Indigenous Peoples Research Paper

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Although indigenous is often used to describe humans (or nonhuman life) with origins in a specific place, the term indigenous peoples specifically refers to those who have become minorities in their own lands. Contributing factors include the shift from foraging to agriculture as well as invasion, displacement, and colonization. In the twenty-first century many peoples have “lost” their indigenous distinction by fighting against colonial powers and becoming citizens of independent nation-states.

All peoples are in a sense indigenous peoples, since they come from somewhere. The term indigenous peoples has come to refer to those people who have become minorities within their own territories as a result of the expansion of technologically more advanced peoples. The process of creating indigenous peoples accelerated in the past five centuries, though it is a process as old as the advent of agricultural societies. In the twenty-first century, the major groups of indigenous peoples are the Amerindians of the Americas, the Aborigines of Australia and Oceania (including peoples in Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Hawaii), the Eskimo and Siberian peoples in the far Northern Hemisphere, the Taiwanese, and the Ainu in Japan. Also, Tibetan and Turkic peoples in China can be considered indigenous peoples.

Although the diversity of indigenous peoples is extremely large—from tiny groups in the tropical Amazon, millions in highland Guatemala, thousands on Pacific islands, to small villages on the tundra—they all share similar characteristics. The similarities are important; in most cases these groups have been displaced over the past centuries from their original territory or other peoples have moved in and conquered the aboriginal inhabitants. Indigenous peoples by definition do not have separate states, though they may define themselves as “nations” (in many areas such as Canada indigenous peoples are formally known as “First Nations”); in fact they have considerable autonomy, as is the case with the Inuit in Canada. Indigenous peoples also change status as regions are decolonized, and thus become citizens of nation-states where they are the majority and wield most political power.

Historical Periods

In a sense, the conquest of aboriginal peoples goes back before the dawn of history; it might, for example, explain the disappearance of Neanderthal man. There are four principal periods in the history of indigenous peoples throughout the world. The first period chronicles the slowly progressing domination over indigenous peoples through conquest and colonization. This process began with the formation of agricultural societies and the creation of the first states, about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. Agricultural societies, because their populations quickly outgrew foraging and nomadic societies, replaced these indigenous peoples at a relatively constant pace. At times, nomadic peoples invaded agricultural societies but were eventually absorbed, for example in the Aryan invasions of India in the 1200s BCE or the Mongol invasions of Russia, the Middle East, and China in the 1200s CE.

The process accelerated considerably in the 1500s with the conquest of the Americas and the Philippines by the Spanish and the Portuguese, beginning the second phase in the creation and subjection of indigenous peoples. The people who would be known as “Indians,” such as the Maya, Mexicas (Aztecs), and Incas, were in the majority agriculturalists as well, thus changing the older dynamic of mostly agrarian versus foraging societies. The Amerindians suffered a process of conquest and absorption by European states and their successors that only ended in the twentieth century. The term Indian is of course a misnomer; Christopher Columbus thought he had reached India and therefore called the inhabitants indios. Indigenous peoples, who were very diverse, accepted their new name after the Spanish set up legislation favoring Indians a generation after the conquest.

The third phase began in the late eighteenth century, when European powers conquered the peoples of the Pacific islands and Australia; it accelerated in the nineteenth century when western European countries divided up Africa and parts of Asia. In this phase, industrialized societies conquered agriculturalists and foragers, making them indigenous.

The last phase, in which some indigenous peoples ceased to be considered as such, began in the mid-twentieth century as indigenous peoples fought against the colonial powers and were able to create independent nation-states in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The process continued into the 1990s as the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of independent nations in its stead converted indigenous groups into national societies. Likewise, indigenous groups within nation-states such as the Americas and the Pacific islands have organized and gained increasing autonomy and political power where societies have become more democratic and accepted their pluriethnic character.

The Making of Native Americans

The expansion of western Europeans into the rest of the world, beginning in the 1450s CE, brought on the most intense period in which indigenous peoples were “created.” Policies toward conquered peoples by the major European colonial powers varied significantly, though in all cases the Europeans took away lands, exploited labor, and severely punished those who rebelled. Interactions also varied according to the types of indigenous societies. For example, the Spanish found small-scale societies in the Caribbean in the sixteenth century difficult to subdue. Later, Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro led small groups of Spanish into the Mexica (Aztec) and Inca empires, respectively, conquering them in alliance with dissident indigenous groups. The groups in Brazil were too loosely organized for the relatively weak Portuguese to conquer all at once. Likewise, on the eastern seaboard of North America, the English settlers found themselves in the seventeenth century confronted with loosely federated but militarily powerful peoples who could not be easily subdued.

It took European diseases and many decades for the Portuguese and English to dominate aboriginal peoples in their colonies. Thereafter, the Spanish attempted to maintain some land and legal rights for the Indians while regulating the exploitation of their labor, whereas the Portuguese settlers (especially around Sao Paulo, Brazil) were more interested in enslaving indigenous peoples to work on sugar plantations in the northeast. The English found little use for the indigenous and took away their lands, while the small number of French clustered in northern and central parts of North America allied themselves with powerful indigenous groups as a means of gaining access to the fur trade.

“Becoming” Indigenous in Central Asia and the Pacific

The seventeenth century also saw the subjugation of peoples in Siberia by the Russians. The Buryats were Mongol pastoralists who came under the rule of Russian traders as the Russian state pushed eastward, across the Ural Mountains. The Russians also gained tenuous control over other groups such as the Tuvans, Kalmyks, Kazakhs, and Tajiks because they were better organized and had access to more sophisticated weapons than the natives. In a similar pattern, the Han Chinese, especially during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) extended their control westward, subjugating some of the same Mongol and Turkish peoples in what is today the Xinjiang region of northwestern China; ironically, the Qing emperors themselves were non-Han Manchurians.

In the eighteenth century it was the turn of the peoples in the Pacific to “become” indigenous: the Muslim and Buddhist peoples of Java and the other main islands of the Indonesian archipelago slowly dominated peoples from islands toward the east, and the British took over Australia and New Zealand. The Australian colony, founded in the mid-eighteenth century as Botany Bay, mistreated the foraging Australian Aborigines by occupying their land and often killing them. The British competed with the French for New Zealand. The native peoples, called Maori, were better organized and, with access to muskets, were able to resist. The British signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 with many Maori chiefs, converting the Maori into British subjects. The Maori conception of land tenure was different from that of the English; as the Maori understood it, selling their land meant being paid for its temporary use rather than its permanent loss. As European settlers began to overwhelm New Zealand, the Maori rebelled in a series of failed wars in the 1860s. Thereafter, the British acquired lands with impunity.

In the Japanese archipelago, the far northern island of Hokkaido is populated by a people called Ainu, who are ethnically distinct. As the Japanese state expanded, it gained control over this population by the fourteenth century CE. During the Edo or Tokugawa period (1600/1603–1868), the state favored the Japanese over the Ainu. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, in the name of progress and because of population pressures, the state sent Japanese to relocate in Hokkaido, turning the Ainu into a minority in their own lands. The Ainu were forced to learn Japanese and abandon their customs, though many families continued to maintain their culture clandestinely.

Nation-States and Indigenous Americans

By the early nineteenth century, most of the former European colonies in North America had become independent, but the situation of indigenous peoples worsened uniformly. In North America, the United States and Canada killed the Indians or forced them into reservations on economically marginal lands. In nineteenth-century Brazil, the imperial government saw Indians as people who had to be absorbed into society or exterminated if they opposed assimilation. In the former Spanish colonies, Indians were initially given citizenship rights after independence, but these were later taken away as the elites, mainly descendants of Europeans, fortified the state and adopted scientific racism and social Darwinism as justifications for the usurpations. As a result, indigenous peoples became impoverished during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Also, in the late nineteenth century the national states invaded the frontier territories of indigenous groups not yet under their domination, such as the Pampas and Patagonia in Argentina.

Central Asian Indigenous in the 1900s

Most people defined as indigenous in Asia come from its central parts. Their experience in the twentieth century, with few exceptions, was a horrific one. The Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, although it paid lip service to ethnic minority rights, was murderous in its policies. The Buryats, for example, tried to establish a Mongolian republic independent of both Russia and China in the early twentieth century. When Stalin incorporated the Buryat region into the Soviet Union, many independence leaders fled. Stalin demanded their return, however, and when they came back had them summarily executed in 1929. Stalin’s actions halved the Buryat population. The Tuva also resisted collectivization in the 1930s, but the Terror of 1937 led to the murder of Tuva nationalists. Despite the declaration of the Tuva region as an autonomous province in 1944, the remaining Tuva were put into boarding schools and “Russianized,” while Stalin encouraged Russian colonists to settle there.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 improved somewhat the political situation of some of the indigenous peoples of Siberia and Central Asia. In Central Asia, some of the previously indigenous people transformed into national groups, such as in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, many of these new nations are still ruled by autocrats, limiting rights of all residents.

The Chinese Communist state instituted policies similar to those of Soviet Union in Xianjiang after 1949 and in Tibet after the 1950 invasion. The process of sinicizing the western borders of China accelerated in the last few decades of the twentieth century as increasing prosperity and overpopulation in the eastern sections brought more Han Chinese westward.

Indigenous Movements from the 1980s Onward

Indigenous movements have existed since the advent of nation-states, from the eighteenth century onward, though most movements expressed their demands mainly through violence because of their members’ subordination and inability to have a voice in the national political arena. Only in the last few decades has that changed, as governments have provided formal avenues for their citizens to express their discontent. The concept of class as a means of organizing people faded with the decline of Marxism, and thus ethnicity has taken its place in many states where indigenous peoples are prominent, either in the number of people or the territory that they inhabit.

Since the last few decades of the twentieth century important indigenous peoples movements have flourished throughout the world, from Latin America to Asia, Africa to Europe. All are diverse and have different aims, although many movements were inspired by the passage in 1989 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169, which provided indigenous peoples the right to maintain their culture, their language, and their way of life as a part of international law. This passage was made possible by the rise of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have helped to organize and finance these movements.

Failures in Asia

In Asia indigenous peoples movements have not had much success. True, much of the southern portion of the Soviet Union in Asia has become independent, and native peoples have gained control over the government. Independence had little to do with indigenous movements, however; in fact, former members of Soviet political organizations control the newly independent states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. At best, indigenous peoples in Asia have been recognized, and governments at times have been willing to accede to indigenous peoples’ demands. These developments occurred in Japan, where the native Ainu population of the northern island of Hokkaido in the 1980s and 1990s received recognition of their rights to existence and some economic aid. At worst the Chinese government continues to repress the native populations of the western territories, suppressing any indigenous movement as subversive.

The Chinese case merits special attention. The Uygurs of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwestern China had briefly established the Republic of East Turkistan in the twentieth century, but the Chinese government quickly crushed it. During the 1990s, the Uygurs again launched a movement for autonomy. The Chinese Communist government responded by building roads and infrastructure to promote economic growth. The government also repressed the autonomy movement and severely restricted the practice of Islam and other Uygur cultural practices. Lastly, the government flooded the region with Han Chinese to build a non-Uygur majority that could control the resistant natives. This tactic appears to have been effective, and the Chinese have used similar tactics in Tibet as well. Although the Chinese case represents the repressive extreme, other indigenous populations (even ethnic minorities in the former Asian Soviet republics) are generally repressed and have been unable to develop effective movements for greater autonomy. The Chinese state has defined any resistance by ethnic minorities after the events of September 11 as “terrorism,” thus providing for a police or even military response. The 2009 riots in the capital Uygur capital of Urumqi, for example, led to widespread repression.

More Success in the Americas

The case of the Americas is more positive for indigenous peoples, although great variation exists there as well. For example, indigenous peoples movements such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the United States attempted during the 1970s to force the U.S. government to honor the treaties it signed with Native American tribes during the nineteenth century, but this attempt led to repression by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and an infamous standoff between the government and AIM activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. Since then the movement has been unable to make much headway. After a 1991 law made gambling legal on reservations, many tribes have tried to develop their reservation economies by operating casinos rather than unifying in a single movement.

Other indigenous movements, especially the movement to establish autonomous zones for the Inuit (commonly called “Eskimo”) in Canada, have been more successful. Since 1975 the Canadian government has signed a series of laws creating large autonomous territories in the far northern portion of the country. Largest is the territory of Nunavut, where the Inuit have substantial control over legislation and judicial systems autonomous of the Canadian federal government.

Farther south indigenous movements have had success in varying degrees. In Mexico, beginning in 1994 the armed Zapatista movement in Chiapas in the southern region brought the indigenous movement back into the limelight, but, in fact, indigenous peoples have not benefited much. In Guatemala an indigenous activist, Rigoberta Menchu, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Death squads and a violent political climate forced the Maya to organize mainly in Mayan language and cultural organizations without overt political goals. Menchu’s example was more important for providing moral authority to movements elsewhere in Latin America.

Indigenous movements initially were most successful in South America in the Andes, where a large indigenous population has been able to mobilize politically. Ecuadorean indigenous peoples after the late 1980s were able to unify the highland peasant communities with the lowland hunters and gatherers. In the highlands issues such as good agricultural prices, access to transportation, and lack of arable land were most important to the indigenous peoples, whereas in the lowlands settler invasions, environmental destruction by oil companies and miners, and indiscriminate road building were the most important issues. Nevertheless, the rather diverse groups were able to organize the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and stage peaceful but massive invasions of Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, various times in the 1990s. After that CONAIE formed a political party, Pachakutik, and helped defeat the president of Ecuador in January 2000. Despite Pachakutik’s help in 2003 to elect Lucio Gutierrez, an Ecuadorean army colonel who had conspired with the indigenous peoples in 2000, Pachakutik soon thereafter went into opposition because Gutierrez was unwilling to fulfill the indigenous peoples’ demands. Since then, the government under leftist Rafael Correa has coopted the issues of Pachakutik and the party lost its political significance.

In Bolivia indigenous organizations remained important, with some ups and downs, to the early twenty- first century. Although indigenous political parties never won many votes, they have allied themselves with other leftist parties. Evo Morales, during the 2002 elections, “discovered” his indigenous heritage and used it to help oust one president and to get himself elected with a majority vote in 2005. Since then, the government has put into place pro-indigenous policies and made most indigenous leaders beholden to the state. In Peru the indigenous peoples’ movement is incipient and relatively ineffective despite the fact that Alejandro Toledo played up his indigenous heritage to win as president in 2001. The massacre by police of indigenous activists in the eastern Peruvian jungle in 2009 led to a revisiting of mining and land policies, but it is unclear whether this will lead to greater influence by indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples’ movements are less developed in the rest of South America, although the Mapuche in Chile have a relatively strong political presence in the southern part of the country. In Brazil different indigenous groups, in conjunction with NGOs, have been able to protect some of their lands. The smaller numbers of indigenous people, however—compared with the rest of the population in these countries and in the rest of South America—have lessened their political impact nationally. Still, democracy and the abundance of multinational NGOs with their networks and funds have made indigenous movements in South America a force to be reckoned with.

Ethnic Confusion in Africa

Indigenous peoples’ movements have cropped up in Africa, but the situation is confused there because conflicts between ethnic groups usually have gone on for many centuries. The major conflicts are between Arabic-speaking peoples and non-Arabic-speaking peoples in the northern tier of the continent and between Bantu-speaking peoples and the indigenous San (Bushmen) people. The San have formed multinational organizations that span South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Each country has a movement and then they have an umbrella movement that spans all the countries where the San live. Such organizations are attractive to multinational NGOs, but the lower San population, compared with the non-San populations, and the weak national political presence have made the San movements relatively toothless in any one country.

National Status in the Pacific Basin

As decolonization proceeded in the Pacific Basin, ethnic movements (which can be equated to national movements on many islands) gained national status. The only exceptions were the French and U.S. possessions, as well as New Zealand and Australia, with majority populations whose ancestors had migrated from western Europe. In New Zealand the Maori had gained considerable autonomy and political power (they also constituted by 2001 about 15 percent of the population) and were represented separately in Parliament according to their relative population. In 1980 New Zealand established the Waitangi Tribunal to examine land claims dating from the nineteenth century onward. In 1995 Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth apologized publicly for the wrongs committed against the Maori, providing a moral victory for the indigenous population.

In Australia the Aboriginal peoples, although they have gained some rights, lag behind in political organization and in their rights. Aborigines tend to be more rural and less educated than the Maori. It is not clear whether the policies instituted in by former president John Howard in 2004, in which Aborigines are paid for sending their children to school, is a new form of paternalism or is one of “mutual obligation” for all the wrongs committed by whites since their conquest of the continent.

The Future of Indigenous Peoples Movements

In certain regions, such as the Americas, indigenous peoples movements will continue to exist, though in the cases of Ecuador, Bolivia, and to a lesser degree in Argentina, new, leftist governments have subsumed some movements. In Peru and Guatemala indigenous peoples movements likely will begin to flex their political muscles as democracy, the ability to communicate via the Internet, and NGOs foster organization.

Indigenous peoples movements are not always positive, however. During the 1990s, in countries such as Rwanda, Turkmenistan, and Zimbabwe, rulers at times persecuted people who were seen as settlers in the name of recouping indigenous rights.


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