There are a huge variety of terms used to describe the peoples most commonly called “tribal people” or “Indigenous people.” Many of them are problematic; none are entirely satisfactory:
Although the word “people” can be used as the plural of “person,” it also means a distinct identifiable society that shares a language, history or culture. We often use it to refer to a nation – the Scottish are a people, for example – but the two are not synonymous, and there are often many different peoples existing within one country.
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 over their lands and lives. For the most part, the term “Indigenous peoples” is used today to describe a group which has had ultimate control of their lands and lives 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 of the Andes, for example, are 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.
Survival estimates that there are roughly 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's 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 avoid contact with outsiders. There are more than 100 uncontacted tribes around the world. More questions and answers about uncontacted tribes.
Some place-specific terms:
Both of these terms are synonymous with Indigenous.
“Aboriginal” is most commonly used to refer to the Indigenous peoples of Australia, usually as an adjective (as in “Aboriginal people”). The term “Aborigine” is now considered pejorative, as is "Aboriginal" when used as a noun.
“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 Indigenous and tribal people in the world is found in India, where they constitute nearly 9% of the population. “Adivasi,” which means "original inhabitants," is a term used for many of India’s hundreds of tribal peoples. However, the term is not used by all Indigenous peoples in India, and in the North East it is used to refer to tribes from other parts of the country who migrated there to work on tea plantations.
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.
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 peoples 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 asked members of the Bushman tribes we work with in Botswana what they prefer, and the majority said that, if speaking English, they prefer “Bushman” to Basarwa or San – it's therefore the term we use.
A term formerly used to describe the Inuit. It's now viewed as derogatory by some, though it is still used by some Inuit organizations and communities, especially in Alaska.
A phrase used in Canada to describe that country’s Indigenous peoples.
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. It is still sometimes used by the people themselves, but its use by non-Indigenous people is now widely considered pejorative, and Survival does not use it.
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.
An archaic term still used in India's Andaman Islands and parts of S.E.Asia, particularly by anthropologists, to refer to the Indigenous peoples of the Andaman Islands, and some parts of Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, who are thought to be descendants of some of the earliest people to leave Africa.
An umbrella term previously used to refer to the hunter-gatherer peoples of the Congo Basin and elsewhere in Central Africa, who are generally considered to be Indigenous to the region. The word is now considered pejorative, and Survival does not use it.
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.
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, but it is the most commonly used term in South Africa and Namibia.
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.
In contrast to the myth of the “Noble Savage” (see below), the myth of the “Brutal Savage” is based on the false assumption that tribal peoples are dangerous and live in a chronic state of violence. These assumptions are criticized by many leading anthropologists and contradicted by many with first-hand experience of living with tribal peoples. More information on the “Brutal Savage” myth.
This term comes from the Latin for “city” but is now defined as “a relatively high level of cultural and technical development.” Inevitably, that implies that urban, now industrialized, societies are more “advanced” than more self-sufficient, rural ones. This denigrates the latter and underpins myths about progress. Survival does not believe peoples and their ways of life can justifiably be ranked on a hierarchical scale, and so avoids using the term.
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 tribal and Indigenous peoples 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” or “The Indian government attempted to modernize the Dongria Kondh” are therefore wrong: such peoples are already 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 industrialized with one that is not part of the modern world or 21st century.
The myth of the “Noble Savage” is a stereotype often applied to tribal and Indigenous people. It is an idealized view of tribal peoples as uncorrupted by “civilization” that relies on the false assumption that they resemble our human ancestors, in their original, “primitive” state.
It's unacceptable to describe any people as “primitive,” a racist term which has been used to refer to Indigenous and tribal peoples since the colonial era. Describing tribal peoples as “primitive” suggests they are “backward” and this has real and dangerous implications for their welfare. Governments regularly exploit the false notion that Indigenous 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 tribal peoples 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.