Any historical account of the world would be incomplete without mentioning the people who exist beyond what we consider “modern societies.” International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples commemorates the cultures and societies of those who maintain a way of life and a relationship to their environment — one that they have practiced for generations, before any contact with colonists, settlers, or modernity. In honor of this day, we’re answering the question “who are the world’s indigenous peoples?” to bring attention to their ways of life and their quest to continue their cultural legacy.

The reduction, dilution, and, in many cases, complete destruction of indigenous land, practices, and peoples by dominant societies has occurred throughout history. As their lives are, by definition, led away from said dominant societies, indigenous peoples are often left without sufficient political or legal representation to protect the way of life they have practiced for generations. Because of the ancient lineages of the world’s indigenous peoples, their cultural beliefs and practices are often seen as “backward” or “primitive” when compared to urban societies. However, this perception belies the knowledge that indigenous cultures have developed over thousands of years about the natural world around them. Historically, indigenous populations have been subjected to a host of degrading perceptions that have justified their enslavement, displacement, and, in the worst cases, genocide. Examples from recent memory of indigenous peoples being denied their human rights include the Sioux tribe’s struggle to divert the Dakota Access Pipeline project away from their ancestral burial grounds, and the Amazonian jungle tribes being “hunted down” to open the land they lived on for agriculture.

It is important that we recognize the rights of indigenous peoples, not only due to their mistreatment throughout history and in the present, but because these rights benefit the planet. Indigenous peoples are present on every continent (save for Antarctica) and make up about 5 percent of the global population (around 370 million people). While this is only a small portion of the overall population, indigenous peoples are the safeguards of almost 80 percent of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. They are the stewards of some of the planets most remote and untouched regions, and their ways of life and spiritual beliefs are often inextricably linked to the natural worlds they inhabit. What this means is that issues facing indigenous populations are often intertwined with those concerning the environment. However, the spread of the mass production of goods and services, urbanization, and the harvesting of resources to fuel these processes has encroached greatly on native peoples’ ways of life. As a result, indigenous populations are often the most vulnerable to the consequences of the prosperity experienced by those living in dominant societies, such as the effects of global climate change.

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International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples commemorates the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, which sought to protect the lands, customs, beliefs, and rights of some of the world’s most underrepresented minorities. To do so, the U.N.’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues first set out to outline who indigenous peoples are. The forum’s definition states that a group of individuals is regarded as indigenous if they self-identify as indigenous (and were accepted to be as such by their community) and are part of a historical lineage stretching back to before colonizers or settlers “discovered” them. Such peoples have distinct languages, cultures, traditions, beliefs, economic practices, and/or political systems that are strongly linked to the environment they live in. Furthermore, the definition hinges on their “resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities” that are not part of dominating cultures and societies.

The purpose of this definition was to make clear to the international community that peoples fitting this mold require special protections. Illegal scientific experimentation, forced migrations and assimilation, and scores of massacres scar the collective memories of native populations. From the First Nations in Canada to the Native tribes of America, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and the Kikuyu peoples of Kenya, being indigenous all too often means bearing the cultural memories of violent discrimination at the onset of modern society.

The U.N.’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples aims to reconcile the past with the promise of a brighter future. By defining indigeneity and creating a framework for their legal protection and political recognition, the declaration helps such peoples to maintain their cultures and live in prosperous societies that are set on their own terms.

We should do our utmost to respect and dignify these societies, peoples, and cultures, as they are some of our most vulnerable and most important. They are living reminders of our species’ vast diversity and ancient history. While the majority of the global population has lifestyles far-removed from those of the world’s indigenous peoples, this doesn’t mean that we can deny them the recognition and protection they deserve.

It can be difficult for individuals to help the causes of native populations in other countries, but advocacy is important. Show your solidarity on August 9th by using the hashtag #weareindigenous. Raising awareness of the issues that indigenous peoples face is a positive step toward helping give underrepresented groups a platform to champion their own rights. To find out more ways you can show support for indigenous peoples, both native to your country and internationally, click here.

Universal protection and recognition of indigenous rights will take a long time to achieve, and the scars of the past may take even longer to heal. But there is strength in unity. So, use this day to reflect on how, together, we might move toward a future where prosperity and security are not bound to just one way of life.

Header image by Lucas Lessa