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Celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

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Today is the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, an annual observation established by the United Nations to celebrate the contributions of indigenous people around the world.

In this post, we’ll celebrate the day by looking at how businesses can support indigenous people, and then going through some examples of successful indigenous entrepreneurs.

But first, let’s get clear on a definition. Who are indigenous peoples?

1. Who Are Indigenous People? 

Indigenous people are the original inhabitants of a place, the people who were there for centuries or even millennia before more recent waves of settlement and/or conquest. 

Since migration has been a constant part of human history, pinning down who the original inhabitants were can be tricky, so the term can be a little more complex.

Here’s a definition of indigenous people from James Anaya, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

“… living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest.”

A UN fact sheet, meanwhile, proposes the following criteria for understanding the term “indigenous”:

  • self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member
  • historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • distinct social, economic or political systems
  • distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • form non-dominant groups of society
  • resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities

There are many different groups of indigenous people all over the world. Here are just a few examples:

  • the Maasai people of East Africa
  • the Inuit people in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska
  • Native Americans in the U.S., including tribal groupings such as the Cherokee, Apache, and Sioux
  • the Yazidis and Assyrians in the Middle East
  • the Ainu people of Japan
  • the Sami people of northern Scandinavia
  • Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders

This is a very partial list—in fact, according to the UN, there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries and representing an astonishing 5,000 different cultures. 

Indigenous people also speak a majority of the world’s 7,000 languages, many of which are in danger of disappearing. That’s why this year’s Indigenous People’s Day is dedicated to indigenous people’s languages. 

Indigenous people look after a quarter of the world’s land and 80% of its biodiversity, but their land claims are often threatened by more recent arrivals. In many places, they've been forced off their ancestral land and have lost their traditional occupations, with the result that, although they're less than 5% of the world's population, they account for 15% of the world's poor. 

As they try to enter the job market, indigenous people are often hampered by discrimination, lack of access and contacts, and lack of quality training and education, while their traditional knowledge is often undervalued. 

The UN passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, but there’s still a long way to go in ensuring these rights are always respected.

Watch this video to learn more:

2. How Businesses Can Support Indigenous People

So, what can you do to help? Here are some ideas on things you can do in your business to support indigenous people in your part of the world.

1. Mark the Day

This first one is easy. The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples comes around once a year, on 9 August. Make a plan for how you’ll mark it each year.

You could, for example:

  • make posters with some important information or statistics about indigenous people and put them up in the workplace
  • run a sale or other event to raise funds for an indigenous charity or community group
  • show your support for indigenous people on your company blog and social media accounts
  • educate yourself and your staff about an important issue facing indigenous people in your area, and take a small action to support them
  • invite a member of the indigenous community to speak to your staff
  • research who originally lived on the land where your office sits
  • make a donation to a worthwhile cause

Those are just a few ideas to start with—there are plenty more things you could do. And here are some ideas if you want to go beyond a single day and show support throughout the year:

2. Work With Indigenous Businesses

There are plenty of successful indigenous entrepreneurs and business owners out there, as we’ll see later on. But indigenous businesses can also face a lot of challenges, such as discrimination, lack of access to capital, lack of infrastructure, etc.

You can make a difference by seeking out indigenous businesses to work with throughout the year. It could be a company supplying raw materials for your products, a sales or marketing partner, a transportation or other service provider, etc. Do business with them, and it’ll help offset some of the other challenges they face and put money straight into the community.

3. Check Your Supply Chain

In some parts of the world or for some types of company, it might not be possible to find an indigenous-owned firm to do business with. But you can at least make sure you’re not supporting a company that’s harming indigenous communities.

Many firms these days already check their supply chains to make sure suppliers meet their standards for ethical business behaviour, environmental responsibility, etc. So why not also add a check for your suppliers’ treatment of indigenous communities? Make sure they’re not violating land rights, polluting sacred sites, extracting resources on exploitative terms, etc.

4. Open Up Job Opportunities

Around the world, indigenous people often face higher unemployment rates than non-indigenous people. In rural Queensland, for example, indigenous Australians are 13 times more likely to be unemployed than non-indigenous Australians.

So, one important thing you can do is to make an effort to seek out indigenous candidates and give them a fair opportunity to be employed. The benefit for your company is that you expand your pool of qualified candidates and hire people who may bring important new perspectives, allowing you to enjoy the benefits of diversity.

To do this, you’ll probably need to make changes in things like where you advertise new vacancies and how you word your ads. More details here:

5. Ask for Advice

Indigenous communities often have very different cultures and outlooks from those around them, along with a wealth of knowledge about the local area. 

So why not tap into that? Set up an advisory committee, or look for someone to sit on your company board. Find the right people and ask the right questions, and you could learn some important lessons to help your business succeed.

6. Support Indigenous Organisations

In most indigenous communities, you’ll find some wonderful grassroots organisations doing important work, often with very limited funding. 

Support from a local business—in the form of regular donations, staff volunteer work, publicity, etc.—can make a huge difference. Providing regular, predictable funding allows them to budget with more confidence, to take on new projects, and to plan for the future.

Envato, for example, donates 1% of all its annual pre-tax profits to a foundation that supports charities in providing education and other opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Envato Foundation
Envato Foundation website

3. Successful Indigenous Entrepreneurs

Despite the challenges we talked about earlier, successful indigenous-owned businesses are on the rise. In Australia, for example, the number of indigenous owner-managers reached 17,900 in 2016, up from 10,400 in 2006.

Here are just a few examples from the many indigenous-owned businesses around the world:

1. Lance O’Sullivan, Navilluso Medical

Lance O’Sullivan is a Māori doctor who was declared New Zealander of the Year 2014 for bringing health programmes to disadvantaged people in rural areas.

Now he runs his own healthcare technology company, Navilluso Medical Limited, whose main product is iMOKO, smart software that allows people in rural communities to conduct health assessments of common child health problems.

2. Khalida Brohi, Sughar

Social entrepreneur Khalida Brohi, a member of the indigenous Brahui people of Pakistan, became an activist for women’s empowerment at an early age. That translated into the Sughar Foundation, a non-profit aimed at providing women with training and skills development, as well as opportunities for launching small businesses. (The name “Sughar” means “skilled and confident woman” in Urdu.)

Her latest venture, The Chai Spot, is a social enterprise in the U.S. that sells chai and handmade homewares from Pakistan, while supporting women and youth in Pakistan at the same time. And she’s also written a memoir.

Khalida Brohi
Khalida Brohi, photo by Joi Ito, CC BY 2.0

3. Henry Red Cloud, Lakota Solar Enterprises

As the direct descendant of the famous Lakota warrior Chief Red Cloud, Henry Red Cloud had a lot to live up to. He’s described on the Lakota website as: 

“a twenty-first century Lakota Warrior, bringing green technology and employment to Native American communities.”

He’s the founder and owner of Lakota Solar Enterprises, which builds solar heating systems at its headquarters on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, as well as providing green job training to Native American communities throughout the United States.

The White House named Henry Red Cloud a Champion of Change for Solar Deployment in 2014, and he became an MIT Solve Fellow in 2018.

4. Martha Kyak, InukChic

From part-time work as a seamstress, Martha Kyak built her own fashion business in Ottawa called InukChic. She draws on her Inuit heritage in her sewing and designs, and has been supported by the Inuit Women in Business Network in making the transition from online business to retail store. She says:

“I have to know the two worlds. I already know my own culture because I live it, I breathe it, but having to adjust to this business world, that’s the challenge. 

5. Jane Tittums, Naanda Australia

With an annual turnover of $3 million and several large multinationals on its client list, Naanda is a very successful company providing services to the mining industry in Pilbara, Western Australia.

Co-owner Jane Tittums has the cultural understanding to work with the local Aboriginal community, providing on-the-job training where necessary to provide what she calls a bridge to employment. The company name comes from her Yamatji cultural language group, Nanda, and the firm’s motto is “Empowering the people of tomorrow.”

How Will You Celebrate Indigenous People’s Day?

In today’s article, you’ve learnt who indigenous people are, a bit about the challenges facing them, and how businesses can support them. You’ve also seen some examples of successful indigenous entrepreneurs.

There’s plenty that you and your business can do to make a positive difference for indigenous communities in your area, and there’s plenty you can learn from them too. So, use this day as an inspiration to get more involved and take action.

What will you do to celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples?

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