Indigenous – native – aboriginal: Confusion and translation problems
Winfried Dallmann and Helle Goldman

There is a common confusion about these terms in the literature, the mass media and in everyday communication. People with a scientific or political insight in such issues may understand each other, but the lack of a common awareness of the political implementations of these terms makes it still difficult to communicate them to the public. Problems arise especially with translations to or from other languages, which may have other words with partly overlapping meanings. Different political traditions in different countries also take their part in this. Translators must also be aware of the lack of public knowledge about such issues, and – in areas of ethnic confrontations – even of the emotional resistance against understanding.

An average native English speaker would possibly not care if he is called “native” or “indigenous” to his country, unless he is aware of the involved political issues. While “native” may have negative connotations due to its frequent application by whites to non-whites, “indigenous” may be the more neutral term.

Though sometimes used as a synonym for “native” and “indigenous”, “aboriginal” has a special association with being “original” and is used for those who inhabited a land before the arrival of colonists. These associations are also underlined by the fact that the original inhabitants of Australia in common English are simply called “Aborigines”. A white American or ethnic Russian will not call himself “aboriginal” in his country.

Legal implementations

A legal, international standard for the use of the term “indigenous” is provided by the ILO Convention No. 169 (1989) also cited as the “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Convention” (the term “tribal” was added, because some nomadic tribes cannot be denoted as “indigenous” in the entire area they traditionally have roamed). The Convention aims at giving the peoples in question the possibility to maintain and develop their distinctive cultural and institutional features within a different mainstream society. “Indigenous and tribal peoples” are defined as
(1) tribal peoples in independent countries, whose social and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs and traditions or by special laws or regulations;
(2) peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their social, economic, cultural and political institutions.
With this in mind, we should speak of “indigenous peoples” when referring to peoples that satisfy this definition, while “native” can be used more freely and in relation to the context. For instance, if “native” refers to the individual, a native American citizen is anyone born in America, but not necessarily an American Indian. But “Native American cultures” are nevertheless understood as American Indian or Inuit cultures. An aboriginal person in North America is in any case an indigenous person, meaning he is an American Indian or an Innu (Eskimo).

Also in Norway, as another example, things are relatively easy: Ethnic Norwegians are natives in their own country (Norw. “urbefolkning”, “stedegen befolkning”), but – as they also form the mainstream society – not indigenous (Norw. “urfolk”) in its political sense. Indigenous peoples in Norway are the Saami, and possibly the Kvens (depending on if they are regarded as a subgroup of Finns or as a distinct people). The problem is that the average Norwegian may not know the difference even between these two Norwegian expressions and their legal implications. This is a matter of lacking education about the special political status of indigenous peoples, which in turn is a consequence of the assimilation policies of the past.

The situation in Russia

Now let us look at Russia. The Russian word for “native peoples” is “korennye narody”; it is also used in the sense of “indigenous”, for instance in the Russian translation of the ILO Convention, but – as in Western countries – not necessarily understood in this sense by the public. The word “aborigeny” is a literal translation of “aborigines” and commonly understood the same way. But, concerning peoples in Russia, things are more difficult – mainly because of the changing policies through history (Russian Empire, Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia). While in America people belong either to immigrant or indigenous ethnic groups, the Soviet administrative system created an intermediate level: native peoples who in their own administrative units were originally thought to form mainstream society – although under the umbrella of the multi-national Soviet system. We speak here of, for instance, the Yakuts in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), the Bashkirians in the Bashkirian Republic, or the Tuvinians in the Republic of Tyva. These are so-called “titulovannye nazii” (“titular nations”) of the individual republics. Russian culture has diluted many of the cultural and institutional features of these peoples to a varying degree. According to the ILO Convention, some of them would today fit into the ILO definition of “indigenous peoples”. But they are large populations, some of them over 1 million, and this may be one of the reasons why Russia never has ratified the Convention.

Areas with relatively large population ratios of aboriginal people in sparsely populated regions were given the status of “national okrugs” (now “autonomous okrugs”). These have also “titular nations”, for instance the Chukchi in the Chukotkan AO, the Evenks in the Evenkian AO, etc. These peoples do not form a majority population in any of the “okrugs”, and they were considered as “natsionalnye menshinstva” (“national or ethnic minorities”) – together with small-numbered peoples without titular administrative units. (Here we do not enter into temporary Stalinistic policies, which tried to eliminate the concept of “natsionalnosti” [“nationalities”] as a whole, to wipe out all ethnic differences.)

In order to protect especially endangered “national/ethnic minorities”, which were clearly distinct from the larger ethnic populations surrounding them, the term “korennye malochislennye narody Severa, Sibiri i Dalnego Vostoka Rossiyskogo Federatsii” (“native small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation”; in Russian often abbreviated to AKMNSSDV, or simply KMNS) was formed in the early years of the Soviet Union. Twenty-six peoples were so classified. Extending this category to embrace 40 peoples in 2000 was partly the result of attempts to bolster the protection of smaller endangered subgroups of already included peoples, and partly a consequence of a raised ethnic awareness in southern Siberian areas with more complicated ethnic population patterns. A constraining factor is the strict limit of a population size of 50,000 for the potential recognition within this category. The determination of the size of a people is in Russia based on self-designation in public censuses.

There has until now not been a need to determine who is an indigenous person in Russia, because there are no special benefits given to indigenous people on an individual basis. Laws and regulations to protect indigenous interests refer to recognised indigenous villages (“obschiny”), comparable to Native villages in Alaska or Canada. Thus, people of mixed ethnic origin do not calculate the proportion of their indigenous ancestry like they need to do in the USA in order to be eligible to support through certain federal programmes.

Translations from Russian

But how should we translate the Russian terminology to English without clashing with either the ethnic identity of peoples or Russian policies? Russian terms are either very long and heavy in English texts, or easy to misunderstand when translated literally because they often contain the segment “national, nation” for ethnic groups which are not nations in the common English sense of the word (see ANSIPRA Bulletin No. 7 [June 2002], p.3).

It has become usual to translate the lengthy term of KMNS simply with “indigenous peoples” or synonymously “aboriginal peoples”, at least in those contexts where it is clear that one speaks about Russia with its 50,000 limit. In other contexts, an explanation is needed. If one speaks about “indigenous peoples of Russia” in international fora, a distinction between the Russian and the ILO definitions of the term is needed; here the adjective “small-numbered” may be appropriate if one wants to point out that there are more indigenous peoples in Russia when applying the ILO definition.

The expression “native peoples of Russia” would not make much sense because more or less all non-foreigners living in Russia belong to peoples which are native somewhere in the Russian Federation. To apply expressions like “Native American cultures” to Russia (“Native Russian cultures”) does not make sense either, because this would include the ethnic Russian culture, which – in contrast to the situation in America – is a native one in a part of the country. It seems here to be more appropriate to speak of “non-Russian cultures” when excluding the culture of the mainstream society, and of “small indigenous cultures” when referring to the small ethnic groups below the 50,000 limit. When referring to regions within the Russian Federation, the adjective “native” makes sense again (“native cultures of Yakutia”, etc.).

In the English language edition of this Bulletin, when addressing the Russian Federation, “indigenous” refers to the officially recognised peoples with populations below 50,000, unless the context specifies something else.