Who are the indigenous and tribal peoples?

“Indigenous and tribal peoples” is a common denominator for more than 370 million people, found in more than 70 countries worldwide. Indigenous and tribal peoples have their own cultures, languages, customs and institutions, which distinguish them from other parts of the societies in which they find themselves.

There is no universal definition of indigenous and tribal peoples, but ILO Convention No. 169 takes a practical approach to the issue and provides objective and subjective criteria for identifying the peoples concerned (see Article 1 of the Convention). These criteria can be summarized as:

  Subjective criteria Objective criteria
Indigenous peoples Self-identification as belonging to an indigenous people Descent from populations, who inhabited the country or geographical region at the time of conquest, colonisation or establishment of present state boundaries.

They retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions, irrespective of their legal status.
Tribal peoples Self-identification as belonging to a tribal people Their social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community.

Their status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations.

Indigenous and tribal peoples are often known by national terms such as native peoples, aboriginal peoples, first nations, adivasi, janajati, hunter-gatherers, or hill tribes. Given the diversity of peoples it aims at protecting, the Convention uses the inclusive terminology of “indigenous and tribal peoples” and ascribes the same set of rights to both groups. In Latin America, for example, the term “tribal” has been applied to certain afro-descendent communities.