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Indigenous peoples of the world

Peoples of the World Foundation logo

Peoples of the World Foundation logo.

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

The voices of Indigenous peoples, if we take the trouble to listen to them, convey priceless messages to the world: their traditions, particularly ethical and spiritual ones, coupled with their management of complex ecosystems and their know-how, all play a vital role in the search for development and peace. Safeguarding their cultures and acknowledging their rights are of strategic importance for the future of humankind.
UNESCO Culture Newsletter, 2005

UNESCO states that Indigenous populations number some 350 million individuals in more than 70 countries in the world, and that this represents more than 5000 languages and cultures. Today, many Indigenous peoples live on the fringes of society and are deprived of basic human rights, particularly cultural rights, due to dispossession and displacement from their land.

People belonging to the land

An Indigenous person is, by definition, a person belonging to the land or soil and being native to, or belonging naturally to a particular region. Indigenous identity and cultural expression is closely linked to their relationship with land areas.

It is essential to know and understand the deeply spiritual special relationship between Indigenous peoples and their land as basic to their existence as such and to all their beliefs, customs, traditions and culture... Their land is not a commodity which can be acquired, but a material element to be enjoyed freely.
Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations, J. M. Cobo, United Nations Special Rapporteur (1987)

Displacement and dispossession

Dispossession and displacement of Indigenous people has been a way of gaining territory, controlling trade and acquiring resources since the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC). The consequences of this experience for Indigenous people has been variously decimation of their populations as well as oppression by the dominant culture, especially in respect of languages, traditional knowledge and customs. In Australia, for example, the population was estimated at between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people in 1788. This had declined to about 60,000 people in the 1920s.

Torres Strait Islanders

Photograph of Tiwi Islander using a bow and arrow

A Thursday Island Torres Strait dancer.
Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

In Australia, Torres Strait Islanders experienced displacement after the Strait, named by the Spaniard Luiz Vez de Torres in 1606, became a sea route for ships travelling between the Australian colonies and Europe. This enabled the Islanders to extend their trade partners, but also meant European rule, culture and religion were imposed.

In the 1860s, the discovery of pearl shell and trepang (sea cucumber), a delicacy appreciated by the Chinese, brought people from all over the region to the Torres Strait Islands. By 1877, 16 pearling firms were operating on Thursday Island. The colony of Queensland recognised the value of this resource, and annexed the Islands in 1879.

The influx of settlers severely restricted the ability of the Islanders to continue their traditional lives and travels. It wasn't until 1936 that Islanders took charge of local government. In 1990 they were officially recognised as a distinct people.

In June 1992, the High Court of Australia overturned the previous concept of terra nullius which stated that, in legal terms, Australia was empty of inhabitants when it was first settled by Europeans. On this day the High Court recognised the native title rights of Eddie Mabo over his traditional land on Murray Island (Mer). Several other communities (Saibai Islanders and Mualgal people from Moa Island) have gained native title rights over their islands since the Mabo decision.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) was established in 1994 to allow Torres Strait Islanders to manage their own affairs according to their own ailan kastom (island custom).

United Nations Declarations

International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples 2005 - 2015

The United Nations declared the decade from 1994 to 2004 the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples. One of the outcomes of this decade was the establishment of a Second Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples which commenced on 1 January 2005. The purpose of the two decades of activity is to identify and raise awareness of Indigenous issues, and establish a charter of Indigenous human rights.

International Indigenous Peoples Day logo

Logo for International Day of Indigenous People, 9 August.

The International Day of the World's Indigenous People is 9 August every year. In partnership with the United Nations and its agencies, UNESCO plays a key role in the Decade which is intended to 'strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by Indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health'.

The program of activities for the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People recognises the value and diversity of the cultures of Indigenous communities and of their specific forms of social organisation, and attaches value to the contributions that they can make to humanity.

Cultural Diversity

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (adopted unanimously by the 185 Member States represented at the 31st session of the General Conference in 2001 in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001) is the founding act of a new ethic being promoted by UNESCO. The purpose is to provide the international community with an instrument to move towards development and peace. This is based on the conviction that respect for cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue is one of the surest guarantees of development and peace.

The mapping of Indigenous cultural resources carried out by Indigenous communities is seen as a crucial step toward demonstrating that cultural diversity is a means of enrichment for the greater society. As such, UNESCO continues to support pilot projects at work in the field. Projects operating around the globe create numerous opportunities for interactions between knowledgeable people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Training and consultation activities in this area also benefit some of the most marginalised communities. UNESCO's Mapping of Indigenous Cultural Resources Project is intended to contribute to enhance the identity of Indigenous communities and foster a sense of multicultural citizenship.

Photograph of Aborigine singing and clapping boomerangs together

Ludo Kuipers, Singing and clapping boomerangs together to accompany traditional dancing at a festival in Central Australia. Courtesy of OzOutback.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are complex and diverse. The Indigenous cultures of Australia have the oldest living cultural history in the world - they go back at least 50,000 years and some argue closer to 65,000 years. One of the reasons Aboriginal cultures have survived for so long is their ability to adapt and change over time. It was this affinity with their surroundings that goes a long way to explaining how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples survived for so many millennia.

Today, Indigenous communities keep their cultural heritage alive by passing their knowledge, arts, rituals and performances from one generation to another, speaking and teaching languages, and protecting cultural property and sacred and significant sites and objects.

Intangible heritage

Intangible heritage is sometimes called living cultural heritage, and is seen in the following expressions: oral traditions, including language; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.

UNESCO has four major programs in the field of intangible cultural heritage:

The United Nations Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage defines intangible cultural heritage as 'the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills, that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage'.

Intangible cultural heritage is transmitted from generation to generation, and is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their historical conditions of existence. Intangible cultural heritage is seen to provide people with a sense of identity and continuity. By safeguarding it, intangible heritage is seen to promote, sustain and develop cultural diversity and human creativity.

Australian Indigenous language, music and dance

Language is vitally important in understanding Indigenous Australian heritage, as much of Indigenous Australian history is an oral history. In Australia, hundreds of languages and dialects existed when Europeans came into contact (although many are now extinct), and language meaning, as well as geographic location, is used today to identify different groups.

In Australia, music, song and dance was and is still today a very important part of Aboriginal life and customs. There were songs for every occasion, some of which were expressed in special ceremonies. Ceremonial performances are seen as the core of cultural life.

For Tiwi Islanders, these performances bring together all aspects of their art - song, dance, body decoration, sculpture and painting. Song is one of the primary means by which Indigenous Australians maintain their identity and culture. Today, there are many song types which flourish across Australia including Aboriginal rock and folk music.

Photograph of dance performance Garma Festival 2005

Dance performance, Garma Festival 2005. CARP file photo.

Dance is a unique aspect of ceremonies which is learnt and passed down from one generation to another. To dance is to be knowledgeable about the stories of the ancestral heroes. Dancing, unlike painting and singing, is learnt at an early age. This allows large groups of people to demonstrate their clan rights in front of an audience. Dance is also seen as an occasion to entertain and to be entertained and through the work of dance to show their love for families and kin. It is for this reason that dance may be performed at the end of every day in some communities.

Modern Indigenous dance companies like Bangarra, have developed under the direction of dance elders from Maningrida, Yirrkala and Dhalinbuy, north-eastern Arnhem Land.

Useful links

Australian Indigenous resources

Australian links

International links

Last updated: 7th January 2008

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