August 9th commemorates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, a worldwide celebration that honours the inaugural session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations at the United Nations in 1982.
The theme for 2019 is Indigenous Languages, focusing on preserving, promoting, and revitalising the various Indigenous languages. This year’s celebrations will be held by the UN at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, featuring panels and presentations of innovative initiatives on indigenous languages.
In conjunction with this eventful day, we feature three individuals from around the world who continue to champion the rights of indigenous people.
1. Ken Wyatt
The Honourable Ken Wyatt is an Australian politician who made history in the nation as the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives in 2010. He was the first to serve as a government minister and the first appointed to cabinet when he was appointed as the Minister for Aged Care and Minister for Indigenous Health in 2017.
He was recently elevated to Minister for Indigenous Australians in May 2019, the first Indigenous Australian to hold the position!
Wyatt’s appointment to the position is culturally and logistically significant as the decisions on policies and funding that affect the lives of the Indigenous people of Australia are finally being made by an Indigenous person.
His appointment as Minister for Indigenous Australians was announced on National Sorry Day, a day on which Australians remember the mistreatment of Aboriginals during the 20th century when government policies forcibly separated Aboriginal children from their families.
2. Chief Robert Joseph
Chief Dr. Robert Joseph is a Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, one of the Indigenous tribes of Canada and the Arctic. He has dedicated his life to bridging the differences brought about by intolerance, lack of understanding and racism at home and abroad. He is currently the Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council and an honorary witness to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
As one of the last few speakers of the Kwakwaka’wakw language, Chief Joseph shares his knowledge and wisdom both in Canada and has sat with leaders of South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, and Washington, DC to learn from and share his understanding of faith, hope, healing and reconciliation.
He has gained many accolades as acknowledgement for his efforts on preserving and promoting the languages and cultures of the Indigenous people, including an Honorary Doctorate of Law Degree from the University of British Columbia and more recently, he was awarded the Order of Canada in 2018, the second highest honour awarded by the Queen (For us Malaysian’s, this is like being awarded a ‘Tan Sri’ title).
3. Datuk Ajis Sitin
Malaysia’s very own indigenous people consists of the various tribes of Orang Asli. While the Orang Asli currently do not have much representation in the government, Datuk Ajis Sitin has distinguished himself as the first ever Orang Asli in Malaysian history to be appointed as Director-General of The Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA) in 2018.
JAKOA is a government agency entrusted with the responsibility of looking after the affairs and well being of the Orang Asli, established in 1954. This department was established as an initiative to acknowledge that the Orang Asli community is a vital component of national security, as with their help, the Malayan army was able to defeat the communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency of 1948 to 1960.
One of the JAKOA’s most important priorities is to eradicate poverty among the Orang Asli as well as improving their health, promoting education, and improving their general livelihood. A recent UN study showed that 34% of Orang Asli households live below the poverty line, a significant drop compared to 80% in 1997, which is significantly higher than the 0.6% national average.
Before being appointed as Director-General, Ajis Sitin, who comes from the Semai tribe, was previously the Deputy Director-General of JAKOA and has had a long career as a civil servant in various government agencies as an engineer.
An estimated 30% of JAKOA staff comprise of Orang Asli with the state branches of Pahang and Perak being led by Orang Asli heads.
While history has not been kind to indigenous peoples around the world, it is more important now than ever that we all work together and make reparations, promote and preserve these various cultures and give them the voice that they deserve.
*Featured image sourced from Twitter/@UN4Indigenous