Indigenous Economics: Ancient Knowledge Inspires Economic Reform of Capital Markets
Professor Rebecca Adamson, First Nations Insight
In 1980, I started First Nations Development Institute to look at the role of assets in American Indian cultures. Indian Country in the United States is home to 1% of the population, and accounts for 5% of the land resources, 30% of coal, 4% of oil, 4% of gas, and 40% of uranium resources. By all accounts, American Indians should be a wealthy people, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is our asset manager.
Neither the asset management nor the economic design principles employed by the BIA are based on Indian cultures. In short, a majority of benefits, revenues, profits, employment, etc. derived from tribal assets go to outside interests - not to the benefit of Indian Nations.
By 1982, I found myself working on The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – two million acres of land that is home to 20,000 Lakotas.
At the time, Pine Ridge had the dubious distinction of being the poorest country in the whole United States, with a 93% unemployment rate and median income of just $325 per month. Pine Ridge became the setting for a bold experiment — making small, micro-loans to poor people — to see if an economy based on Indigenous design principles could change the economic landscape.
A household survey of Pine Ridge communities revealed hundreds of vital small businesses providing everyday services that sustained an economic sector for the community. Most of these businesses all needed capital to develop and mature.
So, in 1984, the Lakota Fund was launched in order to re-connect capital markets to the community. The success of the Lakota Fund experiment was one of the efforts that inspired others to reconnect capital markets to their communities. In time, the concept of community-controlled capital grew as did the industry, and as the saying goes – the rest is history.
Today, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) are one of the fastest growing segments of the SRI market. The microfinance industry is built upon a foundation of the Indigenous design principles of cooperation and reciprocity.
It was during this time that I was asked to serve as a trustee of the Calvert Social Investment Fund. In 1994, I helped lead Calvert to establish High Social Impact Investments; later called Community Notes. Today, Calvert has over $125 million in community-based investments with the entire CDFI investment market exceeding $589 million. From the humble beginnings at Pine Ridge: a dream-come-true. Through these successes, people around the world began to see that another economic paradigm was possible. I began getting hundreds of letters from Indigenous communities around the world asking for help and more kept coming.
Two years later, we began meeting with the San People throughout southern Africa. The San, who entered the consciousness of the United States through the movie The Gods Must be Crazy, speak the oldest language known to humankind. Geneticists have found that DNA in each of us links us to the San. And yet, despite surviving tens of thousands of years, the San were being forcibly evicted from their lands to make room for diamond mines and national parks. I met three men who had protested their eviction from their land. They were arrested and had gasoline poured up their anuses while jailed.
Keimela, Amogamong amd Sam knew they would die – a slow painful death. As I met with them under a tree where the government had dumped them, all they asked of me was to take them “home to die.” My first meeting with my new friends was also my last; they would each die before I returned again.
But the struggle to allow the San to return home intensified, and in 1997, First Peoples initiated the first major Indigenous land claims in Africa on behalf of the San from Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).
In December, 2006, the Botswanan Supreme Court ruled that the CKGR San had a right to live and hunt within their homeland and ordered the government help the San return home. A year later, the San are still waiting. Some have returned, but many of those who have attempted to hunt have been arrested.
The San, and more than a million and a half other Indigenous Peoples around the world, have been evicted from their land to make room for national parks. Outside groups, such as Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy or World Wildlife Fund, promote pristine parks. Corporations wanting profits initiate development projects.
Governments eager to collect royalties on national resources enter trade agreements. Pressure increases from all of these outside interests as globalization has accelerated the rate of “asset stripping” throughout Indigenous Peoples lands. I mentioned that in the United States Native Americans control 5% land, in Canada it is 22%, and in the Amazon, 33%. Globally, Indigenous Peoples are 5% of population with claims on 22% of the Earth’s land, containing 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
We should be the richest people in the world! But, the rate of asset stripping is devastating our peoples. The prestigious Lancet Medical Journal did a series of articles on Indigenous Peoples, concluding that Indigenous Peoples have the worst health in the world. This holds true both in developed and less developed nations of the world. In the U.S., non-Indians life expectancy is 78 years of age, while Native Americans have a life expectancy of 68 years. In Australia, the life expectancy of Aboriginal Australians is 23 years less than their non-Aboriginal neighbours.
The clash between European and Indigenous cultures throughout the world is a clash rooted in different views of a human’s place in the natural world and different goals of economic life.
Europeans cosmology, backed by Christian theology, hold a hierarchical world view that places humans alone as next to God, as co-creators, given "Dominion" over Earth’s other creatures. This view holds the natural world, as little more than vast commercially exploitable resources waiting to be harvested for the financial-equivalent betterment of of human interests.
The goal of the prevailing 'global economy' is to increase "wealth" and "prosperity" toward market-oriented "progress", that is for the principal benefit of human elites. Nature is then conceived in the prevailing global economy as being little more than raw materials that God implicitly created for the commercial benefit of humans. In turn humans in Judeo-Christian cultural context of Western Civilization were supposedly exclusively created in God's image, to "rule" over and exploit/“subordinate” nature.
Indigenous Peoples hold a different world view; and one that sees humans as being one creature among many life forms on Earth. Indigenous spirituality is rooted in recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things; a holistic and balanced view of the world. All things are bound together. All things are connected. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of the Earth. We have not woven the web of Life – we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the "web", we do to ourselves.
The environment is perceived as a sensate conscious entity. It is suffused with spiritual powers through which the human understanding is only realized in humility before the sacred whole.
The Indigenous inspired political economic and existential goal is balance. The goal is sustaining human kind in ways that don’t threaten the lives of other beings. They harvest the surplus nature provides, timing their harvest when the species are most abundant and taking only what is needed. A stark contrast to maximum yield!
Modern science is just now beginning to catch up with such ancient wisdom. Bell’s theorem on quantum physics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principles all indicate how and when we look at subatomic particles affects what we see.
All particles of matter, property, position and velocity are affected by the intention or presence of ALL other particles. In other words, atoms are aware of other atoms. According to this law of nature, a people rooted in land over time have exchanged their tears, their breath, their bones – all their elements – oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, sulphur – all the rest with their habitat many times over. In the words of Dine traditionalist Ruth Benally, “Our history cannot be told without naming the cliffs and mountains that have witnessed our people. Here Nature know us.”
However, Indigenous Peoples worship the sacredness of creation as way of life, not as a philosophy or religion. In fact, Native languages have no terms synonymous with religion. The closest expressions of belief literally translate as “the way you live.” Human consciousness determines what we do and how we do it.
The reality of any belief system is expressed through ideas. The ideas are realized through values. Values permeate human life. They give us practical guidance. Moreover, values do not work alone. Ideas work with values – values and ideas are a mutually affirming system. Ideas such as love, truth and justice work according to values of caring, honesty and fairness.
The wise to be wise must also be just. Western economists like to think and say economics is value neutral; a system operating separate from its surrounding environment. This in itself denies the totality of the whole.
Every society organizes itself politically, socially, economically according to its values. Indigenous spirituality assumes the whole manifests an order that unifies physical, conscious, moral and spiritual life.
Just as the sacred whole manifests an order that unifies all life, economic development should organize the assets – human, capital and community – in accordance with that belief system.
Assets in many ways are the physical prosperity of our world. The conscious becomes the individual, or the personal efficacy of the human capital. The moral becomes ethical conduct as determined by the community. Central to Indigenous spirituality is living in perfect balance and harmony with one’s self, others and the sacred whole. There are no cost measurements of pollution, production or double bottom line that can capture this impact.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, William Raspberry, in a Washington Post editorial titled "The Power of Spirituality", reported on a community leader who came to the realization that successful programs almost always have a spiritual base. “But it doesn’t get mentioned in the surveys and evaluations and requests for funding.
There are no blanks on the form for spirituality – we don’t yet have the scales to weigh the ability some people have to provide the spiritual element.” There is an emerging recognition of the need for a spiritual base, not only in our individual lives, but also in our work and in our communities. Because the Northern Cheyenne understand the environment to be a living being, they have opposed coal strip mining because it “kills the Water Beings.”
Perfect 'harmony' and balance with the laws of the universe means we all know the way of life is found by protecting the “Water Beings.” Given the opportunity and resources to explore development and develop their own answers, the Northern Cheyenne will create unique culturally relevant and sustainable economic systems for themselves, for their family, community, tribe and the Water Beings.
Both Western and Indigenous cultures can mutually benefit from accessing and sharing beliefs, customs and technology. Such interaction of cultures creates a new dynamic – one that fosters the creativity and prosperity of creation. My dream is a day when we have harnessed the financial markets to serve Life – mine, yours, the Water Beings and all of Creation.
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