You Gotta Know These Indigenous Peoples
- Aboriginal Australians comprise various indigenous peoples who lived in Australia before European settlers arrived. Traditionally, Aboriginal peoples believed that Australia was created during a mythical period called the Dreamtime, during which beings like the Rainbow Serpent ruled. When the British arrived in Australia, they persecuted Aboriginal people and seized their land in the Frontier Wars. In the 1900s, many Aboriginal children were taken from their families, becoming known as the Stolen Generations. While European mistreatment of Aboriginal people is recognized on National Sorry Day, they still face discrimination, including higher rates of poverty and incarceration. Aboriginal people are distinct from the Torres Strait Islanders, who live north of mainland Australia.
- The Ainu people are indigenous to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s home islands. They also live in other northern Pacific areas like Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. For centuries, the Ainu traded with ethnically Japanese people on Honshu, but were conquered around 1800 by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Ainu people are generally taller than ethnically Japanese people and are set apart by their longer beards and distinctive facial tattoos, particularly among women. Traditional Ainu communities both hunted and worshiped bears, which are native to Hokkaido.
- The Basque people are indigenous to northern Spain and southwestern France. Most live in the Basque Country (or Euskadi), a wealthy region within Spain that includes cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian. Many speak Basque, a language isolate that emerged earlier than even Proto-Indo European. The Basques have a long history of independence from larger powers, having defeated Charlemagne at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and formed the Kingdom of Navarre. In the 20th century, some Basques fought to become independent from Spain by supporting the terrorist group ETA.
- The Inuit peoples are indigenous to the Arctic portions of North America, particularly the Canadian territory of Nunavut. They are distinct from the First Nations and have a long history of contact with Europeans dating to the Viking settlement of Greenland. Inuit peoples traditionally lived through whaling and other forms of hunting. To survive in the harsh climate, they developed kayaks and parkas, while some Inuit people would seek shelter in igloos. The first full-length documentary, Nanook of the North, depicted a somewhat-accurate version of Inuit life in 1922. In the past, Inuit were known in English as “Eskimos”; that term is now considered offensive.
- The Kurds are indigenous to Kurdistan, a mountainous region stretching between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. For thousands of years, Kurds played a major role in Persian and Islamic civilization. During the Crusades, the Kurdish leader Saladin founded the Ayyubid Dynasty that ruled Egypt, Syria, and Arabia. After being denied their own country in the wake of the Ottoman Empire, many Kurdish people demanded independence. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has fought a long conflict against the government of Turkey. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein committed genocide against the Kurds, who now control an autonomous Iraqi region defended by the Peshmerga military.
- The Maori people are indigenous to New Zealand, which is known as Aotearoa in their language. The Maori are a Polynesian group who arrived as the first human settlers of New Zealand in the 1300s. In 1840 they signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which promised peaceful coexistence with new settlers from Britain. Despite later repression, Maori customs and culture remain a major part of life in New Zealand, exemplified by the traditional Maori haka dance performed by the country’s national rugby team. Many Maori practice ta moko, the art of tattooing.
- The Maya people are indigenous to southern Mexico and Central America. They formed the ancient Mayan Civilization, which developed in the Yucatan peninsula. The Maya built cities like Tikal and Palenque, as well as the great pyramid of Chichen Itza, before declining in the ninth century. Today, most Mayan people live in Guatemala, where thousands were killed during a U.S.-backed genocide in the 1980s. For advocating on behalf of Mayan people, Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
- The Quechua people are a collection of indigenous people in western South America, connected by speaking Quechua languages. They predominantly live around the Andes Mountains in Peru. Quechua people formed the Inca civilization, which emerged in the 1400s. The Inca built a system of roads that stretched thousands of miles and constructed cities like Machu Picchu. They were conquered by Spanish forces under Francisco Pizzaro in the early sixteenth century. Quechua people were the first to domesticate potatoes and inspired the English word “jerky.”
- The Rapa Nui people are indigenous to Easter Island in the southern Pacific Ocean. The Rapa Nui are Polynesian and first settled on the island around 1200. They constructed massive stone figures known as Moai, which feature large elongated heads. The introduction of rats to Easter Island led to deforestation in the 18th century and a large decline in the Rapa Nui population. Today, about 10,000 Rapa Nui people live as citizens of Chile on Easter Island, with most residing in the town of Hanga Roa.
- The Sami people are indigenous to northern Scandinavia. Because the harsh Arctic climate makes farming difficult, Sami people traditionally lived by herding reindeer and other animals. Following the Black Death, many Sami people migrated south to repopulate agricultural communities, but they faced persistent discrimination. However, many Sami retain traditional practices like joik, a style of folk singing which inspired the opening number of Disney’s Frozen. The Sami were traditionally known in English as “Lapps” or “Laplanders,” but those terms are now considered offensive.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Ben Miller.