The term ‘Indigenous people’ refers to an ethnic community native to a region that was later settled or occupied by other ethnic groups. Most often, it is applied to First Nations peoples, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, but it can refer to any community that has ancestral lineages in societies that existed before the arrival of a colonial power.
In its singular form, ‘Indigenous people’ can refer to a single Indigenous community:
The Ainu are the Indigenous people of Hokkaido.
Or it can be used to refer to Indigenous individuals (or persons) without specifying a group:
He is one of many Indigenous people serving in the police.
The government fully supports the rights of all Indigenous people.
If you are referring to more than one Indigenous community, though, you should use the plural form ‘Indigenous peoples’ to show that you’re referring to several distinct groups:
They are the smallest of the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
The Indigenous peoples of Peru include the Quechua and Aymara nations.
Using the plural form like this is a way of respecting the diversity of Indigenous communities.
Referring to Specific Indigenous Communities
When referring to a specific Indigenous community, where possible, use the name that the tribe, community or nation uses for itself rather than referring to ‘Indigenous people’ generically. For example:
Ngilgi is a dreamtime spirit of the Indigenous people of Australia. ✘
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Ngilgi is a dreamtime spirit of the Wardandi people of Australia. ✔
This may involve some research, but Indigenous peoples are not monolithic even within a specific country or region, and it is important to reflect this diversity in your writing.
Should You Capitalise the ‘I’ in Indigenous?
Many style guides suggest capitalising the names of racial and ethnic groups (e.g. Black, Native American), which would include capitalising ‘Indigenous’ in ‘Indigenous people(s)’. This is to signify Indigenous peoples’ value as political and historical communities.
However, some style guides only capitalise ‘Indigenous’ when referring to particular groups. Monash University in Australia, for example, requires writers to capitalise ‘Indigenous’ when referring to Indigenous Australians, but not for Indigenous peoples of other continents.
If you are unsure whether or not to capitalise ‘Indigenous’ when referring to Indigenous peoples, then, you should check your organisation’s style guide. And if you don’t have a style guide to follow, we suggest capitalising ‘Indigenous’ as a mark of respect.
You do not, however, need to capitalise ‘indigenous’ when using it generically. For instance:
This butterfly is indigenous to China.
Here, we don’t capitalise ‘indigenous’ because we’re simply using it to mean ‘native to’.
Summary: Indigenous People or Indigenous Peoples?
To summarise, ‘Indigenous people’ and ‘Indigenous peoples’ both refer to the ethnic groups or communities that originally inhabited lands that were later occupied by settling or colonising forces. But there is a slight difference in how they are used:
Use the singular Indigenous people to refer to a specific ethnic community or individual persons from multiple Indigenous groups.
Use the plural Indigenous peoples when referring to multiple distinct groups.
For instance, we might say that the Quechua are an ‘Indigenous people’ from Peru. But since there are multiple Indigenous nations in Peru, we would refer to ‘the Indigenous peoples of Peru’ to discuss the Quechua, Aymara, Urarina, etc., collectively.
In terms of capitalisation, meanwhile, we recommend capitalising the ‘i’ in Indigenous people(s) unless you are working with a style guide that advises otherwise.
We hope these tips have helped you feel more confident about how and when to use these terms. If you need any more help with your writing, though, Proofed’s editors are on hand 24 hours a day. Upload a trial document to find out more!