Indigenous Peoples


There is no universally accepted definition for the term “Indigenous.” According to the United Nations (UN), the best approach is to identify rather than define Indigenous peoples. However, Indigenous peoples tend to have certain characteristics in common:

  • Self-identification as Indigenous peoples.
  • Populations distinct from the dominant post-colonial culture of their country.
  • Distinctive cultural traditions that continue to be practiced.
  • Strong links to land and territory that they have or had.

Indigenous is the most inclusive term, considering there are Indigenous peoples living on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. “Native American” and “American Indian” are used to refer to peoples who were living within what is now the U.S. before European contact. “American Indian” has a specific legal context because the branch of law, Federal Indian Law, uses this terminology.

Because of the diversity of Indigenous communities, the term “peoples” is used instead of just Indigenous or people. Peoples includes the recognition that there are a number of types of Indigenous populations. Whenever possible, as the UN indicates, it is best to name a specific tribe or identity.

Outside the U.S., Indigenous peoples include those of the Americas (for example, the Mayas in Guatemala and the Aymaras in Bolivia), the Saami of northern Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand.

Three UN bodies are mandated to deal with Indigenous peoples’ issues. These are the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous communities are often situated in more vulnerable, disaster-prone areas due to colonialism’s legacies. These include the dispossession of their lands and forced relocation onto lands that may not contain sufficient natural resources. As a result, Indigenous peoples may be disproportionately impacted by disasters, including floods, wildfires and chemical emergencies.

Critical factors of the disproportionate impact of a disaster on Indigenous peoples include logistical difficulties providing emergency services to remote or isolated communities; variance in local capacity to participate in response and recovery; discordance and distrust between Indigenous governance and external emergency response; and extreme social and health inequities in Indigenous communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a critical threat to Indigenous peoples worldwide, yet they have sought their own solutions using traditional knowledge and the power of self-determination. The Cherokee Nation in the U.S. has been a national leader in vaccine distribution. Phase one of the Tribe’s vaccine distribution plan included first-language Cherokee speakers, elders and Cherokee National Treasures.

In Guatemala, Indigenous communities hardest hit by Hurricane Eta in 2020 relied on self-help and mutual aid in their early response efforts to the disaster. Indigenous peoples engaged in rescue efforts and distributed relief items. Longer-term, some leaders have called for changes to the conditions and power dynamics that cause disproportionate impacts on Indigenous communities in the country.

Key Facts

  • Indigenous peoples are everywhere. There are more than 476 million Indigenous peoples across 90 countries representing 5,000 different cultures.
  • In the U.S., tribes are sovereign nations. There are 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. Each tribe has powers of self-government.
  • Indigenous peoples are around three times more likely to face extreme poverty than others. Women are consistently at the bottom of all social and economic indicators.
  • Indigenous peoples’ land ownership rights are recognized under international law. However, many governments recognize only a fraction of this land legally belonging to Indigenous peoples. Protection of boundaries or external parties’ use of resources is often weak. In the U.S., most Native American lands are trust land, meaning the federal government holds legal title, but the beneficial interest remains with the individual or tribe. The U.S. government’s seizure of tribal land has had a lasting effect on the accessibility to homeownership on reservations.
  • At least 24% of global carbon stored above ground in the world’s tropical forests is managed by Indigenous peoples. This is a result of the historical stewardship of Indigenous peoples in the sustainable management of forests.
  • Indigenous peoples face climate change impacts and are active in the fight against it. Around the world, Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change. Climate change impacts are projected to be severe since these impacts are compounded by persistent social and economic problems. Indigenous peoples are also taking the lead in planning for climate change.
  • Many Indigenous communities do not have access to safe water. The lack of safe water is a disaster-related health risk that disproportionately affects indigenous peoples. For example, dozens of Canada’s First Nations lack safe drinking water, and some have been under advisories warning against using the water for decades. Many indigenous value systems place importance on the sacredness of water and the interconnectedness of all life, which play a role in sustainably protecting water sources.
  • Housing conditions for Indigenous peoples worldwide are overwhelmingly abhorrent and often violate the right to adequate housing. In the U.S., minimal and substandard housing may exist on Indigenous land, and housing reserves are often limited. This makes providing safe and affordable housing for Indigenous peoples a challenge in disaster recovery.

How to Help

  • Consider the specific needs of Indigenous peoples. Marginalized populations suffer the most from disaster, and Indigenous peoples are particularly at-risk. Durable solutions may be difficult due to land rights issues. Indigenous-led consultation is important in understanding the emotional needs of community members and avoiding re-traumatization.
  • Build relationships and shift power. Power is an innate part of philanthropic relationships. In many Indigenous communities, reciprocity, the practice of exchanging with others for mutual benefit, is the basis for relationships. Approaching relationship-building with reciprocity as a value means a more thoughtful, intentional and humble approach to power. Additionally, funders need to build their own capacity to work with Indigenous communities rather than always asking them to adapt.
  • Include Indigenous peoples in planning and decision-making. By participating in assessments and processes that affect them, communities can apply their traditional knowledge to develop strategies. Participation by Indigenous peoples can also ensure early warning systems are culturally relevant and well-adapted to the specific risks they face.
  • Rely on Indigenous peoples’ knowledge. Indigenous knowledge can be a vital resource for disaster management and risk reduction. Observations about the environment passed down through generations have allowed communities to respond to disasters and reduce their risks. A case study in Tsholotsho, one of seven districts in the Matabeleland North province of Zimbabwe, revealed that Indigenous knowledge could predict imminent flooding after studying trees and clouds and the behaviors of certain animal species.
  • Provide unrestricted funding to Indigenous-led organizations. Of all philanthropic funding by large U.S. foundations, only 0.4% on average is directed to Native communities. Investing in organizations led by Indigenous peoples strengthens these organizations and ensures disaster recovery and risk reduction efforts are effective, culturally appropriate and representative.

What Funders Are Doing

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