland) and the Maori of Aoteoroa (New Zealand).
The majority of the world's Indigenous peoples, more than 150 million live in Asia, in countries such as Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Phillipines, 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.
In Australia the Indigenous population numbers over 315,000 Aboriginal peoples and 29,000 Torres Strait Islanders, according to the 1996 Census. Within the Aboriginal population there are 250 distinct cultural groups, including the Yolngu from Arnhem Land (my own people), the Wiradjuri of south eastern Australia, the Yamatji in Western Australia, the Kalkadoons of northern Queensland, the Anangu from Central Australia and the Palawas from Tasmania.
During the period of European colonial expansion, many Indigenous peoples were wiped out. Most often, our traditional lands were taken from us by force and we had to crowd onto small areas that no one else wanted. We experienced massacres and various attempts at assimilation such as the removal of our children.
In Asia and Africa, the colonial powers drew up borders and created new nations that ignored tribal groupings and lands. People were separated from one another and turned into powerless minorities. The health problems and economic disadvantages in Indigenous communities are the direct result of these actions that pushed us to the margins of society.
Indigenous peoples have diverse cultures, languages, religions and forms of social and economic organisation. Some of us maintain traditional lifestyles. Others live in cities and in towns.
However, we all share a strong sense of our own cultures, and a profound attachment to our traditional lands. We are also united in a desire to maintain our unique identities and to survive and grow as distinct peoples.
Economic and Social Disadvantage
Although we are diverse, Indigenous peoples face similar problems around the world. We have faced slavery and forced labour. We continue to face discrimination, poverty, poor health, unemployment and high rates of imprisonment. Our lands and resources are threatened by deforestation, mining, dam and irrigation projects, road construction, toxic waste dumping and nuclear testing.
Indigenous Rights and International Action
Human rights are those rights that we all have by virtue of our dignity and worth as human beings. Indigenous peoples, of course, should be entitled to all existing human rights and we should be able to enjoy the benefit of those rights. Sadly, this is not always possible.
Another essential element of human rights is the entitlement to establish and protect our distinct rights as Indigenous peoples that is, our collective rights as a distinct group within society, with our own cultures and identities, and as the original owners of the land.
Around the world, Indigenous peoples have struggled to gain control over our lands and lives and for recognition of our distinct rights. Over time, the concerns of Indigenous peoples have become a concern of the international community.
The protection of human rights is the responsibility of governments. It has been a priority concern for the United Nations since its earliest days. However, the UN was slow to recognise the human rights of indigenous peoples. It was only in the 1970s that the UN appointed a Special Rapporteur to study the problem of discrimination against Indigenous populations.
This lead to the establishment in 1982 of a Working Group on Indigenous Populations a focal point for UN activities concerning Indigenous peoples. In the 1980s, this forum developed the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Draft Declaration is the result of many years work by Indigenous peoples and governments from all parts of the world. Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, (Canada), has said that the Draft Declaration:
"began as a cry from indigenous peoples for justice, and it is drafted to confirm that the international standards which apply to all peoples of the world apply to indigenous peoples"
Within the Draft Declaration there is no right more fundamental for Indigenous people than that of self-determination. It is an inherent right of all peoples. It means Indigenous peoples should have the resources and the capacity to control the future of our own communities within the countries in which we live.
Therefore, my vision is of Indigenous peoples and communities freely exercising our legal, economic, social, cultural and political rights in societies that respect the richness of our diversity and cultures. We can then work together in partnership with all peoples to build a world based on respect and dignity for all.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission