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What is Indigenous Studies and Why Study it?

Also referred to as First Peoples, indigenous people are members of an ethnic group that are the original or earliest known inhabitants of a nation or area of land. This is in contrast to groups who settled or colonized these places during more recent periods of history. Many indigenous peoples, despite their rich culture and traditions, are sadly noticeably absent from the historical narrative written by those who came after them. Indigenous studies is a field of study which rebalances this historical imbalance. It draws on concepts from anthropology, sociology, and history to promote the experiences of indigenous people, ensuring that all stories are told and all people are recognized for their contributions. Here's a closer look at what the subject is and the benefits of studying it.

Aug 8, 2020
  • Education
What is Indigenous Studies and Why Study it?

What is indigenous studies?

Indigenous studies is an interdisciplinary field that creates a rigorous and respectful understanding of indigenous cultures. Some courses take a broad approach, looking at indigenous cultures all over the globe. Other programs focus on the experience of a particular indigenous group. For example, more and more US universities now offer BAs and MAs in Native American studies, where students can learn about the cultures of the first known people to settle on the North American continent.

Students in the field learn about the language, politics, and structures of indigenous groups, as well as their artistic and intellectual traditions. Specific modules include medicinal plants in traditional medicine, gender roles within indigenous communities, and indigenous civil rights movements.

Indian Pow Wow

Why is it important?

Over 200 distinct languages were spoken on the Australian continent when Europeans arrived during the 17th century. However, following decades of colonial rule, many of these languages became increasingly marginalized, while some disappeared altogether. This had a profound effect on the indigenous population. It led to a fracturing of identity and community, leaving individuals in no man's land between their own personal history and the dominant colonial culture.

This created unequal outcomes in health, education, and economic opportunities, many of which persist to this day. Malcolm King, a health researcher at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, has done extensive work on the relationship between language, culture, and wellbeing within indigenous communities. He says, "Indigenous health is widely understood to be affected by a range of cultural factors, such as loss of language and connection to the land and mental disconnectedness." King’s work goes on to suggest that protecting the link between indigenous peoples and their culture is essential for their future success.

Dianne Biritjalawuy, a Yolngu woman from the northern tip of Australia, is a cross-cultural consultant and educator dedicated to this vital task. "Culture is a shadow," she says. "It's something that follows you everywhere, and part of culture is language, which connects me back to my land. It disconnects a person if you don't have your language. You feel it, that loss."

Better policymaking

Indigenous studies students and academics often work with charities and government departments to identify any possible forms of discrimination, creating new laws that are inclusive and promote equal opportunity for all.

They also create additional educational programs to support groups who are most at risk during a crisis. Researchers from the University of Newcastle in Australia noticed an alarming trend following the outbreak of COVID-19. It showed student engagement was lowest among those from an Aboriginal background. What's more, it suggested over 12,000 indigenous students were unlikely to complete their Higher School Certificate, an important qualification for securing a place at university.

To help keep these students on track, Indigenous Engagement Officer Jake MacDonald designed an interactive learning resource program for Aboriginal people. It includes videos of Aboriginal community members sharing their personal experiences, as well as lesson plans that help Indigenous students stay connected to their studies and long-term goals. The team behind the new initiative is hoping it will remain in place after the current outbreak as an additional learning resource for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Indigenous studies can save lives

Promoting awareness about indigenous people isn't just about their culture and wellbeing. Often, it's about saving their lives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently raised serious concerns over how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting indigenous communities in North, Central, and South America. According to figures from the UN, there have been over 70,000 cases of COVID-19 among Indigenous American communities, including 2,000 deaths. That's a massive overrepresentation on a per capita basis.

So why are these groups more at risk? "Like other vulnerable groups, indigenous peoples face many challenges,” explains WHO chief Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "This includes a lack of political representation, economic marginalization and lack of access to health, education and social services." Now the WHO's Regional Office for the Americas has published a series of recommendations for preventing and responding to COVID-19 among indigenous peoples. Measures include introducing contact tracing to isolated communities, and more boots on the ground to help with testing, treatment, and education programs. Experts are also working on the logistics of administering any potential vaccines in the future.

A pathway to a great career

Indigenous studies is still a relatively niche subject area. However, students have a wide range of career options following graduation. Some people study indigenous studies as a stepping stone to law school. After that, many dedicate their careers to advocating for indigenous people's rights. They often work for specialist organizations or firms, like First People's Law. The firm is a vehicle for protecting and advancing the rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, comprising a team of lawyers and barristers providing legal services and participating in public education initiatives.

Law is also an excellent place to gain experience before moving on to work for large charities, NGOs, governmental departments, or intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations (UN) or the International Criminal Court (ICC). This will give you a chance to shape policy at the very highest levels, making decisions that could vastly improve the lives of indigenous people all over the world.

Indigenous studies graduates can also build a career in the intersecting fields of education, social work, health, community outreach, journalism, arts and heritage, and public policy analysis. Plus, if you are interested in an academic career, then indigenous studies is a fertile area of research that will become more and more important over the coming decades. Increased globalization, automation, and mass migration will all raise a unique set of challenges and opportunities for Indigenous people.

It goes hand in hand with fighting climate change

Indigenous people account for six percent of the global population. However, research shows this small minority provides critical support to environmental sustainability. In fact, they own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world's surface area and directly contribute to protecting 80% of its remaining biodiversity. They are also the guardians of knowledge and expertise on how to adapt to the natural world. This makes them a vital resource in the fight against climate change and other forms of environmental damage.

As they often live in developing areas of the world, Indigenous people are the most exposed to climate change. In Africa's Kalahari Desert, rising temperatures have decimated traditional farming practices which sustained indigenous tribes for millennia. Meanwhile, glacial melting high in the Himalayas is affecting hundreds of millions of rural dwellers who depend on the seasonal flow of water.

Indigenous studies is an important subject. It's about broadening the human story, and ensuring all cultures are recognized equally. It is also an excellent choice for students who want to play their part in creating a safe and more prosperous world for all peoples.

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Indigenous Studies
Ashley Murphy


After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.

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