Worldwide, there are over 476 million Indigenous peoples in more than 90 countries, representing 5,000 different cultures who speak a majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 language. These diverse and dynamic societies maintain the traditions of the original culture of their region.
“International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” is commemorated on August 9th every year to raise awareness of the needs of these people. Despite practicing unique and varied cultures, many of their problems are similar and their traditional lifestyle has been a source of resilience in this journey of seeking recognition for their way of life and their identities.
Indigenous peoples consider nature sacred and know how to take care of it. Their deep respect for nature sustains ways of life that enhance knowledge of nature conservation and use of natural resources. Indigenous perspectives can aid conservation efforts and increase biodiversity sustainment through traditional practices. These practices are also essential to ensure that species survive and thrive. It is key to understand and recognise Indigenous relationships to the environment by learning and working together in preservation efforts. Indigenous communities are ideal custodians of ecosystems and are vital for a better world.
Throughout history, Indigenous peoples have been subjected to violations of their rights and as the United Nations and governments worldwide work towards restoring the rights of Indigenous peoples, we can help by appreciating and recognising their culture and wisdom. Each of the 5,000 diverse Indigenous cultures worldwide have their own unique history and traditions. In British Columbia alone there are over 200 First Nation communities, each one having its own uniquely diverse culture and language. Canada is home to about 1.7 million Indigenous peoples. Similarly, in another part of the world, in India there are over 104 million Indigenous peoples. While appreciating the fabric of two diverse cultures in two different continents, there is an impression of a weave running through one end of the world to the other. Despite being culturally distinct societies and communities, a common spirit of shared values becomes evident frequently.
In North America, Coast Salish peoples are a grouping of Indigenous peoples with several different cultures and languages and their dynamic and diverse culture includes a number of First Nations who are inextricably bound to land and natural resources. This connection also constitutes the basis of the physical and spiritual well-being of people who have mostly lived in the territories along the Northwest Pacific Coast comprising of parts of Washington and Oregon states in the United States and the province of British Columbia in Canada. In British Columbia, this includes the ecologically diverse Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca, also known as the Salish sea. The Strait of Georgia itself is one of the world’s most biologically productive marine ecosystems having a large variety of marine habitats that support about 3,000 species of marine life, making the Coast Salish fisheries well known across the globe.
Historically, Coast Salish peoples have lived in permanent villages during the winter and in temporary camps in the summer while gathering food. They are well known for their beautiful and unique art—their creations centered on story-telling and spirituality. They use Totem poles as a traditional way of telling their stories by commemorating family history, ancestry, or events, and these are mostly carved out of red cedar and painted in vibrant colours. Totem poles come alive when the stories related to their crests are known and the crests tell the story of the family to whom they belong. These stories serve to document important events and family histories. Wealthy families may have more than one crest to mark the family’s lineage. Traditionally, Coast Salish peoples have also carved house posts to feature animals and spiritual beings—the carved planks used both on the interior and exterior of their ceremonial houses. The artistic life of the Coast Salish peoples brings to life sculptures, paintings, robes, blankets, and woven baskets.
Salish culture is renowned for the art of weaving and the use of the spindle whorl. The womenfolk are responsible for making blankets and girls train with their grandmothers at a very young age to carry on the legacy. They are renowned skilled weavers of the Pacific Northwest, famous for their beautiful twill blankets. Salish blankets were used as currency to purchase goods and were given to other villages as a sign of prosperity of the community or individual presenting it. These were also presented to honour members of the community. These are still used as a mark of status and protection in ceremonies. Salish blankets are considered protective garments of powerful spiritual significance, offering focus and strength during life changing events.
The Coast Salish spindle whorls are known for their exceptional carved geometric, human, or animal designs. The loom is made of two vertical posts supported by two horizontal bars. The blankets are woven on those bars. The vertical posts are used for making adjustments and variations. Coast Salish peoples have used weaving materials found locally, such as cedar bark, willow bark, nettle fibre, milkweed fibre, mountain goat’s wool, and woolly dog’s hair. Shredded cedar bark twisted with wool of mountain goats has been used to form the warp. Their legacy includes twined mountain goat wool robes, twill-plaited blankets in geometric designs made of goat wool, cattail fluff, as well as dog wool sheared from small woolly dogs. Salish wool was mostly created by mixing goat and dog wool. The white wool of the mountain goat is the most revered fibre for Coast Salish peoples. The mountain goat is considered the purest of all animals since it lives in remote areas with a proximity to the sky. However, these days, domestic sheep wool is mostly used by Coast Salish weavers.
Weaving cattail mats and baskets were also an important part of daily life. Women sewed cattail leaves together to make large mats used for shelters, dividers, insulation, kneeling pads, and sleeping mats. Similarly, baskets were used in almost every area of daily life. Coiled, twined, or plaited baskets were used for regular household chores. Baskets were used for gathering, storing, and preparing food, storing household goods, transporting objects, and protecting infants. Coiled baskets made of cedar roots were tight enough to boil soups. Twined baskets made of materials that include cattail leaves, spruce roots and cedar bark were more pliable and softer than coiled baskets. Utility baskets were mostly made of split cedar bark and grass by both plaiting and twining techniques. Some baskets were decorated with motifs and geometric patterns made from materials such as dyed cedar bark, bear grass, or horsetail rhizomes. Painted designs also decorated some baskets on the outside. Colours and dyes were created from plants and natural mineral sources.
On the other side of the world, in Asia, the Indigenous peoples of the mountain frontier between India and Burma are called Nagas. They belong to about 66 different tribes that have a population of approximately 3.5 million. Nagas constitute various ethnic groups that are native to northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar. In India, Naga tribes reside in the northeastern states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. Traditionally, Nagas established their settlements on hilltops and mountains to defend themselves from neighbouring tribes. The Naga villages were designed to be self-sufficient and secure and they have a great understanding of the wildlife that surrounds them. Their legends depict humans and animals exchanging roles and providing for one another and this interrelationship with the animal world is reflected in the Naga artwork.
Majority of the Naga tribes call Nagaland home where about 2 million Nagas belonging to sixteen major tribes live. The Nagas believe in the oneness and harmony with their environment.
Nagaland is primarily a mountainous state with the Naga Hills emerging from the Brahmaputra valley in Assam. The tributaries of one of the world’s largest rivers, the Brahmaputra, criss-crosses the terrain. This land is rich in rain forests with unique flora and fauna. The evergreen tropical and sub-tropical forests have a rich foliage of bamboo, palm, rattan, timber, and mahogany forests with more than 490 species of birds and 396 species of orchids out of which some have importance for horticultural and medicinal purposes. Nagaland also has an abundance of natural stone and mineral reserves such as marble, limestone, chromium, coal, cobalt, iron, and nickel. This terrain is a part of a complex mountain system that has been declared a National Geological Monument of India.
Nagaland is also known for its terraced paddy fields. Naga tribes still carve the hillsides by hand, using their traditional methods. The Indigenous system of paddy cultivation has been used to bring back to life deserted barren fields. A network of water channels irrigates the paddy terraces, with bamboo pipes being used at times to regulate the water flow. This terraced paddy cultivation, hand carved on hillsides, is a great visual treat. Jute and cotton are also commonly cultivated to complement the rich Naga tradition of art and craft. Weaving is a traditional art of the Nagas that has been handed down through generations. The art of weaving and wearing the traditional dress is linked to several diverse traditions and beliefs. The colour combination, pattern and design symbolise a specific tribe and status in society. Each Naga tribe has its unique textile heritage with distinct motifs and designs.
The Nagas are best known for their shawls. The traditional use of yarn and natural dyes makes the Naga textiles unique. The women folk mostly are engaged in the spinning of textiles. Little girls can be seen experimenting with weaving while playing with toy looms. In these remote misty mountains, Naga women can still be seen on the hillsides using their traditional backstrap looms. The Naga loom is a simple backstrap loom, also called the lion loom that is adjustable to the body of the weaver. The lion loom is a simple, low-cost, portable loom that uses two parallel bamboos to stretch the warp yarn. One end is fixed to a post or wall and the other end is held steady by a strap around the waist of the weaver. Weaving techniques have been perfected over the centuries to allow a single weaver to weave wider fabrics in less time. This led to the creation of the fly shuttle loom to weave wider fabrics in larger quantities. Traditional shawl weaving is still done on the lion looms while fabrics are woven on the fly shuttle loom. Natural dyes extracted from plants, barks, and roots are used for textile dyeing.
Another distinctive Naga craft is the bamboo craft. Bamboo is extensively used in daily life. Furniture, baskets, mats, cups, utensils, or musical instruments like mouth organ, flute, and trumpet are all made of bamboo. Nagas also take great pride in their tradition of basket weaving. Each Naga tribe has a distinct style of basketry. Traditionally every Naga man was a bamboo craftsman. This was a skill that a young boy would pick up from his elders. Backpacks made of cane were used for hunting. Baskets made of cane and bamboo were used to fetch water and collect harvest. Baskets continue to be used for storage and for carrying essential items, small children, or livestock. Even today, mostly men weave baskets and their first gift to their beloved is an intricately woven basket as a symbol of their commitment.
Despite the ethnic and cultural differences between Indigenous peoples all over the world, there are some striking similarities. These similarities stem from their deep relationship to the environment, land, and natural resources. Each aspect of their lives is inseparable from the natural world. Their stories and ceremonies are a constant reminder to them of their sacred duty to protect the environment. Many of their beliefs and superstitions can be linked to deep truths and profound philosophies. There is an interconnectedness that runs through the spirit of learning from the past and utilising Indigenous methods to protect historical sites, wildlife, and the environment.
Each Indigenous culture is unique and distinct from the dominant societies in which they live today. When we do not make the effort to learn about indigenous cultures, we fail to understand the value of their practices and way of life. Their remarkable culture and way of life must be recognised, understood, and protected. The United Nations has been working to strengthen international cooperation for solving the problems faced by Indigenous peoples worldwide. A new decade for the Indigenous community begins next year with the celebration of the “Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022 – 2032”. The Indigenous peoples play an important role in sustaining the diversity of the world’s biological and cultural landscape. Traditional values and knowledge systems must be maintained and passed on to future generations. The rich cultural history and the unique system of Indigenous beliefs that have been passed from the remote past are vital for the future well-being of the world.
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