Descent, Culture, and Self-Determination: States and the Definition of Indigenous Peoples


  • Ravi de Costa



Canada’s concept of “status” – the definition of who is an Aboriginal person under the Indian Act – has its analogies in the administrative practices of many countries. However, the European colonial expansion produced great variety, with contemporary states now relying on multiple categories of definition; descent from an enrolled historical population is often arbitrarily combined with particular cultural or demographic attributes. Effective activism has, in recent decades, pushed states towards policies of Indigenous self-definition. However, this remains constrained and uneven. While the initial goal here is a critical survey of definitions of Indigenous status in the “settler states” of Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa and the US, the paper examines practices in Latin America, Scandinavia and Russia as well as Asia and Africa. It concludes with a discussion about ongoing challenges for state practices of definition, including the implications of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.