World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Walking together towards tomorrow

01 January 2003


The Indigenous Peoples Programme focus is the plight and status of Indigenous Peoples around the world. The programme attempts to clarify the past and present issues of denial, destruction and denigration of Indigenous spiritualities and ancestral values that were exercised by colonisation and continued by dominant cultures, the most critical of which is the dispossession of the land on which Indigenous Peoples build and develop their lives and their spiritualities. Indigenous Peoples are among the (if not the) most oppressed peoples in the world.

The Indigenous Peoples Programme calls on the WCC to be proactive in its support for Indigenous Peoples and their struggles by:

  • ensuring that the issues and concerns of Indigenous Peoples are continuing to be addressed throughout the programmatic work of the WCC and by doing so;
  • engaging and encouraging its member churches to work in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples;
  • challenging wider society which continues imposing oppressive actions.

The call of Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples continue to call on governments, states, churches and the wider society, to respect their rights, to be in solidarity with their struggles, spiritualities and traditions and to work in partnership with them by reexamining the history of absolutism, verticalism and intolerance.

Indigenous Peoples seek:

  • Self determination and autonomy
  • Recognition of their rights to their lands and resources
  • The right to practice their culture without limitations and/or impositions
  • Religious rights to develop their spiritual life
  • Solidarity in the struggle against colonization, assimilation and integration which facilitate their cultural genocide
  • Support in the processes of decolonization
  • The full recognition of their human rights

History of Indigenous Peoples and the World Council of Churches

The World Council of Churches' involvement with Indigenous Peoples goes back to the seventies, when the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) picked up the issue of the suffering of Indigenous Peoples. There are two events that PCR makes reference to: Barbados I and II. Barbados I, held in 1971 was a meeting of anthropologists only. At Barbados II, held in 1977, Indigenous people were invited to attend! Since then through symposiums, conferences, studies and teams visits, the WCC governing bodies have called on its member churches' to pay attention to the situation of Indigenous Peoples in North, Central and South America, Aotearoa-New Zealand, Australia, Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe.

However, this work with Indigenous Peoples received its first significant impetus from a WCC international consultation 'Land is our Life', held in Darwin, Australia in 1990. The Darwin consultation set new priorities for churches' solidarity with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous participants demanded that the churches take specific actions in sharing resources with Indigenous communities, increasing Indigenous participation in church structures and congregations and challenge those retaining Indigenous lands, particularly sacred sites.

After the Canberra Assembly in 1991, its statement on "Land and Indigenous Peoples: Move Beyond Words" became a significant WCC document quoted in many churches and United Nations fora. It included a commitment to work towards the goal of justice through Indigenous sovereignty, repossession of their lands and a renewed call for a greater Indigenous participation in the life of the member churches and the WCC itself. Since 1995, there have been Indigenous persons working on Indigenous Issues within the PCR/Unit III.

The 47th meeting of the WCC Central Committee in September 1996, upon receiving the Indigenous Peoples Programme report, noted that one of the significant issues emerging as a result of the activities had been the consistent call of Indigenous Peoples for the development of processes of decolonization, to affect change among non-Indigenous and Indigenous Peoples within the churches, and recommended that: "Member churches be encouraged to engage in dialogue with Indigenous Peoples in their midst, exploring critically the history of the churches relations with Indigenous Peoples (...) and taking up the jubilee challenge to restore Indigenous Peoples or offer reparation for their historical lands currently owned by churches."

Indigenous Peoples Programme

The Indigenous Peoples Programme (IPP) has developed work plans and strategies to empower and promote the participation of Indigenous Peoples within the Ecumenical movement as well as in other international fora.

The objectives of the programme are:

  • Affirming the spiritualities of Indigenous Peoples
  • Strengthening the ongoing processes on land issues and self-determination
  • Building bridges among the Indigenous Peoples Organizations as well as with and among churches
  • Providing support and commitment to Indigenous representatives at international levels in particular the United Nations
  • Supporting decolonization and healing processes

Indigenous Peoples' continuing and emerging issues

The participants on the IPP/WCC national, regional and global conferences, workshops, consultations and gatherings have identified the following as the priorities for the WCC IPP programme:

  • Recognition and affirmation of Indigenous Peoples Spiritualities:
    The IPP supports the rights of Indigenous Peoples to express, practise and develop their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies, included the right to protect and have free access to their sacred sites. The IPP brings together indigenous traditional religious elders to talk about and exchange amongst themselves their different spiritual beliefs. Indigenous peoples believe that the land is given by God to the community and that the people are connected to the Creator through the land. This world view has been negated, discriminated against and demonized. They have pleaded with Christian communities to respect their spiritualities and their views of Mother Earth. Meetings of traditional religious leaders from different indigenous traditions would affirm their world view and their wisdom. The IPP shall facilitate and promote the return of sacred sites and objects to indigenous communities.
  • Dialogue between Christian Theologies and Indigenous Peoples Wisdom:
    The IPP encourages dialogue between Christian theologians and Indigenous spiritual leaders/elders. This dialogue is a dialogue between equals. The purpose of these discussions is to learn and identify common understandings from within diverse world views with respect. The IPP shall continue and initiate the dialogue process.
  • Healing and reconciliation through Gospel and Culture:
    The Gospel brought to Indigenous communities were often used to legitimise the oppression of the people on the assumption that the Gospel/Bible culture was the only ‘Good News'. The Gospel's essence was misinterpreted and imposed on Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples ask that their stories be heard and respected. However some Indigenous Peoples, in spite of the painful ordeals, have also experienced the Gospel as a source of inspiration in reclaiming their dignity.
    The IPP shall develop a process to promote healing and reconciliation among indigenous communities and with the Churches.
  • Self Determination:
    Self determination for Indigenous Peoples includes their inalienable rights to define for themselves their political, economic, cultural and spiritual development. The IPP shall promote this fundamental right by encouraging genuine dialogues between Indigenous Peoples and governments, churches and other entities affecting Indigenous Peoples. The IPP should extend support to the empowerment of Indigenous organizations and communities. Furthermore, the IAP will facilitate the effective participation of Indigenous Peoples in local, national and international fora discussing Indigenous issues.
  • Land Rights:
    Land is the unifying element that binds Indigenous Peoples all over the world. Indigenous Peoples view land as the basis of their cultures, spiritualities and forms the basis of their survival. This world view distinguishes Indigenous Peoples from minorities and other racially oppressed peoples. The non-recognition of land rights has also formed the core of indigenous struggles. Part of this is to protect the balance of Creation. The IPP shall conduct dialogues within the Churches on the world view of Indigenous Peoples as regards land in order to facilitate deeper understanding. The IPP shall likewise, promote and support efforts by Indigenous Peoples to maintain, reclaim and nurture their lands.
  • Formation and Identity Building:
    The Youth Internship Programme has provided an opportunity of ecumenical formation for two young adult women: a Maori from Aotearoa and a Sami from Norway. The IPP has been enriched by the young interns, who shared their local faith experiences and presented their challenges, with new visions from a young person perspective. The WCC shall promote the involvement of young indigenous people in the IPP and strengthen indigenous youth activities' local, regional and global levels.
  • The United Nations Processes Involving Indigenous Peoples:
    The WCC has supported the participation of Indigenous peoples in the different United Nations fora on indigenous peoples for the past decade. The WCC has, in fact, hosted the indigenous preparatory caucuses prior to the UN meetings. During the past decade, the UN has set up additional venues for indigenous issues are discussed, such as the Commission on Sustainable Development, the Convention on Biodiversity and other UN specialized agency meetings. This development makes it more urgent that Indigenous Peoples are empowered to be able to effectively participate in these fora. The IPP shall continue and strengthen the initiative of providing support for indigenous representatives to attend these meetings. The IPP shall also provide information to Indigenous Peoples about developments within the UN that has direct impact on them.


Globalization has accelerated the deterioration of Indigenous Peoples living conditions, threatens their traditional land rights and their distinct world view, in particular their spiritual expressions and sacred sites and undermines their demand for self determination. This is a new threat.

The ‘old' ways of protecting and gaining one's rights or independence is no longer possible. The new weapons of colonization are dictated by technological development: the fax machine, the E-mail, television, radio and newsprint, and is much more effective than standing with sticks, rifles or demonstrations in front of government buildings. Indigenous people think there are alternatives to globalization. Alternatives that respect the rights of people nurture and appreciate their diversity.

Some Indigenous peoples around the world are still going through a dramatic experience after discovering the fraud of history by which their cultures were denied: the denial of their cultures, destruction of existing symbols, denigration of their sacred sites, assimilation and domestication, being transformed into a different ‘world' without their consent and finally becoming an exploited people. This has made them mourn and feel angry. Others have overcome the colonization process and they are already exploring new possibilities for the future, building their own structures of self government and social order. They are in the phase of exploring as colonized people what facets of colonial and modern forms of culture they want to retain or reject.

Indigenous Peoples around the world are rebuilding their dreams and visions for tomorrow. This vision might not coincide with all aspects of the WCC's Common Understanding Vision. But for it to be a reality, there is a need to combined Indigenous and non indigenous' voices, efforts and commitments.

The rediscoveries and recoveries, the mourning and anger, the dreams and visions should not be accommodated into the assumptions of a Christian world view without the consent of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous People have a unique world view. All creation is interconnected. This unique world view could contribute greatly to the desire by many to try and regain and preserve the natural balance between humans and their natural environment.

The WCC has been one of the leading NGOs supporting the work of Indigenous Nations and communities and is recognised as such by Indigenous peoples. However, many WCC member churches have not advanced their knowledge of, or cooperation with, Indigenous communities in their countries since the Canberra Assembly.

In the context of the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples of the World, Common Understanding and Vision, the Jubilee 2000, and under the 8th Assembly theme "Turn to God and Rejoice in Hope", Indigenous issues must remain as a unique WCC programme as its constituencies are. The main task of the IPP is to be a facilitator for Indigenous Peoples networks and organisations.

The responsibility of ensuring the objectives of the IPP are implemented needs to become a WCC commitment and responsibility. Attached are the specifications for the new clusters; in each the IPP has identified different tasks clusters could include in their programmatic work. These tasks are the continuing and emerging issues participants at IPP/WCC national, regional and global gatherings have identified as the priorities for the WCC Indigenous Peoples Programme. The implementation of these tasks should be monitored by the IPP as it is accountable to those who identified them.

It is time that the WCC and its member churches realise that God gave us two eyes to see, two ears to listen, two arms to do things, two legs to walk and one mouth to speak. So far much has been spoken about Indigenous Peoples, but very little has been accomplished. We must see, hear, do, walk with what we speak.

If the objectives and priorities of the IPP are to be achieved, they need to feature permanently in the WCC programmatic work for the next decade.  


Although there is no universally-accepted definition of Indigenous Peoples, there are distinguishing characteristics which help identify them. A working definition used by the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and accepted by many Indigenous Peoples is as follows:

"Indigenous communities, peoples and nations, are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems."

In some countries, Indigenous Peoples are considered to be an Ethnic minority, but what distinguishes Indigenous Peoples from national minorities and other racially oppressed groups are the fact that they are the original inhabitants of the land from which they were displaced by an invading group. While Indigenous Peoples can be a national minority in most countries, in some cases they constitute the majority of the population, as in Bolivia and Guatemala.

The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), the International Labor Office (ILO) and the World Bank estimate there to be more than 300 million Indigenous Peoples in the world, approximately 4% of the total global population. They reside in industrial and in non-industrial countries. There are about 250.000 Aborigines in Australia, 300.000 Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand, 60.000 Sami (Lapp) in the Scandinavian Countries, 100.000 Innuits (Eskimos in circumpolar States) 30 to 80 million Indigenous Peoples in Central and South America and 3 to 13 million Indigenous Peoples in North America. In Asia there are estimated to be more than 50 million: in India, 67 million in China, 6.5 in the Philippines, 1 million in Bangladesh, 11 million in Burma, and in Siberia and the Soviet Far East, about one million. Around 16 million Indigenous Peoples are estimated to live in Africa.

Land as the unifying element

Indigenous Peoples around the world say: "We are deeply conscious of our relationship with our Mother Earth, and the sacredness of our lands and territories. We affirm that our identity, culture, languages, philosophy of life, and our spirituality are linked to a balanced relationship with all of creation. This relationship has ensured our continued existence in spite of oppression, exploitation and attempted assimilation by dominant socio-economic-politico-cultural and religious entities."

Wherever Indigenous People are - Aotearoa-New Zealand, India, Australia, Brazil, Africa, Canada or the Arctic territories - one unifying factor and distinguishing characteristic of Indigenous Peoples is their relationship with the land. No matter where they live or what their political or social culture beliefs may be, they all view land, as the basis of their very survival. It is this world view, more than anything else that distinguishes them from being considered a minority and from other racially oppressed people. Today the overwhelming majority of these populations are landless. Some of them live in desperate poverty with little or no access to services offered by the states in which they live. They are the people who have the legitimate right to the land now in the procession of the dominant group.


The Human Rights Commission

At this important body of the UN System, Indigenous Peoples' representatives have highlighted the critical issues of land and sacred sites as well as special reports on specific issues, requested by the commission. On September 20th 1977, more than a hundred Indigenous delegates from fifteen countries crossed the threshold of the United Nations in Geneva to claim their rights. After this historical event the Human Rights Commission established a Working Group on Indigenous Populations. It met for the first time in 1982.

In the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, the main goals of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities are:
education of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples on the situation of Indigenous Peoples, promotion and protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and their own empowerment, to further the implementation of recommendations from Indigenous Peoples at all high-level conferences, the adoption of the Declaration, and further development of international and national standards.

The UNWGIP experience has been an enlightening and transforming one. Many Indigenous nations and communities have invested a lot of resources in their regular attendance and considerable Indigenous expertise on international law and UN procedures. At present the Indigenous Peoples call for the establishment of a Permanent Forum within the UN to ensure their voices are heard and their status as Indigenous nations recognised.

The Open-ended Inter-sessional Working Group on the Draft of the Human Rights Commission is presently working on the review of the Draft Declaration submitted by the Sub-Commission. Until now, very little progress has been made. Most of the time, sessions have been frustration after frustration for Indigenous Peoples' participants in this body. One of the stumbling blocks is self-determination, collective-rights, control over the natural resources.

This document is the first human rights instrument to acknowledge collective human rights. It is regarded by Indigenous communities as a strong affirmation of their collective rights. The Draft Declaration on Indigenous Peoples Rights now in the Human rights Commission to be processed and finally adopted by the United Nations, is considered by Indigenous Peoples as a minimal standard for the protection of their rights

. In 1996, in consultation with the Officers of the Central Committee, the WCC General Secretary has requested the Intercessional working Group to "complete speedily its work so the Declaration [Draft Declaration on Indigenous Peoples] may be submitted to the Commission, the ECOSOC and the General Assembly, for adoption by member states without necessary delays."

WCC participation and interventions within the UN system have demonstrated the urgent need for international instruments to protect all Indigenous Peoples, in the belief that without such instruments Indigenous Peoples may not survive.

The WCC is one of the international NGOs taking the responsibility to assist Indigenous representatives to attend the meetings. And it has hosted an Indigenous Caucus before each annual meeting of UNWGIP. Partly because of this, he WCC has become widely known as the Geneva 'home' for Indigenous Peoples.

Commission On Sustainable Development

The authority and the sovereignty claimed by the nation-states on the Indigenous Peoples' territories (land, forests, seas, minerals) to hand over to internal and external economic interests for extraction or plunder is condemned by the indigenous communities. The WCC has to give support in order to provide participation of Indigenous delegates in the discussions of this important commission on development.

The Convention on Biodiversity/Intellectual Property

Mother Earth's diverse biological resources are a gift of the creator and vital for all beings. They have tremendous value for the present and future generations. Today this diversity is threatened. The role of the IPP/WCC is to accompany and monitor the implementation of The Convention on Biological Diversity enforced in 1993 by the United Nations.

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