According to the United Nations, an estimated 370 million people in the world identify as indigenous peoples. Representing over 5,000 different cultures across 90 countries, these unique communities have historically lacked representation and acknowledgement and, for centuries, have been subject to violations of their traditional lands, identities, ways of life, and basic rights. Over the last 20 years, international instruments such as the U.N.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have aimed to increase cultural awareness and inclusivity. However, a significant gap between formal recognition and actual implementation continues to exist.
Observed yearly on August 9th, International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples seeks to promote and protect the rights of indigenous communities around the world. In honor of the holiday, we’ve highlighted some of the most inspiring indigenous festivals celebrated around the world.
MOUNT HAGEN, PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Mount Hagen Cultural Show
Celebrated every third weekend of August, the Mount Hagen Cultural Show is one of the largest singsings, or tribal gatherings, of the year in Papua New Guinea. Over 100 indigenous tribes convene in the Mount Hagen Show Grounds to showcase the unique costumes, music, dance, and cultures that make up the country’s diverse heritage.
The very first celebration, which took place in 1964 when the country was still an Australian colony, was organized in an effort to promote peaceful relations among conflicting tribes. Today, the festival is a joyous display of cultural pride and legacy, open to visitors from all over the world.
Prepare to be swept away by the rhythm of kundu — or lizard skin — drums, battle cries, and pounding feet as dance troupes simultaneously perform an array of traditional choreographies. Face tattoos, anthropomorphic body paint, intricate headdresses, and hand-crafted breastplates come together in a sensory burst of color to recreate the mythological legends and lore of each tribe.
Burrowed in the Sierra Madre valley of southern Mexico, Oaxaca de Juarez plays host to the Guelaguetza Festival every year on the last two Mondays of July. Also known as Lunes del Cerro, the festival is a combination of the pre-Hispanic celebration of Centéotl, the goddess of corn, and the Catholic tradition of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Tribes from the eight regions that make up the state of Oaxaca come together to showcase their respective customs in a vibrant celebration brimming with historic costumes, folkloric dances, traditional foods, and artisanal crafts. The ceremony includes the annual nomination of a local woman to take on the role of Centéotl for the duration of the festivities, as well as the reenactment of several traditional legends.
The history of the ceremony predates Spanish colonization. In fact, the word Guelaguetza derives from the Zapotec, the ancient indigenous civilization that called the Valley of Oaxaca home, and loosely translates to “a reciprocal exchange of gifts and services.” This message is exemplified in the performers’ ceremonial throwing of gifts into the crowds that marks the end of each indigenous group’s recital.
Today, Guelaguetza is one of the largest indigenous celebrations in Mexico, and it has quickly become a sought-after experience by travelers from all over the world.
Dating back to Mongolia’s Qing Dynasty, Naadam Festival — known locally as Eriin Gurvan Naadam, or “the Three Games of Men” — is a celebration of the country’s three prized sporting events: archery, horse racing, and Mongolian wrestling.
The event is held each year from July 11th to 13th, taking place at the National Sports Stadium in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The three-day festival is considered one of the most authentic expressions of Mongolian nomadic pastoralism, a culture that accounts for 25 to 45 percent of the entire population. Dancers, musicians, and athletes take the stage for the opening ceremony, long-song folk music, and Biyelgee dancing, while Morin khuur fiddles set the tone for an adrenaline-filled event.
Today, the festival not only serves to showcase Mongolia’s competitive sportsmanship, but it also commemorates the People’s Revolution of 1921, in which Mongolia officially declared itself independent from Soviet Russia and China. Khuushuur, traditional nomadic cuisine, and arak, alcohol crafted from fermented mare’s milk, are passed around merrily as both foreigners and locals gather to witness the dexterity of Mongolia’s fiercest competitors.
Qoyllur Rit’l Pilgrimage
Once a year, over 50,000 pilgrims make the journey to a sacred valley nestled between the peaks of the Andes in the Cusco region of Peru. Located 16,000 feet (4877 meters) above sea level, the Sinakara Valley is home to the Snow Star Festival, also known as the Qoyllur Rit’l Pilgrimage. The centuries-old celebration honors Lord Qoyllur Rit’I, or “Lord of the Snow Shine,” the image of a crucified Christ on a rock painted in 1780 to consecrate the valley.
Though some consider it a strictly Catholic tradition, the three-day festival also celebrates the reappearance of the Pleiades constellation and combines the worship of mountain gods (known as the Apu) and Mother Earth. Foreigners are welcome to make the trek and witness the valley come alive with the colors of Peru’s proud nations for themselves. The mid-year festival takes place from May to June and includes activities such as dance performances, processions, Catholic masses, and traditional markets.
Though rigorous in nature, the pilgrimage is well rewarded. Brightly hued flags can be seen snapping in the wind, and the sound of beating drums accompanies the passionate choreographies of the comparsas, or dance troupes, throughout the festivities. Qoyllur Rit’l is the perfect opportunity to explore the intricate cultural threads that weave Peru’s past, present, and future together.
Inti Raymi (The Festival of the Sun)
Each year, Cusco gears up for the week-long celebration of the Festival of the Sun, a lively reenactment of the ancient ceremonial tradition dating back to the time of the Inca Empire.
Before colonial Spaniards banned the winter solstice rituals that comprised such an integral aspect of Peruvian heritage, over 25,000 Incas would gather in the city’s main square to worship Inti Raymi, the god of the sun. In an effort to ensure fruitful crops and fertile fields, the ceremony consisted of the parading of ancestral mummies, lavish feasts, and the ritual sacrifice of over 200 llamas. Though less graphic in nature today — animal sacrifice has been reduced to a very convincing, yet staged demise of a single llama — the annual recreation retains much of its original flavor.
The week-long festivities mark the beginning of a new year, but the real merriment falls on June 24th, the day of Inti Raymi. Actors convene to portray historical figures, incantations take place in the city’s ancient sites of worship, and ceremonial processions and performances are held in Sacsayhuamán, an ancient fortress perched on the hills above Cusco. The day ends with the burning of straw stacks, a tribute to Tawantinsuyu, the Empire of the Four Wind Directions. Visitors and locals crowd together to witness the spectacle and revel in the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of ancient Peru.
REPUBLIC OF KHAKASSIA, SIBERIA, RUSSIA
Tun Pairam: Festival of the First Ayran
As the end of June rolls around, Siberia prepares for an ample celebration in honor of one of the region’s prized possessions: ayran. The fermented dairy drink is cause for festivity among the native cultures of Siberia, and though it might sound somewhat pungent to foreign ears, visitors from all over the world flock to Tun Pairam in Khakassia’s Sagaysk meadow to sample the famous beverage and partake in a celebration of local Khakassian culture.
The first ayran is a sign of prosperity in the year to come, so its harvest is met with furor. Ayran-drinking competitions, handicraft markets, theatrical performances, and Siberian throat singing make for a sensory gathering. But the ancient tradition is more than a colorful celebration; it’s an ode to the sustenance the drink symbolizes for the Khakass community, whose food is primarily based on dairy products.
Guests are treated to several cups of ayran to experience the various nuances of taste and are invited to sample traditional Khakassian dishes such as myun, mutton broth, and potkhy, boiling sour cream with flour and eggs. Sips of ayran are taken between cheers as Khakassian athletes show off their strength in archery, horse racing, and stone-lifting competitions — a testimony to the nutritious properties of the frothy Finno-Ugric beverage.
MANNDALEN, LYNGENFJORD, NORWAY
Riddu Riđđu Indigenous Folk Festival
Every July, on the shores of the Lyngenfjord in northern Norway, the otherwise quiet coastal village of Manndalen transforms into a whirlwind of joyous celebration as the Riddu Riđđu Festivàla begins. A relatively new tradition, the festival — whose name fittingly translates to “little storm on the coast” — centers around the Sami people, a Finno-Ugric community hailing from the cultural region of Sápmi, which stretches across parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
Founded in 1991 by Sami youth, the festival was initially created to maintain and promote Sami customs and heritage. However, in recent years, the event has expanded to encompass indigenous cultures from all over the world and has quickly become one of the most significant international indigenous celebrations in all of Europe. Performers and festival-goers flock to Norway to indulge in a diverse program filled with everything from indigenous music, films, art, theatre, and literature to workshops and seminars.
The sense of community is strong at the event — traditional Sami and Norwegian dishes are offered to guests, children enjoy a plethora of informative activities, and visitors can opt to stay overnight on festival grounds in a lavvu, a traditional Sami herdsman’s tent. Since its creation, Riddu Riđđu has left a lasting impression through its effortless blend of tradition and contemporary culture.
KUCHING, BORNEO, MALAYSIA
Rainforest World Music Festival
Nestled at the base of Mount Santubong in North Kuching, Borneo, the Sarawak Cultural Village hosts one of the most diverse musical festivals in all of Southeast Asia. Held each year in late July or early August, the Rainforest World Music Festival features around 20 different renowned musicians from all over the world, as well as indigenous performers from the island of Borneo. From traditional Irish folk bands and nomadic pygmies from Congo to ballad troupes from Taiwan, the three-day event offers an unforgettable taste of some of the world’s cultural treasures.
Officially founded in 1998, the festival boasts an environment that seeks to educate visitors on the nuances of indigenous cultures. Diverse activities such as daytime workshops and the partaking in traditional meals, as well as an interactive community setting, serve to create an immersive experience for everyone involved. Workshops are held inside traditional long-houses throughout the village and range from interactive dance and singing lessons to informative cultural seminars. Evening performances set against the dreamy backdrop of Borneo’s jungle feature ethnic artists and performers from all over the world, a tribute to the diverse heritage of each cultural community.
BORNEO, INDONESIA AND MALAYSIA
Gawai Dayak Festival
Celebrated once a year between May and June, the Gawai Dayak festival fills the island of Borneo — which is considered part of both Malaysia and Indonesia — with festive charm.
The Malaysian city of Sarawak and the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan gear up in celebration of Dayak culture, a community made up of Borneo’s Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, and Murut people. With origins tracing back to 1957, the Gawai Dayak festival is a relatively new expression of indigenous Bornean culture. As both a religious and social gathering, it is focused on promoting a sense of unity among Dayak tribes while attracting prosperity to everyday life.
Though officially celebrated on June 1st, the Gawai Dayak festivities often begin one week prior and linger for several days after. Long-houses — traditional Dayak accommodation — are open to visitors and offer a chance to indulge in traditional feasts, dances, and cock fighting. Tourists are welcome to join in on the fun and try their hand at shooting a traditional blowpipe gun or sample some of Borneo’s famous brewed rice wine, known as tuak. The festive atmosphere of Gawai Dayak beckons foreigners and locals alike to partake in a unique cultural expression, one of pride, unity, and heritage.
First Peoples Festival
Considered one of the most strongly rooted First Nations resistance movements in America, Montréal’s First Peoples Festival celebrates a reconciliation with the continent’s aboriginal heritage, a cornerstone of American legacy that has long been overlooked.
Now in its 28th year, the event stands as an affirmation of identity, a symbol of belonging, and a multicultural crossroads. The festival is a return to roots and an eloquent blend of traditional and contemporary expressions that encourages new perspectives and calls for the dismissal of closed-minded notions of identity.
Held in the Quartier des Spectacles, the five-day festival is a proud showcase of various forms of music, dance, film, and art produced by indigenous cultures throughout North America. Kiosks scattered throughout the square offer insight into the history of the First Peoples, cultural food stands beckon passersby, and an array of exhibitions offer the audience some food for thought.
The festivities culminate with the Nuestroamericana Friendship Parade, a unifying gathering of people and cultures from all corners of the world. Thousands take to the streets in celebration of aboriginal culture and tradition, a flamboyant expression of the rich tapestry that is Montreal’s diverse community.
Every third week of August, the city of Davao in Manila gears up for the Kadayawan Festival — a celebration of the year, a tribute to the serenity of life and cultural wealth, and a show of gratitude for the prosperous gifts of nature.
It is said that in ancient times, the people of Davao would venture to Mount Apo to give thanks to the deities that presided over the area. Fruits, vegetables, rice, and other local products were offered as gifts to ensure a successful and prosperous harvest.
Today, the festival focuses more on the cultural wealth of the Philippines. Fresh fruits and vegetables line the streets as people dance their way through the festivities. Horse fighting — a form of entertainment that centers on two stallions competing for the attention of a mare — draws crowds, and costumed dancers perform traditional choreographies. The festival also includes a customary beauty pageant in which a local woman is crowned Miss Kadayawan, a great honor among the local population. As festival-goers indulge in fun-filled activities of Kadayawan, the streets of Davao hum with the pulse of a proud country, with flags and costumes swaying to the beat of Filipino harmonies.
Preserving, honoring, and celebrating the world’s Indigenous cultures is an important step in paving the path towards a stronger global community. By celebrating the original threads that make up this multicultural quilt we call the world, we work towards weaving our past, present, and future together with unity and respect for all.
Header image by Nathaniel Tetteh