Who Are Indigenous Peoples

How Our Societies Work

The Indigenous way of life is based on a holistic worldview that sees everything—the land, the people and all living things—as vitally connected. The fundamental purpose of this way of life is sustainability. Indigenous social, political and economic models are designed to keep our families, communities, and natural environment in balance, not just for the present but for generations to come.

Indigenous practices have survived for thousands of years because they work. Our traditions and our beliefs are deeply rooted in principles that guide our social and economic models. These models are not limited to Indigenous communities, but can be applied globally in order to preserve our natural environment while providing enough resources for all people to thrive.

Every society organizes itself according to its values. Not all Indigenous communities adhere completely to these social and economic models, and outside interference has made our way of life increasingly difficult to maintain. However, the most successful Indigenous societies are built on these four central principles:

We are all related, part of an intraconnected whole that includes not only people but the Earth and all living things. Because each part depends on all the others, the whole community must survive in order for any part to thrive. Concern for the greater good and respect for the community are embedded in Indigenous legal, political, social and economic structures.

Equity and justice are essential to the sustainability of the Indigenous model, freeing the community to cooperate rather than forcing individuals to compete for scarce resources. Disputes are resolved by re-establishing harmonic relationships between the parties, not through retribution. Leadership roles are earned through expertise, and individuals are valued because of their contribution to the community rather than their elevation above it through personal wealth and power. Resources like waterways, hunting territory and farm land are collectively owned and cannot be bought or sold, and are cultivated for collective use rather than for individual gain. This guarantees that every member of the community will be provided for, in turn fostering in each individual a sense of responsibility for the whole community.

Cultural practices transmit and constantly reinforce the values that make these structures functional. Traditions that celebrate and reward sharing, for instance, translate into generous acts. Initiation rituals at every stage of life show individuals their responsibility and connection to the whole community, translating into conscientious behavior. Respect for elders is ingrained into the social fabric, extending the sense of community and the need to continue these practices from one generation to the next.

Click to watch Understanding Sufficiency, a short video on how Indigenous communities use cultural practices to reinforce sharing.

Every economy is made up of choices the society makes about how to use and allocate resources. The effectiveness of traditional Indigenous economies is the assurance that every member of the community benefits and has enough. The social and spiritual bonds between people form the foundation for how goods and services are distributed and used. Resources are shared through a sophisticated system of distribution that takes into account the needs of every individual as well as of the whole community.

This map illustrates the effectiveness of traditional Indigenous economics in assuring that every member of the community has enough food. By comparison, when the same community depends on monetary income from a few jobs provided by the dominant-culture economy, very few people benefit and the community becomes impoverished.

When resources and responsibilities are shared, the community maintains a natural balance so that no individual is disproportionately powerful or wealthy. This model reduces conflicts between people while increasing the capacity of the community as a whole. The result is that the community can adapt in unison to changes, and remains intact even in the face of adversity.

Our bond with the land determines how we give and take from nature in synchrony with natural cycles, ensuring that our sources of life remain healthy and abundant. This means only harvesting when and where resources are most plentiful, rotating crops or hunting territory depending on the season. This allows the land to replenish itself, which in turn provides a renewable, indefinite resource to the community. It is also important to adapt consumption of resources based on their abundance. The use of firewood, for instance, should be influenced by changes in the forest ecosystem, rather than by changes in demand.

Over ⅗ of the world’s produce was originally bred and cultivated by Indigenous Peoples. Of the more than 130 clinically useful major prescriptive drugs that are derived from plants, over 70% of them came to the attention of pharmaceutical companies because of their use in traditional forms of medicine. Indigenous Peoples derived these resources by carefully observing which varieties grow best in certain conditions, or by drawing on the natural healing power of plants as part of the ecosystem.

Indigenous communities thrive by listening carefully to the shifting patterns of nature. Natural resources are most useful and abundant when they are cultivated in harmony with the laws of nature, rather than despite them. This requires seeing nature as a larger and much more sophisticated system than that of human technology. It is a model to emulate rather than a force to overcome.

Indigenous science and knowledge are based largely on bioindicators, or natural signs. For instance, the timing of the onset of rains in Bolivia can be predicted by how high a certain species of bird builds its nests. Many animals can sense earthquakes and other natural disasters before humans can, and watching their behavior can give us time to get to safety if such an event occurs. Learning from nature in this way is an integral part of the Indigenous worldview that all things are connected, and that nature, when respected, can be a benevolent part of the whole community.


The evidence of Indigenous sustainability is in our thousands of years of balanced existence. It is in the health and abundance of living things on our lands. Today, Indigenous territories comprise 18-25 percent of the Earth’s land surface, but harbor 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity. This means that of the nearly 2 million species known to live on earth, the vast majority of them thrive under Indigenous stewardship.

This map shows the overwhelming concentration of the world’s remaining biodiversity and critical habitats within Indigenous territories. The diversity of our natural environment is key to the resilience of our societies. We strengthen this resilience by limiting consumption and by cultivating increasingly diverse plant and animal resources. By not relying on a narrow set of resources that will ebb and flow with shifts in climate and other natural factors, we have survived thousands of years of change. We have sustained the land, and so it has sustained us.

In order for our people to live in harmony with each other and with nature, we must live in a way that can be sustained over time. Each generation must protect the sources of life for those that follow it. Our ways of life can be applied on the global scale. They can be put to use by the entire human community, not just by Indigenous Peoples. If we are able to maintain control of our lands and our communities, we can help return the entire world to balance for generations to come.

Click here to learn more about the Global Movement to preserve the Indigenous way of life.


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Keepers of the Earth

First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund is geared toward preserving traditional knowledge and putting it to use in contemporary applications.

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"The primary purpose of an Indigenous economy is to assure that the needs of every member of society are met, now and for the generations to come. Balance and harmony are not romantic notions, but the design fundamentals for sustainable production and equitable distribution.”
-Rebecca Adamson, Founder and President


First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund is geared toward preserving traditional knowledge and putting it to use in contemporary applications. To learn more about Keepers of the Earth, visit our Grants page.

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First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund is geared toward preserving traditional knowledge and putting it to use in contemporary applications. To learn more about Keepers of the Earth, visit our Grants page.

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