There are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world, living across 90 countries. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.
COVID-19 has posed a grave threat to Indigenous peoples around the world, who already lack access to healthcare and other essential services. Yet, Indigenous peoples are seeking their own solutions in their own languages, using traditional and innovative knowledge, practices and preventive measures to fight the pandemic.
In the We Are Indigenous series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) speaks with Indigenous academics and activists to learn how the global Indigenous community’s contributions are building a healthier and more sustainable future for us all.
Spread across the world from the Arctic to the South Pacific, Indigenous peoples are commonly understood as descendants of the Earth’s original land-stewards, living in a geographic region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived and later became dominant through conquest, occupation, and settlement.
Considering the diversity of the 476 million Indigenous peoples living in all regions of the world, we can’t confine Indigenous peoples to a single definition. The United Nations describes Indigenous peoples as inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. A modern understanding of the term is based on their self- identification as Indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as a member; historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies; a strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; distinct social, economic or political systems; distinct languages, cultures and beliefs, and so forth.
In modern times, global Indigenous communities find themselves facing deplorable living conditions due to industrial development, climate change and now COVID-19. Resurgent problem solvers, Indigenous populations have both collectively and individually proven themselves as infinitely resilient in the face of disaster. In the We Are Indigenous interview series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) invites Indigenous thought leaders from universities across the globe to engage in a discussion on cultural heterogeneity, individuality, and community-based resilience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, Indigenous-led consultation always places the inclusion and protection of Elders at its center, something that is especially important during the global COVID-19 pandemic, observed John Scott, a member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and Director of the Centre for Public Service Communications, which has coordinated initiatives to engage Indigenous peoples in disaster risk reduction on behalf of several United Nations agencies, including the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). Inclusive and culturally understood decision-making processes in reducing risk are critical for meeting the needs of the community members they are intended to serve.
Professor Simon Lambert, who studied Economic Geography at Lincoln University in New Zealand and is a member of the Tuhoe and Ngati Ruapani, is an expert in Indigenous disaster risk reduction and has been involved in ongoing meetings related to the COVID-19 response in Indigenous communities. He notes the importance of making information and educational materials available in Indigenous languages, although these translations might “come at a cost, or a delay.” Multilingual research, and the urgency in ensuring Indigenous languages are being included in academic discourse, is a way of protecting Indigenous methods of information documentation that have been at risk since early colonial contact.
When it comes to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Mylan Tootoosis, Nêhiyawpwat (Plains Cree-Nakota) and PhD student in Political Ecology from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, reflects on an Indigenous symbiotic relationship with landscape that once mitigated a lot of devastating impacts to environment. “The Sustainable Development Goals provide the framework for countries and organizations to begin to have those conversations and strive for pre-contact Americas.”
Dr. Myrle Ballard, an Anishinaabe scholar and Professor at the University of Manitoba, Canada also sees sustainable development as an inherent part of her culture’s way of being. “Our people, my ancestors – they had these names [sustainability] way before I was born, since time immemorial, because they were always on the land,” she notes.
Additionally, the Indigenous young people are stepping up to the challenges of environment, equality and education, and preparing themselves to lead positive changes. In Greenland, youth academic and activist Qivioq Nivi Løvstrøm, works at the Nordic Institute and studies in the Department of Culture and Social History at the University of Greenland. Her Indigenous community calls themselves “Kalaallit” and are part of the “Inuit Nunaat” (the Land of the Inuit). A young woman active in environmental rights, Qivioq notes that the “majority of Kalaallit getting a higher education are women” with a predominantly female workforce in the social and human rights fields.
Despite many challenges, indigeneity remains abundant across the globe. Research shows that there are more than 42 million Indigenous people in Latin America, making up nearly 8 percent of the total population. Several Indigenous groups in countries such as China, Vietnam and India are leaders in socio-economic regeneration through the revival of Indigenous governance structures. From the call for formal protection of Maya and Aztec monuments in Mexico, to the Maasai people of East Africa challenging assimilative government programs, and the modern inclusion of Two-spirit gender identity by many Indigenous communities in North America, Indigenous stories continue to pave a path of sovereignty for their future generations.
Who are Indigenous peoples? What are their social, cultural, economic and political characteristics, challenges and contributions? To answer these questions in an oversimplified statement would only be a repetition of what occurs far too often in mainstream media, educational, and political structures. The We Are Indigenous interview series aims to change the narrative of Indigenous people as vulnerable, endangered and at-risk and instead, illustrate the immeasurable diversity in Indigenous knowledge and modernity, as Indigenous scholars break down colonial barriers to build bridges of intersectionality between activism and academia. These conversations welcome dialogue on the ways in which Indigenous perspectives live within generational bodies of knowledge, amongst individual definitions of modernity, and throughout the many translations of their languages that cannot be filed under a single pan-Indigenous worldview.
- United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
- UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs: Indigenous Peoples
- Fact sheet: Who are Indigenous Peoples?
- Report series: State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
- United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- System-wide action plan (SWAP) on the rights of indigenous peoples
- International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August)