What Indigenous Culture Can Teach Us About a Fair Economy

Rebecca Adamson offers Native American views on scarcity, Wall Street, and how to thrive in hard times.

An indigenous system is based on prosperity, creation, kinship, and a sense of enough-ness.

YES! photo by Rebecca Sell

This article from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of YES! Magazine.

Indigenous peoples have known hard times. There are signs of drought, crop failure, and forced migration over the millennia, and of course these peoples survived centuries of colonialism. When we were looking for some wisdom on building a new economy, I immediately thought of Rebecca Adamson. Native peoples have developed societies that function within ecological limits and counter the tendency of societies to polarize between rich and poor, powerful and excluded. Adamson, a Cherokee, is founder of First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide. She works globally with grassroots tribal communities, sits on the boards of the Corporation for Enterprise Development and the Calvert Social Investment Fund, and is an adviser to the United Nations on rural development.

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Sarah van Gelder: When you look ahead at the coming months, perhaps years, of economic downturn, what do you see coming, and what does indigenous experience teach us about what we should be doing?

Rebecca Adamson: I’ve gotta say, it’s about time the bubbles burst. I don’t want to see anybody without a home or a job, but Wall Street had to come to reality sooner or later. I just wish they were taking the brunt of it instead of Main Street.

President Obama assumes that through more spending we can stimulate the financial sector. But why would we want to save something that had no productivity for human life? Until we move away from that paradigm, I don’t hold out too much optimism for the next months, or the next years, or even the next seven generations.

What indigenous experience tells us is that an economy is about fairness and equity. It should be for the well-being of your people and the sacredness of creation. You take care of your place because it provides for you. And the place provides for you because you’re protecting it. We have to begin to rethink our economic system so that it’s accountable for our place.

van Gelder: So what is an economy for?

Adamson: The economy used to be about livelihoods and the provision of a household, but we’ve lost that purpose. We have created an economic system with a goal of material wealth, rather than human development.

We need an economy that provides for people. It has to be fundamentally, radically brought back into control and harnessed for the well-being of society. Not for making money, but for making dignified livelihoods and for the betterment of community.

van Gelder: It seems to me that there’s a tendency in any society for wealth to concentrate—if you have a little bit more than someone else, you can use that little bit of additional power to get even more than others. How do indigenous societies counter that?

Adamson: An indigenous system is based on prosperity, creation, kinship, and a sense of enough-ness. It is designed for sharing. Potlatches, giveaways—these involve deliberately accumulating wealth as a person or as a family or as a clan for the sole purpose of giving it away. The potlatch or the giveaway takes place at very specific times of life—birth, naming ceremonies, puberty. Often, if you receive a gift during a potlatch, you are then obligated, at some point in the future, to give a gift. That puts in motion a continual, ongoing requirement for redistribution.

van Gelder: So someone with very high status can’t accumulate too much wealth?

Adamson: You can’t get high status unless you give gifts. Here’s an example. We just got back from a visit with the James Bay Cree. I learned there that the very first ceremony that a baby undertakes is called a walk-away ceremony. James Bay is very cold and so the baby’s first days of life are spent inside the lodge.

Once the baby takes his first steps, they prepare for a walk-away ceremony. A hide is tanned, and an elaborate outfit is made for the baby to wear as he takes his first steps away from the lodge. The baby’s family and the clan gather outside. The baby walks away from the lodge as far as he can. Then everybody calls the baby back in. The child is carrying a bundle filled with food. He comes back into the circle of the family and the clan, and then goes from person to person sharing the food. By doing this, a child has learned to both become his own person and to come back to share.

van Gelder: Sharing is hard when people fear that there isn’t enough to go around.

Adamson: It is an obligation to share. So you design the economic system with an emphasis on sharing.

In modern U.S. society, individual property rights are treated as exclusive. If I own something, man, you can’t even put your foot on it. This ownership paradigm is about excluding people from resources because you’re afraid you’re going to run out.

Within an indigenous economy, the mere fact of your birth guarantees you usage rights through the clan system. That would be the equivalent, in the United States, of your birth granting you access to capital and credit—you would have usage rights to the economy because you were born.

You can create self-fulfilling scarcity if you focus, for example, on running out of fossil fuel. Within a “prosperity of creation” mindset, though, there’s wind energy and solar energy, and there’s the ability to create new kinds of energy that we haven’t even tapped yet. That way of thinking brings us into a relationship in which we create new responses to what we need.

van Gelder: How could a “prosperity of creation” mindset work in a world where people don’t know one another outside their small circle of friends and family?

Adamson: When we’ve seen a contemporary system that comes from a paradigm like the indigenous paradigm, it usually has a spiritual base. The Amish economy is much less cash-dependent, for example. They have a strong sense of community and a high quality of life. Their economy is highly productive, and there’s a lot of cooperation. That’s a very, very healthy economic system.

van Gelder: People are fearful because the things that they thought they could count on—retirement, or a job, or the value of their house—turn out to be unreliable. How can we move away from a fear-based system at a time when people have the most reasons to be fearful?

Adamson: This is where I think indigenous people really hold a key: In their economies, there is a general safety net for all. There is no homelessness or grinding poverty. There is a band of general affluence and well-being which no one falls below.

We keep going into this paradigm of scarcity because fear is good for the capitalistic system. If you want to drive consumption, you’ve got to be fear based.

But God is in the space and silence. That is where it’s sacred. You look up on a starry night, and you feel yourself unfold, and that silence is where God is.

When people are consumed with filling all their space with stuff, and all silence with noise, you lose that sacredness. And then they are driven with consumption, consumption, consumption. The shopping mall becomes the cathedral. There you have capitalism. Even though it might be really good for the bottom line, it’s not good for a society.

We have to go back to the understanding that some things are sacred and cannot be profitized. No one owns Mother Earth. And living, breathing creations cannot be thrown away, or “externalized.” We have to be willing to pay the full cost for everything we use.

We can do this—we can rebuild the system so we no longer allow unfair practices or inequity. There is no such thing as a value-neutral economy. It’s not about a financial recovery, it’s about an economic rebuilding, and first and foremost, it’s about a moral rebuilding.

van Gelder: If you were advising someone whose local economy is falling apart what would you suggest they do?

Adamson: Watch how you spend your money; apply your values to every dollar you spend.

Insist that corporations do not externalize their dirt, pollution, low wages.

Get involved with the socially responsible investment movement. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.

Hold Congress accountable. Understand there’s not going to be a recovery of the Wall Street system. We need to let some of these institutions go bankrupt.

What makes scarcity self-fulfilling? Fear. The more you’re fearful, the more you go out and buy. And pretty soon you run out of money and go into debt, and pretty soon the planet runs out of natural resources and places to put all the garbage.

Maintain the stance of abundance through tough times and through good times by having a spiritual base and good values—by caring about something other than yourself. That’s how you maintain abundance.

Abundance comes not from stuff. In fact, stuff is an indication of nonabundance. Abundance is in the sacred; it’s in the connection of love. We will find abundance through hard times when we find each other.