4 Indigenous Initiatives That Are Changing the World

There’s a lot of creative and powerful work being led by indigenous groups around the world. However, these efforts rarely receive the attention they deserve. Marginalized and underfunded, many indigenous groups are fighting just to survive and preserve their land, culture, and way of life. Others are working to increase national and global recognition of their culture or ensure equitable access to resources for their communities. Still others wish to be left out of the processes of globalization entirely, to live peacefully – without contact – in their homelands.

Tamazight girls explore their ecosystem through a magnifying glass
Tamazight girls explore their ecosystem through a magnifying glass. Photo Credit: Dar Si Hmad

In honor of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we’re spilling the beans on four indigenous-led initiatives that you’ve probably never heard of, but are nonetheless making the world a better place for all. Without further ado…

Inuit Community-Led Development in the Arctic Circle

The Inuit population of Canada has faced many of the same threats to their culture and livelihoods as First Nations, including severe poverty and limited access to healthcare and housing. Where healthcare and economic opportunities are available, they are largely dictated by colonial cultures.

The Ilisaqsivik Society was born out a resolve to provide locally-led community wellness and healthcare founded on Inuit values in the isolated community of Clyde River. Tucked away in Canada’s northernmost Nunavut province, the association is independently managed by a community board of Clyde River’s roughly 1,000 residents, nearly all of indigenous Inuit heritage. In addition to private health, nutrition, and education counseling, the Ilisaqsivik Family Resource Center provides a space for Inuit cultural events that support the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of community members.

A unique self-sufficient model, the Ilisaqsivik Society sources its budget by offering consulting and training services to the regional government, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, private companies, and other communities. Over 20 years, the association has grown to become Clyde River’s largest employer and the epicenter of a thriving community.

Environmental Education in Tamazight in Rural Morocco

Tamazight girl learning to use a microscope
Tamazight girl learning to use a microscope. Photo Credit: Dar Si Hmad

Access to quality education in rural Morocco is limited, particularly for girls. Where education is available, it is taught in Standard Arabic. But most of Morocco’s rural population speaks Tamazight, the language of Morocco’s indigenous Amazigh inhabitants. This creates a linguistic barrier for students, and suggests that their native language is not an appropriate medium to learn about the kind of things kids learn at school: math, reading, science, and so on.

Driven to change this, local NGO Dar Si Hmad started an environmental education program in a remote region along the edge of the Sahara — taught in the local dialect of Tachilhit. Dubbed the “Water School”, this program teaches young people in the area about the science behind their natural environment, and how to preserve it through hands-on STEM curriculum. Dar Si Hmad also introduced potable water to this region using innovative fog-collection technology. Through the Water School, local indigenous students are encouraged to become the custodians of this scarce natural resource. Now translated in English, Standard Arabic, and Moroccan Arabic, the Water School curriculum is an open source resource for environmental education worldwide.

Chile’s Mapuche Heal with Traditional Medicine

Mapuche medicine woman treating a patient, South Chile
Mapuche medicine woman treating a patient, South Chile.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Meanwhile in Chile, the indigenous Mapuche are collaborating with the Chilean government to ensure indigenous peoples have access to healthcare. Chile’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche account for roughly five percent of the population. The victims of colonization, violent land grabs, and attempts at assimilation, the Mapuche have long distrusted the Chilean government and winka (non-Mapuche Chilean) population.

Starting in the 1990s, however, machis (traditional Mapuche healers) have begun to accept a place in public medical centers, providing care to both Mapuche and non-Mapuche patients. The primary aim of this initiative is to ensure Chile’s indigenous populations, often the poorest and most marginal citizens, have access to healthcare that reflects their cultures and beliefs.

The core of community health for centuries, Mapuche medicine fuses ancestral knowledge, herbal infusions, ritual, trace, and practices similar to reflexology and aromatherapy to bring harmony to patients’ bodies and souls. Today, roughly one-third of the districts in Santiago host an intercultural health center, offering both modern and indigenous medicinal alternatives.

Sustainable Tourism among Tsaatan Reindeer Herders in Mongolia

Tsaatan Shaman
Tsaatan Shaman

Twelve hours down a dirt road and three hours on horseback into the Mongolian wilderness along the Russian border, lies perhaps the world’s most remote tourism initiative. Here, the Tsaatan community of reindeer herders maintain their nomadic way of life. Ethnically descendent from the Dukha and Uighar people, this indigenous community has moved through the region for centuries, depending on domesticated reindeer for everything from food and clothing to tools and company. Today, the Tsaatan are the smallest ethnic minority in Mongolia, and some of the poorest citizens in the country.

Founded in 2005, the Tsaatan Community and Visitors’ Center (TCVC) is a community-based tourism initiative established to provide a sustainable and empowering alternative for international visitors interested in learning about the Tsaatan’s unique way of life. With the advent of mass tourism, many international visitors began to brave the trip to visit this remote community, with their picturesque reindeer and ortz (tipi) camps. Unfortunately, the community often saw little return from these high price tag tours. Owned and operated by the community, the TCVC creates economic opportunities for the Tsaatan and ensures that the gains from tourism are invested in the preservation of the Tsaatan indigenous culture and homeland.

Amazighen students look at a replica of the fog collection system that delivers water to their homes
Amazighen students look at a replica of the fog collection system that delivers water to their homes. Photo Credit: Dar Si Hmad

What can you do to support Indigenous Peoples?

1. Volunteer to support indigenous communities’ efforts.

Planning to volunteer abroad? Share your time and energy with worthy causes like these. Look for programs that are committed to equitable exchange and long-term sustainability. You may only be able to volunteer for a short time, but communities and ecosystems are at stake, so make sure you’re leaving things better than you found them.

2. Amplify indigenous voices.

If a trip to rural Morocco, Mongolia, Canada, or Chile is not on the horizon, you can follow and support these powerful programs from the comfort of your keyboard. Funding and recognition can be a harsh popularity contest in this tech-savvy world, and remote, small-scale initiatives rarely receive the visibility they deserve. If you think that cat meme was cool, imagine how your friends will respond to a story of resilience and indigenous cultural preservation! Sharing stories is a great way to support the cause, and ensure the forces who threaten these communities’ homes and livelihoods are held accountable.

This blog was contributed by Jade Lansing:

Jade is an intercultural exchange facilitator and nonprofit consultant. She has spent time managing a field school in Morocco, doing research for the UN in Beirut, and editing a newspaper in Cairo.