AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Vanish Wisdom: What to learn from native peoples


Copyright 2003 AXIS Performance Advisors.

Vanishing Wisdom

What Native Peoples Can Teach Us about a Sustainable Quality of Life

By Darcy Hitchcock

Courtesy EA,

Courtesy EA,

Just as the fish does not contemplate the water in which it swims, it is hard to understand our culture completely without stepping outside of it. So over the years, I have been fascinated by societies that are radically different from our prevailing Western culture. Indigenous/native cultures from around the world can provide us important insights into how to humanize our culture–at home, at work and in our communities. For many, the environmental benefit of indigenous peoples’ connection to the earth is obvious. So instead, I will focus here on the social constructs that might be worth our while to adopt. It’s important not to romanticize these native cultures, falling victim to the simplistic, “Noble Savage” myth. But the First Peoples I reference here have, by and large, learned to live meaningful and satisfying lives peacefully over centuries, without initiating conflicts with others. Upon examining these cultures, I have come to question basic tenets of our society: what we focus on, how we organize and govern, the role of work and jobs, the use of technology, the purpose of trade, and so forth.Let me take you on a tour around the world to see what we can learn from societies much older than our own, for they provide clues to how we can have stronger communities and more productive workplaces. I’ve organized the examples into three loose categories:

  • cultural values
  • the role of jobs, money and trade, and
  • communal practices.


What we focus on

Western culture is problem-focused. The evening news is choked with stories about what’s wrong in the world. At work, many people feel like they “fight fires” all day. In performance appraisals, most people rate themselves harder than their bosses would. When given a compliment, we usually let loose a wave of self-deprecating comments. Teachers mark up papers with red pens. My word processor highlights every misspelling. And day in and day out, we are barraged by ads that tell us the myriad of ways in which we are deficient.

Like my dog, Sadie, who only spins clockwise and will turn 345 degrees to grasp a toy dangled to her left, we are culturally wired to turn this way. Aficionados of Appreciative Inquiry, a method that asks people to focus on their assets and what’s going well, will attest that it is difficult to keep people turning counterclockwise, focusing on the positive. We, too,often spin ’round to answer, saying what we don’t like, what’s wrong.

I have nothing against solving problems, but this relentless focus on what we don’t yet have grinds at the soul, demoralizes teams, and fills staff meetings with dread. Is this negative, deficiency focus somehow related to the epidemic of depression, drug abuse and mental illness in our society? Is it related to our incessant desire to shop for more stuff when our garages are choked with what we already have? The Public Broadcasting special on”Affluenza” chronicled the downside of our materialistic, consumer culture, citing statistics that show that while we possess far more than our parents, we are less content.

Compare this with the thanksgiving address of the Iroquois. At the opening of meetings or ceremonies, the Iroquois took time to thank the sun, the moon, the wind, the bird, the fish, the deer and so on, intoning the gift each offered. This thanksgiving ritual went on for what would be to our Western ways an interminable length of time. But having participated in this ritual, I can tell you that you enter the meeting in a very different frame of mind, one of gratitude and awe for the gifts of nature and communion with others. Simply put, you have a different meeting.

Focusing on what you have versus what you don’t strengthens communal bonds, lifts people’s spirits, and draws people to the table. How hard would it be to bring more balance to our culture? It’s not hard; it’s just a habit,one that might help solve some of our social ills.

Applying this in daily life–At dinner or before you go to bed, list off three things you were grateful for that day, the small things like a particularly pretty sunset, a helpful sales clerk, a friend’s call.  At work–Try starting your staff meetings with an opportunity for team members to thank or acknowledge one another for something they did.In your community–Share positive news stories with your friends and family to balance out the dreariness of what passes for news on TV and the newspaper. (For example, check out the Good News Network at

The Use of Technology

Our Industrial Revolution, now a century old, has been fixated on replacing people with machines. But native people often have a different point of view. Robert Wolff, in the process of doing sociological research on the Sng’oi aboriginals in Malaysia, describes a mind-shift that occurred for him. Since he had parked his car on the road and walked several hours into the jungle to their settlement, one of the Sng’oi asked,

“Did you pass by that place where they are making a new road?”

Yes, indeed, that was the way I had come. That is, in fact why it got so late, the men who worked there had to clear a path so that the car could pass.

“Is it true,” someone else asked, “that there is a machine there that does the work of a hundred men?”

I must have felt a sense of pride for our cleverness, our inventiveness, our machines. ‘A machine that does the work of a hundred men,’ that well describes a bulldozer.

“Yes,” I said, “there is such a machine there.”

Long silence.

Then, another person spoke up. “What do those hundred men do?”

This was a perspective on labor-saving devices that Wolff had never considered. What happened to the hundred displaced men? Later they took Wolff to one of their inventors, a deaf man, who had created a machine that could hull rice in a fraction of the time it took the women every day. They treated it as a curiosity, never integrating it into their daily lives, because if they had, then what would the women do? Hulling rice was a place for the women to share stories and gossip, and it provided a source of meaning in their lives.

In our society, we have no way of evaluating a technology and deciding to accept or reject it. Despite serious ethical concerns, some are trying to clone humans. Despite serious environmental concerns, gene splicing and genetic engineering are proceeding without adequate oversight. Despite burnout, some people can’t go on vacation without their laptop and cell phone. I felt panicked recently when my modem broke and I couldn’t get my emails for a couple days. Good grief, who’s in control here?

THINGS YOU CAN DO Applying this in daily life–Calculate how many hours your family spends watching TV, playing video games, and surfing the net, computing an annual figure. Discuss what you might do instead if you could cut that time in half.At work–Periodically evaluate the usefulness of the emails you and your team members are sending and receiving, adjusting your practices as needed.

In your community–Encourage discussion of the drawbacks as well as benefits of new technologies before they become commonplace.

Giving or getting

I spent a volunteer vacation working with the Blackfeet Indians in Browning, Montana. In their culture, they have a give-away ceremony that they use for many milestones in people’s lives: being given your Indian name, reaching maturity, a death in the family. I witnessed one such event at their end-of-summer powwow. The community amphitheater was filled with the members of the community as a young man came out into the arena. As he walked the circumference of the large ring, numerous friends and family members joined in behind him in the procession, a visible symbol of support. As the young man reached his beginning point, he squatted next to a couple garbage bags as the others clustered behind him. Over the loud speaker, he announced each item of his own he was giving away, to whom and why. I don’t remember what he gave away, but the first item went to his grandmother. In our culture, we usually want to know, “What did I get?” but for the Blackfeet, it is what you give away that matters. Given the poverty in their community–how little everyone had to begin with– this ceremony brought tears to my eyes.

In many indigenous societies, the ability to provide for others or give extravagant gifts was and is a primary source of status. Men who are good hunters who catch enough to share with others are considered good marital catches. It is not clear when, in our Western society, we shifted to a materialistic form of status, where what mattered was what you could accumulate. But it would do us a lot of good to switch our mores back.

THINGS YOU CAN DO Applying this in daily life–Each month, go through your closet, attic and garage to find something you no longer use and give it to someone who would enjoy it.At work--When a new person is hired, ask each person in the department to offer some form of assistance to the new-comer.

In your community--Mentor an at-risk child.

The Role of Competition and Sports

In Western society, we have been taught to believe that it is competition that has made us great. So our political system is based on that premise,facing off Democrats and Republicans. And our society reveres sports.

Compare this to how David Maybury-Lewis describes the Xavante in central Brazil. Believing that the world is made up of the harmony within opposites (day/night, birth/death, etc.), they divide their tribes into two units or “moieties.”

“The Xavante are not content, however, with a single pair of moieties. After all, if each community were divided into two according to clans or political factions, the social life would be contentious and conflicts would escalate into local civil wars. They therefore assign people to different, overlapping pairs of moieties for different purposes.”

How different our political process might be if we could do the same with our parties! Maybe we could do away with the wasteful posturing that goes on to position each political party for the next election.

Later he describes the Xavante’s log race. Again there are two teams, one carrying a very large log and another with a smaller, lighter one. At first it seems to Maybury-Lewis that the outcome of the race is a foregone conclusion. He can’t understand how the teams can be so mismatched; the race seems unfair. But soon, team members with the lighter log break ranks and go to help the team with the much heavier one, such that the two teams end up in a dead heat. The community went wild with excitement, this being the most “beautiful” race in years, reaffirming the harmony within opposites, not the conflict.

I’ve never been a fan of artificial competition. (As a child, I used to sit on the Old Maid card so that no one would lose.) So this Xavante example makes me wonder what would happen if our sports events reaffirmed our unity and mutual support rather than physical domination. Perhaps we would not have riots after the “big game.” What if our political process emphasized interdependence and collaboration over division? What would it be like to live in a society where no one felt like a loser?

The stories we tell ourselves place us in some relation to others, and in Western culture, we tend toward hierarchical views that emphasize our separateness: boss/subordinate, leader/follower, humans/animals, winner/loser. In Alaska recently, I was listening to Winona LaDuke, nominated by TIME Magazine as one of America’s fifty most promising leaders under age forty and a member of the Anishinaabekwe Native American tribe. She was describing how her people see themselves at the end of a long chain of animals, so to them the animals are older brothers and sisters, ones to be learned from and honored. Western culture tells a similar story, that we are evolved from other species, but we see the relationship hierarchically– that we are at the top–so it is our right to dominate. Our two peoples are telling the same story with two completely different meanings, leading to two completely different sets of behaviors. Being the most recent or on top: this is the essence of the rift between our two world views that affects not only our relationships with nature but also our relationships between our members.

 THINGS YOU CAN DOApplying this in daily life–Choose family activities that emphasize cooperation over competition.At work–Find excuses to develop relationships and alliances across the typical organizational walls.

In your community–Challenge systems that limit the number of people who can “win.”


Jobs and contributions

One practice that seems to differentiate tribal societies from “developed” ones is that every person has a role, a way to contribute. Listen to how Farley Mowat, author of Never Cry Wolf and numerous non-fiction books about arctic life, describes the practices of the Ihalmiut tribe in the Plains of Canada, the “people of the deer”:

“In the Ihalmiut camps, those who are physically or mentally unable to cope with the problems of living are treated with inexhaustible patience and understanding. Poor, dull-witted Onekwaw, for instance, never managed to succeed in a single deer hunt during all the time I knew him. He tried hard enough – but it was always someone else who had to keep Onekwaw’s family from starving. And yet, as far as I know, no one ever seriously rebuked Onekwaw for being a burden to his People. True, everyone made fun of his efforts to be a great hunter, but this was good-natured fun and Onekwaw joined in it himself. He even seemed to extract some sort of compensation from being able to provide a source of amusement for the other men.”

Compare this example to our society where the primary source of contribution is through a job and “compensation” generally only means money. Paid work represents the predominate source of our identity. If you doubt this, notice how many times people lead off their introductions by mentioning their job, employer or profession. In our society, people who don’t “work” are marginalized. Just ask a stay-at-home-dad how he has been treated by his peers. And people who must depend on the charity of others (or the Welfare of our state) are viewed as having nothing to give in return, leaving the exchange one-sided and shameful. So is it really any wonder that joblessness and poverty often leads to lethargy, drug and alcohol abuse and anger?

Listen to how Kamoriongo Ole Aimerru Nkongoni, senior elder of the Maasaiin Kenya, describes how they handle poverty:

“Maasai learn to always treat members of their own age-set, and all other Maasai for that matter, as equals. That is why the Maasai hate the idea of being employed. Each man should depend on his own property. Of course, there are always some people who are poor. In such cases, it is better to ask such a man to look after your animals, and after some time, you give him a gift of a cow or a goat. In this way, he will get his own property, and eventually he will no longer be poor.”

Notice this is a gift in exchange for services, not charity. The Maasai keep an eye out for their tribal members who need assistance without ever making them feel subordinate or demeaned. Our Welfare-to-Work programs are hardly designed in this same spirit! We push people into jobs, any jobs,so they can be “productive members of society.”

This focus on paid work harms more than just those who can’t find a job. Child labor laws prevent children from working, leaving many devoid of a sense of responsibility. And retired people are cast onto the garbage heap as if their lifetime of experiences were worth nothing. I’m not suggesting we put all kindergartners into forced labor or prevent people from retiring. Instead, we need a way to honor and recognize the many ways people contribute to our society.

 THINGS YOU CAN DOApplying this in daily life–Honor the many ways that family members contribute to the well-being of the family.At work–Choose variable compensation systems that emphasize teamwork and minimize differences.

In your community–Consider instituting a tax deduction or some other tangible benefit for volunteer hours.

Monetizing an economy

One reason we have so much emphasis on jobs in public and economic policy is that we have monetized our economy. No longer do we have to hunt for someone to barter with; we have an abstract currency that facilitates trade. Yet most people have no understanding of what we have lost in this exchange.

The Ladakh are an indigenous group near Nepal who had had a non-monetized economy. Researcher Helena Norberg-Hodge bore witness to the transformation of their life as they rapidly were transformed by Westernization. Prior to being affected by the West, the Ladakh were 95% middle class. While there was no central heating and infant mortality was high, people lived in large houses made with their own hands. Because they could see directly the impact of population growth on the land, they controlled their population through polyandry (multiple husbands). Life proceeded at a relaxed pace, the family working the fields together. Elaborate systems ensured a fair use of the meager irrigation water between families. Norberg-Hodge was struck by how happy people seemed. When asked where the poor people lived, the Ladakhi looked confused. “We have no poor people.” But the World Bank considered them poor because they had no money.

Fast-forward perhaps a decade, as tourism brought a stream of seemingly carefree foreigners past their doors with an endless supply of money to buy trinkets. In the process of monetizing the economy, families became ripped apart; the father and older children moved to the city to “work,”leaving the mother alone or with a small child to tend the entire family plot herself. Now many feel poor, in comparison to what they see on TV, and in comparison to one another. Now people feel they can have as many children as they can afford, the link to land having been broken. The cooperation between families has disintegrated. And the children, who used to be educated in mixed age groups so the older ones took on responsibility, now act like hellions because they no longer have to look after others. Ladakh has gone from a community filled with contentment and laughter to one based on selfishness.

One of the things we lose when we go to a standard currency is the relationship between buyer and seller. It depersonalizes the exchange. One solution to this is to emphasize local economies and develop local currencies. I once participated in a workshop exercise where we were all asked to write down a couple skills or services we’d be willing to share with others. You didn’t have to be particularly good at it, just willing to exchange the service. With six people at the table and about 10 minutes, we generated 22 “sales” or exchanges between us. But what struck me was how different this felt than a financial exchange, more like helping a neighbor. I felt honored for my skills. We connected, a group of strangers felt almost like friends. While this was only an exercise, had it been real life, I would have been more likely to take advantage of the offers than if I had to pay for them,and my life would have been enriched as a result.

Some communities have created their own local currency to facilitate this exchange, the most famous being Ithaca Hours, which can be exchanged in lieu of dollars but only to merchants in town including the grocery. People advertise services (dog-walking, lawn mowing, etc.) in the local paper. It helps to level the senseless income disparities in our society, for example, making it possible for people who might not normally be able to afford a consultation with an attorney.

Think about all the seemingly intractable problems we face for lack of money. In Oregon, our educational system is in disarray. But what if schools ran mostly on goodwill and community involvement? Suddenly, it would seem obvious how to reinstate music, art and canceled school days. We have an almost infinite capacity for volunteerism but a limited amount of cash.

 THINGS YOU CAN DOApplying this in daily life–Buy local, in season produce from your farmers market or join a CSA (community-supported agriculture).At work– Patronize your local, family-owned businesses over the chain stores.

In your community–Host a neighborhood meeting and create a list of tools and services each would be willing to provide to others.

Trade, not aid

Free trade is a key tenet of our industrial society. So “Trade, not aid” became the rallying cry of The Body Shop, considered a paragon of corporate responsibility. And in many cases, this can be a good strategy to give people in developing countries more options.

But the corollary is also that “Trade isn’t aid.” Many developing countries have switched from growing a variety of products for themselves to only growing ones for export, leaving them vulnerable to outside influences and market fluctuations. According to Frances Moore Lappé in HopesEdge, during the 1990’s 44 countries derived 60-100% of their foreign exchange from a single crop or commodity.

This arrangement can work as long as all-systems are go, but it is exceedingly risky. Coffee growers have been devastated by oversupply and now bananas worldwide are being affected by a blight equivalent to the Potato Famine. What is going to become of these countries now dependent upon foreign trade?

Farley Mowat chronicles the devastation that this can bring to native communities when the trade dwindles or stops. In Canada, for example, the White traders had encouraged the natives to hunt fox (for fur coats) instead of deer (which they hunted for food, clothing, utensils and hunting weapons). Natives were given guns to kill the deer much more quickly than traditional methods so they would have time to trap other species valued for their fur. But when the fur market collapsed and the traders evaporated, the natives quickly ran out of ammunition; but they had lost the skill of making crossbows and hunting deer in the manner of their ancestors, so mass starvation followed.

In Oregon, we too have repeatedly become too dependent upon the trade of a single commodity, although the impacts have been less life-threatening than that experienced by the natives in Canada. When our forest-products industries foundered, we built the silicon forest and now we are once again experiencing the social pain of living in a largely monoculture economy.

We must encourage strong, diverse local economies in other countries as well as our own. Trade should be the icing on the cake, not the primary sustenance. If the global market for their commodity crashes, they should still be able to meet their own basic needs. Developing countries shouldbe encouraged to grow crops they themselves enjoy so that if prices tank, at least they could eat the crops themselves.

We should remember, as well, that a high quality of life is not dependent on a high income. In Kerala, India, life expectancy is equivalent to the US; they sport 100% literacy rates; the birthrate is 18/1000 versus. 16/1000in US, and is falling faster. They have a vibrant democracy and excellent health care. But they live off $1 per capita per day. So international trade is not the only path to a rich quality of life.

 THINGS YOU CAN DOApplying this in daily life–Each month, as a family, investigate the social impacts of one product or brand you buy regularly.At work–Choose fair-trade coffee for your break room.

In your community–Encourage the development of local, sustainable sourcesfor important commodities: food, water, clothing, building materials, etc.


How we operate our organizations

A few years ago I came across a research report in a professional journal entitled, “High-Performance Teams: Lessons from the Pygmies.”The article compared the peaceful pygmy society to the principles of self-directed work teams. There was almost a one-to-one correspondence. And I’m quite sure the pygmies hadn’t hired a high-priced consultant to come to the jungle to tell them how to be. It was just a natural way of working: rotating leadership, promoting open dialog, actively developing trust, and subordinating the needs of the individual when necessary to the needs of the team.

How many of our organizational problems are linked to violating these natural ways of working? Unlike the Pygmies, employees almost never get to choose their leaders. Rather than rotating tasks, our job descriptions often box people into narrow tasks that lead to monotony, disaffection and repetitive stress injuries. In our frenetic pace, we rarely take time to connect deeply with our coworkers.

We have made progress. Thankfully, the “manager knows best” style of leadership is passé. But much of what we learned about the effectiveness of self-directed teams has fallen by the wayside. Shared leadership is rare and cross-functional teams are uncommon. It seems we are still trying to “control” our organizations and employees as if they were machines. We haven’t yet learned how to operate our organizations as organic, living systems. How would we manage differently if we viewed our organizations as rich networks instead of linear hierarchies?

In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn, author of the popular book, Ishmael, emphasizes that tribes are the only social structures that have stood the test of eons. He’s not suggesting that we all disappear into the rainforest with spears–there isn’t enough rainforest left. But he defines tribes as people who work together as equals to make a living. While tribes usually have bosses, the head is viewed as just another role, not a separate class or hierarchy (like executives). He talks about forming tribal businesses, people of complimentary skills who come together to make a living, not a killing, working for the mission, not a wage.

 THINGS YOU CAN DOApplying this in daily life–Trade off household chores so that no one feels unduly burdened.At work–Break the role of leadership into different roles and share the responsibility widely.

In your community–Form a neighborhood discussion group to deepen relationships and trust.

How we govern

If the pygmies have a handle on how to operate within groups, the Iroquois excelled in cross-organizational governance. It can only be attributed to cultural prejudice that my high-school political science textbooks neglected to mention that Jefferson and his cronies got most of our US constitution from the Iroquois. Jefferson studied the practices of their long-standing confederation of six nations, patterning our structure and principles off their Great Binding Law. Their democratic methods allowed the many Iroquois tribes to live peacefully for centuries.

Their governance is based on dialog and seeing a problem from several perspectives. Around a central fire, they assemble in three groups of tribes, each side with a speaker.

“A problem is presented from what we call the Well. From there it goes to each of the sides for discussion. Each side agrees or disagrees among itself and sends its decision on the problem back to the Well. There it is adjusted to conform with the decisions of the others. Then it’s sent back out from the Well again. This goes on until the issue is unanimously decided….If there’s a problem we can’t seem to resolve, we reconsider it another time. If, after a third time, there’s still no unanimous decision, then the Tadodaho, or presiding chief…will announce a compromise decision. but if the problem is still divisive, the Tadodaho will say, ‘We will not address it at all,’ because there’s no problem that’s important enough to cause divisions among the people.”

What is telling is not so much what Jefferson took but rather what he left behind. Here are a couple principles he chose to overlook:

  • All water, land and forest was owned communally; there was no private ownership beyond household goods.
  • In part because the women bore sons who could be sent to battle, women were given the power to remove chiefs and nominate another.
  • All tribal decisions were made by consensus with all adults participating. They had universal suffrage long before the white man.
  • Chiefs were not coercive. They acted more like teachers and facilitators.

Having a voice is a critical social glue, now with global significance. Thomas Friedman, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times who has written extensively on the Middle East, strongly believes that Osama Bin Laden’s ability to recruit terrorists from relatively rich countries like Saudi Arabia is directly tied to their lack of a voice in their own country and the prejudice they encountered while living in Europe. Friedman puts it this way in his recent book, Longitudes and Attitudes:

“If we’ve learned one thing since 9/11, it’s that terrorism is not produced by the poverty of money. It’s produced by the poverty of dignity. It is about young middle-class Arabs and Muslims feeling trapped in countries with too few good jobs and too few opportunities to realize their potential or shape their own future-and blaming America for it.”

So our own national security is tied to the governance and tolerance of others.

What’s good for nations can also be good for organizations as well. While participative management practices have become commonplace, corporate governance hasn’t changed. In his book, The Ownership Solution, Jeff Gates explores why capitalism has created so few capitalists, why it disproportionally benefits a small percentage of the people. He believes changing ownership patterns is key to spreading the benefits of capitalism more evenly. Nowadays, corporations are “owned” mostly by institutional investors who gamble on share prices. But they have the least amount of skin in the game. What about the employees whose livelihood is at stake? What about the communities? When did we forget that corporations exist for the public good and are chartered by the people through State government?

It is not enough to let employees buy shares of the company through their 401-K. As Jeff Gates puts it:

“Expecting a broad base of wage earners to buy their way into significant ownership (i.e., from their already stretched paychecks) is what I call ‘Marie Antoinette Capitalism’-only instead of urging ‘let them eat cake,’ the modern refrain is ‘Let them buy shares.’ Today’s closed system of finance has much the same economic effect as the enclosure movement of the eighteenth century-creating pools of people who, deprived of any realistic chance to own, find themselves competing against each other for an ever dwindling number of well-paid jobs.”

Cooperatives, where the employees are the owners, are a viable alternative to our typical corporate structure. While United Airline’s recent bankruptcy might appear to call this ESOP-type structure into question, they failed to implement the cultural change to support the ownership structure. In cooperatives, employees are active participants in decision-making. For example, the Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain prospered for many decades. They provided stable employment during unstable economictimes and  directed bank assets to fund community needs. The employees were the owners, voting on critical decisions. Similarly, Semco in Brazil was revered by labor and business people alike, operating in a democratic fashion.

Costa Rica encourages the formation of cooperatives to rejuvenate rural communities. For example, CASEM, a cooperative formed by women in the remote Monteverde cloud forest to sell their crafts, has provided an additional source of family income and radically changed the status of women in their
society, reducing domestic violence and giving women a voice. While on a volunteer vacation to work with them, I was frequently thanked by people in the community; it seemed everyone we encountered had a mother or sister or cousin involved in the cooperative.

Cooperatives usually focus on employee ownership. But a community can also have an ownership stake; the Green Bay Packers are owned by people in their own community, linking their fates and preventing the team from skipping town for better offers elsewhere. Alaskans all are in effect owners of their oil fields. Gates also talks about ways in which small business people can earn ownership in their Fortune 500 customers.

Private ownership has been a cornerstone of capitalism, but it has been both a blessing and a curse. We have come to believe that people take better care of something they own; (how many times have you washed a rental car?) In our society where things are communally owned, we fall into the trap of the “tragedy of the commons,” where the resource collapses from overuse or over-harvesting. But many Native American tribes had developed strict mores, practices and tribal stories that prevented abuse. Some Northwest tribes, for example, developed elaborate ceremonies to honor the first salmon caught. This ceremony ensured that much of the salmon run would have passed by before fishing began in earnest, assuring future generations of fish. Unless we want to privatize the air, the sea, and freshwater reserves and hope that the owners won’t price us out of life’s necessities, we need to develop a true understanding of communal ownership, what it means for many people to care for something as if it were their own, as opposed to approaching our commons as a free-for-all plunder.

 THINGS YOU CAN DOApplying this in daily life–Use a talking stick in family discussions so everyone can say what they need to without interruption.At work–Consider different ownership structures so that a wider group of stakeholders may benefit from its success and workers are not so dependent upon work hours to prosper.

In your community–Demand that key community assets are owned locally and communally.

The Power of Silence

In our noisy, frenetic culture, we have very little time for quiet and reflection. We’re so addicted to the racket, many shy away from being with our own thoughts. On a day-hike in the Columbia Gorge recently, I was following a man wearing headphones and a portable CD player. He couldn’t hear the chickadees or the waterfalls or the trickling of snowmelt or the wind. What was that about? For many, the wilderness has become an outdoor athletic club instead of an opportunity to commune with nature.

Even when we are quiet, we are still verbal. The voice in our heads isstill chattering away. People who practice meditation experience the power of stilling that voice.

Wolff tells a fascinating story about the Sng’oi bomoh (similar to a shaman) agreeing to teach him about his practice. Repeatedly the shaman took Wolff out into the jungle on long walks. Wolff enjoyed it at first but soon became anxious: what am I supposed to be learning? Why isn’t he telling me anything? I have stuff I need to be doing back at home. It was only after several outings over many months that he was able to shut off the voice in his head and just be. In that instant, he had access to senses and information he could not previously hear over the racket in his brain. And the bomoh, who was much more experienced in this, was able to access information inexplicable to Western science.

I believe there are other ways of knowing. In Western culture, we are so dependent upon words but they deafen us to other senses. There is no objective reality, only our reality. And if we don’t like what we hear or see or experience, we can create a different one. That shift will be key to our developing into a sustainable society.

 THINGS YOU CAN DOApplying this in daily life–Try meditating each day.At work–In vision-, mission-, or goal-setting sessions, help people tap into what is deeply important to them and employ alternatives to verbal discussion (e.g., drawing).

In your community–Fight noise pollution and visual clutter in our communities.

So where to from here?

Ken Wilbur, author of A Brief History of Everything, describes the path of development as having three phases: fusion, differentiation and integration. If you think in terms of human development, a child begins by accepting without questioning his family’s mores, then rebelling against them during the teenage years, and later integrating the new knowledge with the parts of the old, family norms into a new world view. As a society, it seems that Western thought has been stuck in the contentious teenage years for several centuries. Perhaps now it is time to integrate the knowledge and practices of native peoples. The point is not that we should all become indigenous (as if we could!), but rather that it’s time to bring these two world views together, taking the best of both. In this article, I’ve tried to capture some of the social elements of indigenous peoples which we would do well to integrate into the predominate, Western world view so that we all can have a better, more sustainable future.

As I look back through the examples in this article, most point to the contrast between the native emphasis on equality and the Western view of hierarchy. Native groups have hierarchy as well–councils of elders and the like–but how they view hierarchy seems to be different. Chiefs are only roles, not positions, and can be easily replaced by the tribal members if they do not lead well. Talking circles let everyone speak for as long as they want. Social mechanisms like give-aways and potlatches help to balance wealth without demeaning members of the tribe. Each person contributes different things to the health of the tribe (music, humor, hunting, wisdom) but these contributions are valued equally. Humans are seen as equal to, not superior to other species. In ritualistic sports, the goal is to balance opposing forces, not to win. It is ironic that in our “democratic” society we are fixated on hierarchy and do not have the same level of equality taken for granted in many native groups.

These egalitarian practices reinforce a sense of respect, dignity and security for all their members. We instead have to invent surrogate mechanisms to provide the same level of social benefit: we rely on courts to settle our disputes, government to provide a safety net, and IRA’s to protect us in our old age.

The Western thinkers I have referenced also point toward a more egalitarian future. Jeff Gates envisions ways that more people can become owners to spread the benefits from capitalism more widely. Daniel Quinn envisions tribal work groups. Michael Shuman emphasizes the need to create stronger local economies that give people more control over their future.

Over the past few years, our confidence in hierarchy has been seriously eroded. Distrust of our political leaders has been widespread for some time. But now, in addition, sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests has been exposed. The TycoWorldcomEnron debacle defrocks our business leaders. So the integrity of all our major hierarchical institutions is in question. Perhaps this is a first step, a pulling back of the curtain to find the Wizard of Oz is only a flawed human being. Now is the perfect time to seek out the vanishing wisdom of peaceful, indigenous people so we can integrate their insights into a better future for us all. Finally, we may be ready to listen.

So I would like to give the last word to Oren Lyons, Onondaga and spokesperson for the Six Nations Iroquois:

“In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It’s our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world no worse than ours–and hopefully better. When we walk upon Mother Earth we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of our future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them.”


Gates, Jeff (1998) The Ownership Solution: Toward a shared capitalism for the 21st Century. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Inner Press Service (ed.) (1993) Story Earth: Native Voices on the Environment. Inter Press Service.

Mander, Jerry (1991). In the Absence of the Sacred. SF: SierraClub Books.

Kets De Vries, Manfred. “High-Performance Teams: Lessons from the Pygmies”, Organizational Dynamics, Winter 99, p. 66.

Maybury-Lewis, David (1992). Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World. New York: Viking Press.

Mowat, Farley (1976). People of the Deer. Mattituck, NY: American Reprint.

Norberg-Hodge, Helena (1991). Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh.SF: Sierra Club Books. {NOTE: This is also available on video.]

Shuman, Michael H (1998). Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age. NY: The Free Press.

Quinn, Daniel (1999). Beyond Civilization. Harmony Books.

Wall, Steve and Harvey Arden (1990). Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing.

Wolff, Robert (1994). What It Is To Be Human. Freeland, WA: Periwinkle Press. [NOTE: This book is out of print but has been re-released under the title of Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing (2001).]


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