Although there is not one international definition of the concept of “indigenous peoples”, these latter are usually described as the peoples who inhabited a land before the invasion and colonization by other peoples. Maintaining their distinctive customs, traditions and cultures, they didn’t mix with the societies that became the product of the “Western” colonialism. In certain regions these populations were massacred and highly reduced, though some were able to survive and pass their habits from one generation to the other until today.
These peoples face an important number of problems in modern times, in particular in developed countries; from Aboriginals in Australia to United States’ American Indians, Maoris in New Zealand or Inuits in Canada, all seem to be plagued by the same afflictions. Despite a growing international awareness to the condition of these peoples, globalization and modernization make it hard for them to maintain their identity and have often push them to adopt standardized customs. More often than not, they are amongst the lowest-ranges of a country’s society, being highly exposed to poverty, lack of education, health issues or troubles with the law.
The question of the land is also a problematic one. Since these peoples did not always have the same sense of property as the colonizing populations, they often found themselves estranged or pushed away from their lands. In some cases, these populations were able to isolate themselves and maintain a community-based way of living, but in others, the populations came to live in cities, losing much of the links they had with their ancestors but hardly becoming integrated with the urban populations. Thus, one of the main issues concerning indigenous peoples today is what is their place in the modern societies.
It is impressive to note that a recent study has found that when one measures the Human Development Index (HDI) of these peoples, they almost always rank lower than the countries to which they belong to! For instance, while Australia is usually ranked 2nd/3rd on the Human Development Report of the UNDP, the Aboriginal people has an HDI that is close to that of El Salvador, which is ranked 100th…
Indigenous peoples are more prone to fall into drug and alcohol abuse, have a harder time to find a job and have lower life-expectancies than the rest of the populations’ of their respective countries. It is common for governments to implement bigger welfare measures in favor of these peoples, in part to appease their historical conscience. Contrary to what could be thought, these create more dependency than anything else.
The place of indigenous peoples in modern societies, in particular Western ones, is not easy to define. Not completely integrated, they stay at the margins, divided between their ancestral cultures and a modernization that can engulf them at any time. The countries to which they inevitably belong to must take serious action to protect the richness that these peoples carry with them, in order to ensure that they will not become just another memory in our collective history.
Read more about the living conditions of indigenous peoples today in this United Nations’ Report on the “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples“.