Definition of indigenous peoples

Any United Nations-system body has never adopted a definition of the concept of “indigenous peoples”. The prevailing view today is that no formal universal definition of the term is necessary, given that a single definition will inevitably be either over- or under-inclusive, making sense in some societies but not in others. For practical purposes, the commonly accepted understanding of the term is that provided in the Jose R. Martinez Cobo’s Study on the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations. The working definition reads as follows:

Working definition of indigenous peoples by Jose R. Martinez Cobo

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present of one or more of the following factors:

  • Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them
  • Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands
  • Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.)
  • Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language)
  • Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world
  • Other relevant factors.

On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous populations through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by these populations as one of its members (acceptance by the group). This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.


Instead of offering a definition, Article 33 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples underlines the importance of self-identification, that indigenous peoples themselves define their own identity as indigenous.

Article 33 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live.

2. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine the structures and to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own procedures.

It is sometimes argued that all Africans are indigenous to Africa and that by separating Africans into indigenous and non-indigenous groups, separate classes of citizens are being created with different rights. The same argument is made in many parts of Asia.

In these regions the focus should be more on recent approaches focusing on self-definition as indigenous and on being distinctly different from other groups within a state; on a special attachment to and use of their traditional land whereby ancestral land and territory has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples; on an experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination because these peoples have different cultures, ways of life or modes of production than the national hegemonic and dominant model.

About NCIV

Since 1969, NCIV is an NGO that supports the promotion, recognition and protection of indigenous peoples' rights. NCIV brings the issues and views of indigenous peoples to the attention of the Dutch government, civil society, business and science and works to encourage them to make a positive contribution to improving the situation of indigenous peoples at national and international levels.