In America, we tend to have a skewed idea of what indigenous culture is like. If we’re familiar with it at all, it’s often based on harmful stereotypes. Or it might be half-remembered factoids we heard in school.
But the reality is far more dynamic. Indigenous people are not a monolith. Even small geographic regions have more diversity than their non-indigenous neighbors realize.
It’s a world that deserves more understanding and appreciation than it receives. And without urgent action, much of it may be lost forever in this lifetime.
To help foster respect and comprehension due to indigenous groups worldwide, as well as for their ways of life, let’s take a look at how indigenous people are defined, how their cultures are practiced in modernity, and the threats that they currently face.
Identifying Indigenous Groups
Indigenous people make up an estimated 5% of the world’s population. They can be found on every populated continent, speak thousands of languages, and have diverse cultures and traditions.
What they all tend to have in common is a history of being uprooted from their ancestral homes. In the process, they often face marginalization and discrimination. In particular, they are usually limited in how they are allowed to practice their own cultures.
But that only gives a sense of who indigenous people are. It’s not much of a hard definition. In that respect, one of the better definitions is that they are of a distinct group who originate in areas that were their traditional lands prior to the establishment of modern-day borders.
They are specifically identified in contrast to settlers who would arrive later. These new residents would eventually gain dominance over the regions that had been the traditional lands of the indigenous folk. This occurs usually through conquest, settlement, or occupation.
This definition covers a wide range of groups. The Native Americans, the Saami of Northern Europe, and the Maasai of Eastern Africa would all meet those criteria.
How Do Indigenous People Live Today?
Answering how indigenous people live is a difficult task. Indigenous people aren’t a single monolithic group. That very broad label covers some 476 million across 90 countries and 5,000 distinct cultures.
Each of these groups has its own customs, music, arts, and cuisines that they work constantly to keep alive. But in that course, they have a few key issues in common.
Language is a major one. It’s central to maintaining cultural identity and the cohesion of a community. And preserving them is increasingly a matter of concern, leading UNESCO to declare this the Decade of Indigenous Languages.
Another aspect that they tend to have in common is that they are the preeminent protectors of nature.
You’ll note that one of the defining characteristics of an indigenous group is their link to an ancestral territory. Their lands have supported them since ancient times, and they have cared for it in turn. Hence, they are often at the forefront of any fight to preserve natural resources.
And sadly, another common theme is that keeping their cultures alive and thriving is often an uphill battle.
Indigenous Culture Is Under Threat
Human beings are resilient. Our species would not have formed its first communities were it not for that fact, never mind survived to our current stage.
And indigenous communities are especially so. They’ve endured the efforts of settlers worldwide and across generations to try and wipe them away from their own lands.
But resistance takes a toll, and most of the world’s indigenous communities still face persistent threats. Here are just a few of the factors that face them right now.
Loss of Land and Territory
The most direct threat any community can face is a challenge to the land they call home.
Indigenous communities rely on the ties they have with the land that supports them to maintain the traditions that foster a sense of culture. They also rely on the resources a specific piece of territory has for their day-to-day survival.
Communities forced off of their land or deprived of crucial resources like water or traditional food sources often have no choice but to make a life for themselves elsewhere. When this happens, communities are split apart and scattered to the wind. It can be difficult for individual families to retain consistent communication in these situations, never mind the community as a whole.
It’s no coincidence that in the past, depriving groups of their traditional lands was a key aspect of destroying the group entirely. Dissolve the community, and the culture itself will fade away and die off in a matter of generations.
It’s why a central tenet of any pro-indigenous policy needs to enshrine land rights and political autonomy. To understand what this might look like in practice, you can learn more about indigenous rights here.
Loss of Language
After the loss of land, one of the most direct threats to a culture is the loss of its language.
We mentioned above that indigenous communities speak the majority of the world’s languages. But because each of those languages has such a small number of active speakers, they’re in constant threat of going extinct. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 90% of all languages now spoken will disappear within 100 years.
Like depriving people of their lands, rooting out their languages was a tool used in the past to destroy people’s ties to their culture. Encroaching powers often used the practice of residential schools to take children away from their parents directly and prevent them from learning their own languages and cultures.
And it went on for far longer than most would like to admit. The last residential school in the United States only closed in 1996.
Critics now point to the foster system as filling the same role today. Indigenous families are more likely to suffer from poverty and are subject to increased scrutiny by child protective services.
The idea is now emerging that the physical, mental, and spiritual health and well-being are bolstered by access to traditional foodstuffs and cultivation methods.
The reasoning for this is twofold. One, traditional foodstuffs are often healthier than the mass-market, processed foods that economically vulnerable communities are often forced to rely on. And second, it helps foster a sense of cultural continuity that is difficult to quantify.
Which, like land and language, has made food a popular target for colonial powers who would benefit seek to benefit from destroying indigenous food sources
You may have heard about the mass slaughter of bison in school. The way it was often presented was as an act of carelessness. Settlers drove the animal to the brink of extinction out of a sense of deranged extravagance.
What the schools usually go out of their way to avoid teaching was that this was a calculated starvation tactic used to drive the tribes of the Great Plains onto reservations.
Less well-known is the story behind amaranth. Today, the grain is touted as the latest hip superfood. And indeed, it is good for you.
But it was traditionally a staple food of the Mesoamerican peoples until the Spanish outlawed its cultivation. The knowledge to farm it might have been lost were it not for indigenous resistors hiding caches of seeds and spreading them in secret.
If you starve a community, the culture dies with it.
How we respond to climate change is the defining issue of our time. It’s how we will be remembered by successive generations. And as of right now, we are not poised to leave behind a sterling legacy.
And it’s the world’s indigenous folks, those least responsible for it, who will feel its effects most sharply. Because most indigenous communities depend directly on their ancestral lands for support, they are the first ones to feel the impact of a changing environment.
The peoples of Africa’s Kalahari Desert find themselves forced to depend on government-drilled bores for water, as well as further support to cope with rising temperatures. In the Himalayas, rural dwellers who depend on the seasonal water flow may find themselves in permanent drought should the mountain peaks ever thaw completely. And in the Amazon, climate change and deforestation contribute to wildfires, mudslides, and other unpredictable disasters.
Compounding these threats are often legal and institutional barriers that prevent them from coping with changes as well as they could. And further, most governments don’t see their indigenous constituents as a significant priority.
How We Can Build a Better World Together
Wherever you are in the world, the odds are that others were there before you. Learning and respecting the indigenous culture of your region is about both respecting the people who practice it and becoming better residents of those same lands.
Our planet faces a dynamic slate of challenges. Only by learning from and working with one another can we rise to the occasion.
So in the coming years, challenge yourself to learn about the place you call home. And be sure to keep up with our latest articles on lifestyle and culture to learn how you can better honor it.