INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: ISSUES OF DEFINITION
Professor Douglas SandersFaculty of Law, University of British ColumbiaJanuary 26, 1999The progress that has been made by "indigenous peoples" in international fora has been aided bythe political perception that this category of claimants is limited and in some respects unique, andthat such claims can properly and safely be treated as a special case. Although the imprecision ofthe category and the expanding array of groups involved in the "indigenous peoples movement"could eventually threaten this perceptionand provoke more sustained demands for precision,such a transformation has not yet occurred.
For the last thirty years "indigenous peoples" have become more and more a focus ofinternational attention. This attention began with a focus on the Americas, where the indigenousstatus of the Indian, Inuit and Aleut peoples could not be doubted.
But western commentators,non-governmental organisations and intergovernmental bodies have applied the terminology farbeyond the Americas. In reaction certain states, most notably China and India, have sought adefinition which would make it clear that the populations they refer to as "tribals" or "minoritynationalities" are not "indigenous peoples."The category has been accepted by states outside the Americas. There was never any questionthat Australia and New Zealand had indigenous minorities. The governments of Norway, Swedenand Finland came to accept that the Saami were indigenous. This constituted recognition by anindigenous majority of the indigenous status of a minority within the state, a somewhat differentsituation than in the Americas. The Soviet Union denied it had "indigenous peoples," but began tomove from that position in the years before its collapse. The Russian Federation recognises the"small nations of the north" as indigenous peoples. In Asia the governments of Malaysia, thePhilippines, Singapore and Taiwan refer to certain peoples as indigenous.The United Nations has consistently treated indigenous peoples as a special case, separate fromother cultural or racial minorities. Possibly the "tribals" and "minority nationalities" should be seenas cultural minorities, not indigenous peoples. A distinction between "indigenous peoples" andcultural minorities is drawn by all states in the Americas and Australasia. The traditions withuniform approaches to indigenous peoples and other cultural minorities are the nationalitiespolicies of the former Soviet Union and China. The Russian Federation has moved away from thislinkage. China has not.
THE ISSUE OVER TIME
International Labor Organisation activity on indigenous peoples began with the co-ordination ofthe Andean Indian Programme in the 1950s.
ILO Convention 107 of 1957 spoke of both"indigenous" and "tribal" people. One part of the 1957 Convention referred to individuals who are...regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited thecountry, or ageographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest orcolonisation...
The Convention was revised in 1989 as Convention 169. The new text has an independentdefinition of indigenous peoples:(b) peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descentfrom the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country