A working definition, by José Martinez Cobo

A working definition, by José Martinez Cobo

There are no general agreement on the definition –but many attemps to describe indigenous peoples. The most common is the “working definition” formulated by Special rapporteur fo the Sub-Commission, José Martinez Cobo in his study of the Problem of Discrimination against indigenous Populations, (1986):

“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 in 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 systems.”

Apart from this a number of factors are regarded as relevant for defining indigenous peoples and identifying their historical continuity.

- “a historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present, of one or more of the following factors: (1) Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them; (2) Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands; (3) Culture in general, or in specific manifestations, (4) Language; (5) Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world; (6) Other relevant factors.” (J. Martínez Cobo)

Self-identification as indigenous is also regarded as an fundamental element in his working definition: On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous peoples through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by the group 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.


IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. The Indigenous World 2019.

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