Indigenous people make up 6% of the world population, are spread across 90 countries, and speak 4000 languages. They have centuries of rich heritage consisting of cultural practices and knowledge that we can learn from. These ten fascinating indigenous cultures from around the world will not only broaden your horizons but help you recognize the importance of protecting their rights and preserving their unique cultures. (Estimated reading time: 10 minutes)
““If people can’t acknowledge the wisdom of indigenous cultures, then that’s their loss.”— Jay Griffiths
What comes to mind when you think of indigenous? Most people think of tribal cultures living in remote corners of the world. They might even picture a group of natives wearing loincloths holding spears, dancing around fires while chanting cryptic hymns.
We’re prone to these stereotypes because our only exposure to indigenous people is through movies and documentaries highlighting their differences. Unless we live near a community exposed to them, we rely on limited knowledge about these groups.
But just because you may not have first-hand experience of them, it does not diminish their significance. And just because they might not want to adopt new technologies and live the way we do, it does not mean they are backward. Nor does it negate their value as human beings.
The 476 million indigenous people (approx. 6% of the global population) spread across 90 countries, who speak more than 4000 languages, can offer us a glimpse of ancient cultures, traditions, and knowledge.
While each indigenous group in existence today has its own customs and ways of relating to people and the environment, they share common problems. Due to systemic injustice, they face harsh realities that make them vulnerable.
Learning about indigenous cultures from around the world will not only broaden your horizons but will make you appreciate their role in our global family. It will also help you recognize the importance of protecting their rights and preserving their unique cultures.
Getting to know indigenous cultures: who are indigenous peoples
The word indigenous is defined as “originating in a particular region or country; native; innate; inherent; natural.” The term has its roots in the Latin word “indigena,” which means native or original inhabitant.
It was first used in its modern context by European settlers to differentiate the Native people of the American continent from the Europeans and the Africans who immigrated or were brought to the Americas as enslaved people, respectively.
Over the years, indigenous peoples have been referred to by other names, such as First Peoples, aboriginal peoples, or native people. In some countries, specific words are used, like “Janajatis” in Nepal and “Adivasis” in India.
To identify an indigenous group, look for these key markers:
- They have a strong link to natural resources and territories in their region
- They have their own culture, language, and belief systems
- They are descendants who have a historical tie to those who lived in a country or area before settlers came from elsewhere
- They stick with their ancestral systems and environments
- They have held on to the social, cultural, political, and economic traits that are distinct from other population segments
Some indigenous groups have many of these characteristics but may have been nomadic people who migrated to a particular land many years ago.
For this reason, the origins of indigenous people are not straightforward, and each ethnic group can’t be considered native in the strictest sense of the word. Because of the nomadic ways of early humans, there will be an exchange of cultural influences that infiltrates their practices.
Indigenous people occupy large areas of the planet. They spread across the South Pacific to the Arctic, with around 70% of the population concentrated in Asia and Africa.
The terminology and designations used to define indigenous vary in each county, and for this reason, the population figures fluctuate, and the number of indigenous people goes vastly underreported.
Even though indigenous representatives have a presence in international organizations like the United Nations, they are slowly losing their identity. Emerging nations create policies and rules that influence indigenous peoples to assimilate and integrate into mainstream populations.
However, losing these historical custodians of the land who possess crucial knowledge would mean the loss of valuable information and resources we could benefit from as a species.
Threats to the indigenous population: what are the issues indigenous people face
Despite the effort of spokespeople from indigenous communities who insist on retaining their cultural heritage and separate identity, their people continue to be endangered. Their lands, legal rights, and livelihoods are not secure due to these problems and injustices:
1. They often can’t control their own land: While some indigenous people are self-governing, many are still subject to the authority of governments who control their resources. Many indigenous cultures from around the world continue to lose access to territories and natural resources because they are excluded from decision-making. Due to these policies, many have been uprooted and leave their homes for towns and cities, meaning they are cut off from their traditions.
2. They receive less education and live shorter lives: Around 47% of indigenous people have no formal education, a percentage which grows higher for women. Because they lack adequate healthcare and knowledge, they are more likely to die from diseases like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis. As a result, their life expectancy is 20% lower than non-indigenous people.
3. They are more likely to be poor and lack resources: Indigenous people are three times more likely to live in extreme poverty and suffer from hunger and malnutrition. This is often due to insufficient economic opportunities and social protection. The COVID-19 pandemic particularly impacted their groups because of their circumstances.
4. Indigenous women are vulnerable to violence and discrimination: Women in indigenous cultures suffer disproportionately from domestic violence and bear the brunt of the community’s frustration and anger. 1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted and suffer from maternal mortality and STDs. They also have less access to healthcare facilities when pregnant due to discrimination and are more likely to die during childhood than other women.
5. Their languages and cultures are dying: According to a study, 90% of languages will disappear within 100 years, a great majority of which are spoken by indigenous people. Language is a means to communicate, but it’s an essential part of the collective identity and a sense of belonging of a group. When they lose their language, their community suffers.
Protecting the interests of indigenous cultures: why indigenous people are essential
There are many reasons to defend and uphold the right of indigenous people in all regions of the world. Taking measures to protect their culture, territories, and livelihoods will benefit us as a global community.
1. They are custodians of valuable traditional knowledge: Indigenous people have centuries of knowledge, accumulated for several generations. This rich repository of knowledge covers health, natural resources, techniques, rituals, and rites about culture. Modern society tends to undermine the treasures that can be found in their practices and their information.
2. They are champions in protecting the environment: Indigenous people have a strong connection and reverence for nature, unlike others in mainstream society. The ways they live and work are adapted to respect their surroundings. Research has shown that the biodiversity and forests in lands controlled by indigenous people flourish – proof of their efforts to live in harmony with their surroundings. They also take active steps to fight climate change.
3. They know how to manage natural resources better than anyone else: Because of their special and intimate relationship with the land, indigenous people have the crucial knowledge, passed down by generations, that we as urban dwellers need when managing natural sources sustainably and responsibly.
Fortunately, the United Nations has recognized the importance of indigenous cultures from around the world. In 2007, it passed The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and many countries, especially in Latin America, have been proactive in recognizing their rights and identities.
Their land ownership rights have also been protected by international law. It prevents states from relocating indigenous people without prior and informed consent and provides sufficient compensation. Despite all these improvements, there’s still a lot more work to be done.
10 Fascinating Indigenous Cultures from Around the World
There are over 450 million indigenous people in the world representing 5000 different cultures. This list of ten indigenous cultures barely scratches the surface.
I encourage you to explore further and even visit these communities if you feel called to do so. But these ten fascinating indigenous cultures from around the world are a good place to start.
The Huli people (from Papua New Guinea)
The Huili people are the largest cultural group in Papua New Guinea, numbering around 250,000. They speak several languages, including their native tongue Huli, Pisin, and several other languages. This colorful tribe is famed for wearing elaborate clothing with bright hues made from the Birds of Paradise in nearby forests. The clans have an intricate social system and closely observe ceremonial rituals.
Kayan people (from Myanmar)
The Kayan are a sub-group of the Red Karen people from Myanmar. After conflict with the military regime in Myanmar in the 1980s and 1990s, many fled to Thailand. Their current population is estimated to be around 130,000. The Kayan are also called the “long neck people” because of the trademark neck coils that their women wear to lengthen their necks – an aesthetic feature that’s appreciated by the tribe.
Assyrians (from Iraq)
Assyrians are a distinct ethnoreligious group who are descendants of the ancient Mesopotamia people who make up the third-largest ethnic group in Iraq. They were among the first groups to accept Christianity and most belong to one of four churches: the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Uniate, and the Assyrian Church of the East. Some members live in other countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, and Russia.
Jahalin Bedouins (from Palestine)
Bedouin tribes have lived in the Arabian desert for several millennia, moving with their herds of cattle, goats, sheep, and camels from Alexandria to the west and Damascus to the north. Around the 19th century, the Jahalin tribe became semi-nomadic, settled in Palestine, and made the desert home. After Israel’s independence in 1948, these agro-pastoral tribes took refuge in West Bank that used to be under Jordanian rule.
Aboriginal Australians (from Australia)
Aboriginal Australians, also known as First Nations people, have lived on the continent for over 50,000 years. They have 250 distinct languages used among their communities. Family, community, and country are at the centerpiece of this holistic culture. They believe that their ancestral spirits are “hero-creators” that emerged from the earth and the sky and that people, culture, and the land merge and become part of each other.
Māori people (from New Zealand)
The Māori people make up 15% of the total population of New Zealand. Their origins can be traced back to Eastern Polynesian culture. The famous Haka, a ceremonial war dance performed in a group, is still performed by the New Zealand rugby team before a match to display their pride, unity, and strength. Māori songs, mythology, customs, and beliefs are still part of the culture. They believe in a sacred force called “Tapu” that exists in all things, and learning how to work with it is an important aspect of their spiritual practices.
Maasai people (from Kenya and Tanzania)
One of the famous tribes in Africa, the Maasai are a semi-nomadic and pastoral group with a rich history of songs, folklore, and storytelling. Considered some of the tallest people in the world, these calm and courageous warriors wear bright red robes, colorful bead jewelry, and carry spears. The Maasai have a deep respect for the land on which they live and work and know traditional medicine, grazing practices, and ecology.
Zulu people (from South Africa)
About 10 million Zulu people live in South Africa, many of whom still live in rural, traditional communities, but others have moved into urban locations, and their culture has merged with modern practices. The Zulu people are known for their fighting spirit, with renowned warriors like Shaka Zulu. Their culture is lively and is marked by song and dance, which unite the tribe.
The Zulu people believe that life does not end and continues in the spiritual dimension. They believe that their ancestors live in the spirit world and often make offerings and sacrifices to appease them.
Sámi (from Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia)
The Sámi are descendants of nomadic people who lived in northern Scandinavia and Russia for thousands of years. It’s estimated that there are around 80,000, of whom approximately half live in Norway. Most Sámi are bilingual, but only half speak their native language.
Reindeer herding was the foundation of the Sami economy until recent times. The reindeer-herding Sami lived in turf huts and tents, migrated with their small herds, and supplemented their diet with fishing.
Today, nomadism barely exists within Sámi culture, and herders tend to accompany their reindeer alone while families live in modern housing. Many are coastal fishers, while others are active in the forestry, farming, and fishing industries in cities and towns.
Quechua people (from South America)
The Quechua people are a multi-ethnic group with a population of 10 to 13 million spread across several countries in South America. They make up one-third of Peru’s population. Quechua is rooted in the Incan Empire in Peru, and the natives speak the Quechua language and other closely related dialects. Most of them live in the Andes, where they live off farming.
This lively culture is known for its colorful textiles, including ponchos, woolen coats, and clothes made from cotton wool woven from animals like llamas and alpacas. Music is also a big part of their tradition, with folk music like huayno where Quenas and sikus (Andean flutes) are combined with dances to tell the stories of their ancestors.
Other indigenous cultures to research:
Inuit (from Greenland, Canada, and Alaska), Maya (from Central America), Berber (Morocco), Kalinago (Caribbean), Native American (from North America), Nenets (from Russia).
Observing indigenous people is like looking into the world of our ancestors. They are the last vestiges of an era when life was simpler and where there was a recognition of the spiritual connection between us and nature. Indigenous people remind us of the importance of maintaining this delicate balance and honoring our roots and those who have gone before us.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Have you ever encountered an indigenous person? What fascinates you the most about the indigenous cultures from around the world?
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I really enjoyed this piece! I was able many years ago to be part of team that worked with the Navajo Native Americans in New Mexico. It was a wonderful experience! There is so much culture and history as well as diversity that we can and do learn and benefit from thanks to these diverse and beautiful groups!