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Indigenous people is a term applied to what explorers and anthropologists, especially from Europe, used to call "primitive tribes". The latter term has fallen into disfavor as being demeaning and, according to anthropologists, inaccurate (see tribe, cultural evolution). Generally, the term refers to the people living in an area prior to European colonization, and to their descendants. It may also apply to people living in an area prior to the formation of a nation-state, but who do not belong to the dominant nation of a nation-state.
By the 17th century, indigenous peoples were commonly labeled "uncivilized". Critics of civilization, such as J.J. Rousseau, considered them to be "noble savages"; proponents of civilization, like T. Hobbes, considered them merely savages. Such proponents of civilization believed themselves to have a duty to civilize and modernize them.
After World War I, however, many Europeans came to doubt the value of civilization. At the same time, the anti-colonial movement, and advocates of indigenous peoples, argued that words such as "civilized" and "savage" were products and tools of colonialism, and argued that colonialism itself was savagely destructive.
In the mid 20th century, Europeans began to recognize that indigenous and tribal peoples should have the right to decide for themselves what should happen to their ancient cultures and their ancestral lands.
Various organizations are devoted to the preservation or study of tribes, such as Survival International. Anthropologists generally try not to interfere with tribal life, but usually do not interfere with attempts by government or business to relocate or "civilize" them.
The United Nations defines indigenous peoples as follows:
Several criticisms of the concept of indigenous peoples are:
However, advocates of rights for indigenous peoples consider these arguments to be specious; if a tribe has lived self-sufficiently in an area for many centuries, why should "economic development" suddenly now be an issue when it never has been before? They argue that these arguments are usually put forward by industrialists (normally oil, mining or logging companies) who want to exploit the land for economic gain, or by governments who consider the indigenous population to be inferior and to be an obstruction to their plans for development.
An example of this occurred in 2002 when the Government of Botswana expelled all the Kalahari Bushmen from the lands they had lived off for at least twenty thousand years. Government ministers described the Bushmen as "stone age creatures" and likened their forced eviction to a cull of elephants. These events passed almost without comment in the world's media, at a time when the eviction of a number of white people from land in nearby Zimbabwe was headline news.
In response, many have pointed out that in many cases the indigenous people often haven't been living self-sufficiently in an area for centuries, and that economic development was not an issue before because it was not an option. They point out that when given a choice, indigenous people themselves often want economic development, and that this has indeed caused conflicts with environmental groups when indigenous peoples have been given title to land and then proceed to develop just like non-indigenous people. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that indigenous people are not necessarily any more self-sufficient or in tune with nature, and that indigenous peoples have themselves created environmental disasters such as Easter Island, Maya, or the disappearance of North American megafauna.
For some people (e.g. indigenous communities from India, Brasil, and Malaysia and some NGOs, such as GRAIN, ETC and Third World Network), indigenous people may be victims of biopiracy when they are submitted to unauthorised use of their biological resources, of their traditional knowledge on these biological resources, of unequal share of benefits between them and a patent holder. A controversial case of biopiracy was reported on human genes of a tribal community reported to be resistant to malaria and leprosy.
List of some indigenous peoples of the world:
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