There are a huge variety of terms used to describe the peoples most commonly called ‘tribal people’ or ‘indigenous people’. All of them are problematic; none are entirely satisfactory:
The key to understanding ‘indigenous’ and ‘tribal’ is to know what a ‘people’ is. Although the word ‘people’ can be used as the plural of ‘person’, it also means a distinct identifiable society. When used in this sense it is a singular, not a plural word. We often use it to refer to a nation – the Scottish are a people, as are the Moroccans. However, there are usually many different peoples existing within one country. Consider, for example, the English, Scottish, Welsh and Manx, who all exist as distinct peoples within Great Britain.
The world’s population is divided into countless peoples, each with their own particular characteristics – or ‘markers’ – which signal belonging. One of the most obvious markers is a shared common language and identity.
The term ‘indigenous’ comes from a Latin root which also gives the words ‘gender’, ‘genitals’, generation’ and ‘Genesis’. In other words, it is connected with birth, reproduction, and descent. It means the same as ‘native’, but in many places that word is not used now because it carries too many negative colonial associations.
Indigenous peoples are the descendants of those who were there before others who now constitute the mainstream and dominant society. They are defined partly by descent, partly by the particular features that indicate their distinctiveness from those who arrived later, such as their language and ways of life, and partly by their own view of themselves.
No categorizations of indigenous peoples are absolute, except perhaps when it comes to the issue of control. For the most part, the term ‘indigenous peoples’ is used today to describe a group which has had ultimate control of their lands taken by later arrivals; they are subject to the domination of others. Used in this sense, descent is less important than political perception.
Note that not all indigenous peoples are also tribal: the Quechua and Aymara Indians of the Andes, for example, form what could best be described as an indigenous peasantry, being the majority rural, agrarian population in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and often integrated into the national economy.
A tribe is a distinct people, dependent on their land for their livelihood, largely self-sufficient, and not integrated into the national society. It is perhaps the term most readily understood and used by the general public.
There are an estimated one hundred and fifty million tribal individuals worldwide, constituting around forty percent of indigenous individuals. However, although nearly all tribal peoples are also indigenous, there are some who are not indigenous to the areas where they live now.
It is important to make the distinction between tribal and indigenous because tribal peoples have a special status acknowledged in international law as well as problems in addition to those faced by the wider category of indigenous peoples.
Peoples who have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society. There are about 100 uncontacted tribes in the world. More questions and answers about uncontacted tribes.
Some place-specific terms:
Aboriginal, Autochthonous, Native
All three of these terms are synonymous with indigenous.
‘Aboriginal’ is most commonly used to refer to the indigenous peoples of Australia, where it is sometimes preferred (by some Aboriginal people) to the term ‘Aborigine’. Both are in common usage.
‘Autochthonous’ is rarely used outside India, where it is mainly applied to the peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
‘Native’ is obsolete in many places due to its colonial connotations. It is, however, frequently used to refer to indigenous peoples in Canada and the USA, including by those peoples themselves.
The biggest concentration of tribal peoples in the world is found in India, where they constitute nearly 9% of the population. ‘Adivasi’ is a term used for many of India’s hundreds of tribal peoples.
Any member of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This term has largely fallen out of use, though it is still the word most often used in Guyana to describe that country’s indigenous people.
This means ‘Bushmen’ in the Setswana language of Botswana. (The term ‘San’ is not used in Botswana.) ‘Basarwa’ is pejorative.
A collective term referring to the black-skinned tribes of Asia, who are sometimes referred to by anthropologists as ‘negritos’.
This is a collective term to describe the hundreds, probably thousands, of tribes which were the only inhabitants of southern Africa until the arrival of more numerous peoples from further north. There are many different groups of Bushmen, each with a distinct language, and therefore a different name for themselves. As a result, there has been no agreement on a generic term for these peoples. There is in fact no accepted term referring to all Bushman tribes which is not pejorative.
The term comes from the Dutch/Afrikaans ‘Bosjemans’ or ‘Bossiesmans’, meaning ‘bandit’ or ‘outlaw’, which has been used since the 1680s. Only much later was its meaning restricted to the people we call Bushmen today.
Survival uses the term Bushman for two reasons. Firstly, when Survival has asked Bushmen what they think themselves, they generally reply that, if speaking English, they prefer ‘Bushman’ to Basarwa or San. Secondly, it is the most readily understood by readers of English, an essential consideration in spreading information about their fight for survival.
A term formerly used to describe the Inuit. At the root of the original rejection of ‘Eskimo’ was the idea that the name was derogatory.
A phrase used in Canada to describe that country’s indigenous peoples.
See ‘Roma, Romani’.
Applies in this context to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The term is a result of the mistaken belief that Columbus had sailed all the way around the world to East Asia, rather than arriving in the Americas. Although some believe it to be pejorative, in fact it is widely used by indigenous people themselves in parts of the Americas, especially the United States and Brazil.
Inuit is the most usual term nowadays for the peoples formerly called ‘Eskimo’. Inuit is employed as their own name for themselves throughout most of the Arctic, though is not used as much in Alaska and Siberia, partly because a more technical definition of Inuit excludes some other indigenous Alaskans.
See ‘black Asians’
Umbrella term commonly referring to the various hunter-gatherer peoples of the Congo Basin and Central Africa with below average height. They are generally considered to be the indigenous peoples of the area. Although the term is considered pejorative by some, as with the Bushmen, there is no single term to describe all the many different Pygmy peoples and some communities choose to use it to refer to themselves. ‘Pygmy’ has also been used to describe several Black Asian tribes, although in this context it can be pejorative.
The Romani trace their origin, at least in part, to people who left India for the Middle East a few centuries before their arrival in Western Europe around the 1400s. They are not indigenous to Europe, and cannot be called ‘tribal’, although they are often invoked in debates about indigenous affairs as some of the challenges they face are also faced by indigenous and tribal peoples.
Almost never used by the people themselves, it now has racist overtones and is best avoided.
A word used particularly by anthropologists since the 1970s to avoid the implied contempt and sexism of ‘Bushman’. Unfortunately, this is also thought to be pejorative.
Hunter-gathering tribes find food by hunting wild game, including fish, and collecting plants that have largely grown ‘naturally’, without being cultivated. However, no lifestyle definition is absolute: hunter-gatherers may encourage useful plants to grow near where they live, and some hunter-gathering tribes also keep some livestock.
Nomadic / semi-nomadic
These terms aim to define the amount of time a tribe spends in one place before moving: semi-nomadic peoples move less often than nomadic ones. Nomadic peoples’ movements may appear random to outsiders, but they do not wander around aimlessly. Old campsites are revisited, and often there is a seasonal cycle of movement which takes advantage of resources available at different times of the year. The tribes know exactly where they are in relation to natural landmarks.
Pastoralists, also known as ‘herders’, usually live largely from the milk-products and meat provided by their animals. Pastoralists are often described as ‘nomadic’ or ‘semi-nomadic’.
See ‘swidden agriculture’.
Swidden agriculture, also known as shifting cultivation, refers to a technique of rotational farming in which land is cleared for cultivation (normally by fire) and then left to regenerate after a few years. Governments worldwide have long sought to eradicate swidden agriculture, which is often pejoratively called ‘slash-and-burn’, due to a mistaken belief that it is a driver of deforestation.
Ancient / archaic
These terms are often applied to tribal peoples, sometimes even by their supporters. In fact, they mean ‘of the distant past’ and so wrongly suggest that tribal peoples have remained the same. In reality, all societies evolve and change, though obviously not always in the same way. Of course, tribal peoples live at the same time as everyone else, and are not ‘backward’. Claiming that they are raises racist and derogatory stereotypes which have long been used to justify their destruction.
Both the terms ‘culture’ and ‘traditional’ are loaded with prejudice – they are often assumed to mean something that is static and unchanging, and so point towards the past. Although culture is often characterized as something backward-looking and superficial, in fact it is simply the behaviour thrown up by the characteristics that make one people different from another. Just as every people constantly changes, so too do culture and traditions. Sometimes this change is visible and fast, sometimes and in some places the differences are more hidden or slow.
‘Modern’ or ‘modernity’ literally means ‘relating to the present, as opposed to the past’. However, ‘modernity’ is frequently conflated with industrialization. As twenty-first century tribes exist today, in the here and now, they are just as modern as industrialized societies. Statements such as ‘The Ayoreo tribe came face to face with the modern world’ are therefore wrong: they are themselves a part of the modern world! As the BBC’s guidelines on filming tribal peoples state: Care is needed to avoid confusing a people that are not industrialised with one that is not part of the modern world or 21st century.
It is no longer acceptable to describe any people as ‘primitive’, a racist term which has been used to refer to tribal peoples since the colonial era. Describing tribes as ‘primitive’ suggests they are ‘backward’ and this has real and dangerous implications for their welfare. Governments regularly exploit the false notion that tribal peoples are ‘primitive’ in order to remove them from their land and open it up to outsiders, thereby freeing up access to its natural resources.
The Stone Age is a term used by historians to describe a prehistoric period prior to the Bronze Age. As such, to describe any contemporary people as ‘Stone Age’ implies that they are living representatives of an earlier stage of development. This is wrong, as all societies adapt and change. It is also dangerous (see ‘Primitive’).
Even if the term were restricted to meaning ‘using stone tools’ it would be redundant. No known tribes anywhere in the world today rely exclusively on stone tools: all have access to metalware, for example through inter-tribal trading.
There are no Stone Age tribes living in the 21st century.