The UN’s International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is on August 9. If you’re not sure what exactly defines the term “indigenous”, it’s worth checking out this primer. If you’re still not sure why indigenous cultures are worth celebrating then consider this: indigenous peoples speak the majority of the world’s estimated 7000 languages. Each language lost is a blow to the beautiful complexity of human expression.
Indigenous cultures as a whole have invariably matured into a richness that only comes with time – and lots of it. Still, the people themselves are often disproportionately poor, a legacy of persecution by non-indigenous powers. Then there’s the environment. With centuries – even millennia – of local wisdom and lore, indigenous peoples are the best-placed protectors of the environment around them.
At Rough Guides we're committed to celebrating and protecting the world's indigenous cultures, and you’ll find in-depth coverage of indigenous peoples in the Contexts sections of all our relevant guides. Here is just a snippet, covering a tiny fraction of the world’s indigenous peoples:
Myanmar’s mountainous Chin State only recently opened to foreigners. With thick jungles, mountainous terrain and rudimentary infrastructure, the region is one of the world’s final frontiers.
It’s also home to the Chin people. The Chin, best known for the practice of tattooing spiderweb-like patterns onto the faces of their womenfolk, are among Myanmar’s most persecuted minorities. The tattooing practice was outlawed in the 1960s, although in most villages you’ll see at least one or two older women with the markings – though every year there are fewer left.
Local stories suggest that this painful procedure (using a mix of soot and buffalo liver) was intended to make girls less attractive to raiders, but more likely it was as a mark of identity for the various Chin tribes.
Read more: The Rough Guide to Myanmar
While many of Southeast Asia’s nations are ethnically diverse, Laos is one of the few that is still visibly so – it is, in fact, one of the last countries whose minorities have not been totally assimilated into the culture of the majority.
In an effort at categorization, the Lao government officially divides the population into three groups. Which group an ethnicity fits into is determined by the elevation at which that ethnicity dwells; thus many unrelated ethnic groups may be grouped together if they reside at one elevation. This method of categorization may be seen as a tenuous majority’s subtle means of proclaiming cultural superiority over its sizeable population of minorities while at the same time trying to bring them into the fold.
Of course, it’s worth digging deeper – from lowland Lao to Mon-Khmer groups, few places in the world have such indigenous riches as Laos.
Read more: The Rough Guide to Laos
White Australians historically grouped the country’s indigenous peoples under the term "Aborigines" (although it is considered pejorative; "Aboriginals" is the preferred term). But in recent years there has been wider recognition that there are many separate cultures that are as diverse but interrelated as those of Europe.
Today, these cultures include, for example, urbanized Koorie communities in Sydney and Melbourne, seminomadic groups such as the Pintupi living in the western deserts, and the Yolngu people of eastern Arnhem Land, an area never colonized by settlers. If there is any thread linking these groups, it is the island continent they inhabit and, particularly in the north, the appalling state of health, education and opportunities they experience. Longevity too: the threads of Aboriginal culture stretch back some forty thousand years.
If you plan to learn more about the likes of bushtucker, Dreamtime stories and Aboriginal language, make sure you arrange the experience through Aboriginal-owned providers – and don’t expect to come away with anything but the most rudimentary grasp of Aboriginal Australian culture.
Read more: The Rough Guide to Australia
Wading into the political minefield of “ethnicity” and “race” is always a tricky affair in Namibia – as in other post-colonial states – since these socially constructed categories have predominantly come into being over the last two centuries. The arbitrary carving up of Africa by the colonial powers to demarcate particular nations cut crudely across peoples.
The Namibian government’s need to promote a unified, national identity for its estimated 2.3 million population has been an understandable post-independence response to all this. Yet census data no longer collects figures on ethnicity; rather numbers are imputed from information on first language use in the home. That said, however, many Namibians still identify with one or more ethnicities – historically, culturally, linguistically – at particular times, to differing degrees and for a variety of reasons.
The complexity is humbling. If you’re eager to learn more and are fortunate enough to go to Namibia, our author Sara Humphreys recommends a visit to the Living Museums, where you can both dig deeper into the subject of indigenous Namibia and support local people.
Read more: The Rough Guide to Namibia
You won’t see much evidence of native traditions in Costa Rica today. Less than two percent of the country’s population is of aboriginal extraction, and the dispersion of the various groups ensures that they frequently do not share the same concerns and agendas.
The government set up a series of reserves in 1977, which gave indigenous peoples the right to remain in self-governing communities. However, communities don’t actually own the land they live on. This has led to government contracts being handed out to, for example, mining operations in the Talamanca area. Moreover, as in the case of North America’s reservation system, reservation land is often poor quality.
Recent years have hardly been positive. At one point it was hoped that the National Development Plan 2011–2014 might include a long-mooted law granting autonomy to indigenous communities. But in the end it failed to recognize indigenous rights. In 2015 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, meanwhile, urged the Costa Rican government to “protect the life and physical integrity” of members of the Bribrí community in the Salitre reserve, who have been fighting for years to reclaim land illegally occupied by outsiders. The struggle goes on.
Read more: The Rough Guide to Costa Rica
The nineteenth century saw Native Americans and the US government sign treaty after treaty, only for the latter to break them as soon as expedient – usually upon the discovery of gold or precious metals.
When the whites overreached themselves, or when driven to desperation, the Native Americans fought back. The defeat of General George Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876, by Sitting Bull and his Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, provoked the full wrath of the government. Within a few years, leaders such as Crazy Horse of the Oglala Sioux and Geronimo of the Apache had been forced to surrender, and their people confined to reservations.
One last act of resistance was the visionary, messianic cult of the Ghost Dance, whose practitioners hoped that by ritual observance they could win back their lost way of life, in a land miraculously free of white intruders. Such aspirations were regarded as hostile, and military harassment of the movement culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1890.
A major tactic in the campaign against the Plains Indians was to starve them into submission, by eliminating the vast herds of bison that were their primary source of food. As General Philip Sheridan put it: “For the sake of a lasting peace … kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered by the speckled cow and the festive cowboy.” Today, Native Americans continue to fight for their lands.
Read more: The Rough Guide to the USA
© Edward J. Winter/Shutterstock
At Japan’s northern extremity is the island of Hokkaidō, home to the indigenous Ainu. Around 25,000 people identify as full- or part-blooded Ainu, a people who have faced a long history of persecution by the Japanese.
Music is a major part of Ainu culture. Their traditional music and instruments, including the skinny string instrument tonkori and the mukkuri (“Jew’s harp”), have been taken up by Oki Kano, an Ainu–Japanese musician. Together with his Oki Dub Ainu Band, Oki has released several toe-tapping and soulful albums and has played at international music festivals including WOMAD in the UK.
Attempts have been made to linguistically link the Ainu and the Japanese but, time and again the research is rebuffed. Ainu is, seemingly, a language isolate – all the more reason to listen.
Read more: The Rough Guide to Japan
On Twitter, check out #WeAreIndigenous and @UN4Indigenous. Should you choose to visit an indigenous tribe, be sure to read our tips on how to visit indigenous tribes sensitively and ethically.