The practical implications of conceptualizing the term “indigenous people” are significant, as indigenous people’s rights are central to both international and national law. As noted by British anthropologist Andrew Gray, “the term ‘indigenous’ is not simply a matter of analysis. It is a matter of life and death for the millions of people covered by the term...” (Gray, 1995:41). This concise introduction explores the use of the term in the USSR and present-day Russia, illustrating how certain aspects of international legislation were rejected or incorporated into legislative acts in the national context. International approach
Despite some practical attempts dating back to the 1920s – when North American indigenous groups approached
the League of Nations – substantial development with regard to indigenous communities and their rights occurred only after World War II. International attention was gained mostly in reaction to self-determination movements, decolonization and the rise of the global human rights framework.
The first international definition was introduced in 1957 by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which adopted Convention No. 107
. Article 1 of this convention defined “indigenous people” based on several basic criteria: a) they should be a tribal or a semi-tribal population; b) their economic and social conditions should be less advantageous in comparison to other groups; c) they should have their own customs and traditions; d) they descend from a geographical region where they lived in line with social, economic and cultural institutions before conquest or colonization. The latter point was conceptualized as the “First Nation” principle (Dahl, 2009; Roy 2009: 2).
An even broader definition was proposed by former UN Special Rapporteur José R. Martinez Cobo
in 1981: he regarded “indigenous people” as those who “
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 on 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 system.”Martinez Cobo’s contribution to the debate was an explicit reference to indigenous peoples in Northern Europe and Asia, thus making the notion more inclusive (Dahl, 2009).
The definition evolved further in the 1989 ILO Convention No.169,
which introduced the idea of the “distinguished position,” instead of the “disadvantaged position,” of indigenous peoples. The convention also emphasized the retention of the indigenous group’s institutions and made “self-identification” a fundamental criterion.
These broad definitions gave birth to various approaches to identifying groups that could be covered by the concept of “indigenous people.” As a result, the term does not currently enjoy a universally accepted definition either in academic or activist discourses. Another reason for the existing variation is that some groups considered indigenous by external entities do not agree with the imposition of formal criteria, or their classification as indigenous was done without their knowledge or consent
. For example, some sources treat the Ainu from Hokkaido or the Mayans from Central America as indigenous; however, these groups assert the need for flexibility in self-definition and oppose the imposition of definitions by external actors (Williams, 2020: v.1, p. xxi).
By and large, all definitions of the term “indigenous people” can be united into two large groups representing different socio-political and historical contexts. The essentialist approach
is based on establishing the selection criteria. This approach tends to emphasize fixed, unchanging characteristics that are deemed essential to a particular group of people. Proponents of this approach see the necessity to clearly define the boundaries and characteristics of indigenous groups. It was adopted by many NGOs, especially with regard to the indigenous people of the Americas (Dahl, 2009). However, the need for a more flexible approach became evident with the expansion of the geographic boundaries of indigeneity, as different groups from different continents claimed their status as indigenous, like the Adivasi people
in India (a common name for indigenous people there), the Sami in Europe and the Maasai in Tanzania (Williams, 2020: v.1, p. xxiv).