World Day of Indigenous Peoples

World Day of Indigenous Peoples

There are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

In this article, we we look to the Closing the Gap reforms by the Australian Government, the impact of Covid-19 on indigenous peoples and Indigenous spirituality.

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, their way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years. Yet, throughout history, their rights have been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.

In Australia, these special measures are addressed as Closing the Gap.

Recently, a new national agreement on Closing the Gap came into operation, which sets 16 new national socio-economic targets to track progress, will put community-controlled Indigenous organisations at the centre of efforts to redress inequality between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the broader community.

On 30 July 2020, the Australian Government announced new Closing the Gap reforms:

Closing the Gap reforms:

  1. Strengthen and establish formal partnerships and shared decision-making
  2. Build the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector
  3. Transform government organisations so they work better for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  4. Improve and share access to data and information to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities make informed decisions.

Closing the Gap targets:

  1. Close the Gap in life expectancy within a generation, by 2031
  2. By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies with a healthy birthweight to 91 per cent
  3. By 2025, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in Year Before Fulltime Schooling (YBFS) early childhood education to 95 per cent
  4. By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children assessed as developmentally on track in all five domains of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) to 55 per cent
  5. By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (age 20-24) attaining year 12 or equivalent qualification to 96 per cent
  6. By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25-34 years who have completed a tertiary qualification (Certificate III and above) to 70 per cent
  7. By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15–24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67 per cent
  8. By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25–64 who are employed to 62 per cent
  9. By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in appropriately sized (not overcrowded) housing to 88 per cent
  10. By 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults held in incarceration by at least 15 per cent
  11. By 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (10-17 years) in detention by at least 15 per cent
  12. By 2031, reduce the rate of over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 45 per cent
  13. A significant and sustained reduction in violence and abuse against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children towards zero
  14. Significant and sustained reduction in suicide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people towards zero
  15. a) By 2030, a 15 per cent increase in Australia’s landmass subject to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s legal rights or interests

    b) By 2030, a 15 per cent increase in areas covered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s legal rights or interests in the sea
  16. By 2031, there is a sustained increase in number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken

Covid 19 and Indigenous Peoples

The coronavirus  (COVID-19)  pandemic  poses  a grave  health threat to Indigenous peoples around the world. Indigenous communities already experience poor access to healthcare, significantly higher rates of communicable and non-communicable diseases, lack of access to essential services, sanitation,  and  other key  preventive measures, such as  clean water, soap, disinfectant, etc. Likewise,  most  nearby  local medical facilities, if and when there are any, are often under-equipped and under-staffed. Even when  Indigenous peoples are able to access healthcare services,  they can face stigma and  discrimination. A key factor is to ensure these services and facilities are provided in indigenous languages, and as appropriate to the specific situation of Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples’ traditional lifestyles are a source of their resiliency, and can also pose a threat at this time in preventing the spread of the virus.  For example, most indigenous communities regularly  organise large traditional gatherings to mark special events e.g. harvests, coming of age ceremonies, etc. Some indigenous communities also live in multi-generational housing,  which  puts Indigenous peoples and their families, especially the Elders,  at risk

As lockdowns continue in numerous countries, with no timeline in sight, Indigenous peoples who already face food insecurity, as a result of the loss of their traditional lands and territories,  confront even graver challenges in access to food. With the loss of their traditional livelihoods, which are  often  land-based, many Indigenous peoples who work in  traditional occupations and subsistence economies or in the  informal sector will be adversely affected by the pandemic. The situation of indigenous women, who are often the main providers of food and nutrition to their families, is even graver.

Yet, Indigenous peoples are seeking their own solutions to this pandemic. They are taking action, and using traditional knowledge and practices such as voluntary isolation, and sealing off their territories, as well as preventive measures – in their own languages.

Religion and Indigenous Peoples

Religion or belief is often defined as a particular collection of ideas and/or practices that:

  • relate to the nature and place of humanity in the universe and, where applicable, the relation of humanity to things supernatural;
  • encourage or require adherents to observe particular standards or codes of conduct or, where applicable, to participate in specific practices having supernatural significance;
  • are held by an identifiable group regardless of how loosely knit and varying in belief and practice;
  • are seen by adherents as constituting a religion or system of belief.

Religion and spirituality offer ethical and moral codes influencing relationships between individuals, communities and societies more broadly. Through religious and spiritual beliefs, people not only find meaning in life’s tragedies and triumphs but in existence, belonging, identity and culture. Many ancient Indigenous cultures are embedded with rich spiritual beliefs and practices, not least traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

Freedom of religion is enshrined within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 12 states:

Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.

The right to freedom of religion and belief is also enshrined under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his [sic] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his [sic] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Spirituality is a broader term than religion, understood as more diffuse and less institutionalised than religion. The term spiritual pertains to the incorporeal, the non-material, the ethereal, the seat of moral or religious nature, to the ecclesiastical and the sacred. It refers to an experiential encounter and relationship with otherness, with powers, forces and beings beyond the scope of the material world. The other might be God, nature, land, sea or some other person or being.

It is worthwhile reflecting about key concerns of Indigenous spirituality, in particular:

  • traditional Indigenous spirituality
  • the impact of Christian missions, Islam and government policy on traditional Indigenous spirituality
  • how Indigenous spirituality and religion has evolved into new forms
  • issues pertaining to freedom of religion and spirituality in different nations today.

The above imputes no judgement on any religion that has conducted evangelisation of indigenous peoples. We note that history is often written from the point of view of the winner. The underside of history is the narrative of the losers. There is a narrative of those who have been evangelised, often compromised by loss of history and culture and suppression of religious and spiritual practices.

Aboriginal terms for the “Dreaming” encompass understandings about their origins. The concept of the “Dreaming” does not assume the world was created from nothing. Instead, it assumes a pre-existent substance, often described as a watery expanse or a featureless plain. From this formless earth, ancestral spirit beings emerged and assumed forms and identities which had the features of humans and the various animal and plant species that now inhabit the earth. As the spirit beings moved over the surface of the Earth they performed the everyday activities of humans and the other species they represented; they hunted, ate, fought, danced, gathered foods, dug for water and died. As they travelled, their tracks and activities were transformed into the rocks, mountains, waterholes, trees, stars and other environmental features. ~ Edwards, C Bourke, and E Bourke (Eds), Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory Reader in Aboriginal Studies, 2nd Edition, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2003.


UN World Day of Indigenous Peoples


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