The Common Good
May 2008

Indigenous Economics

by Rebecca Adamson | May 2008

New investment strategies among native people help create holistic and sustainable communities.

I grew up as the daughter of a Cherokee mother and a Swedish father. The Christian teachings of my childhood and the deeply infused way of being in the world I experience as an Indigenous person shape my understanding of economics—and of what is possible. In the United States, we interact daily with an economic system that undermines basic Christian values of concern for the poor and love of one’s neighbors and violates Indigenous values of harmony, balance, and reciprocity within creation. Individualism, greed, and overconsumption are fear-based responses that deny the abundance provided by the Creator.

For centuries, Indigenous Peoples have infused our individual and collective economic activities with the moral frameworks that flow from our spiritual values. Increasingly, such holistic approaches to the marketplace are becoming the touchstone of new investment strategies for all people.

For example, in the 1980s the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota—home to the Lakota People—was the poorest county in the U.S. Dollars that flowed into Pine Ridge quickly left the community, heading for non-Indigenous businesses in border towns. Seeking to disprove the conventional belief that poor people made poor customers, Lakota leaders began a survey to understand the economy of their community.

What they found surprised them. Many small businesses existed but were vulnerable because they lacked small amounts of additional capital to expand and to allow them to survive economically slow periods. With this information leaders began Lakota Funds, one of the first institutions in the U.S. to provide microloans to nourish local businesses and keep dollars circulating within the community. Over 20 years, La­ko­ta Funds has spawned more than 100 community businesses and has served as a model for hundreds of other microcredit loan funds that seek to link values of poverty alleviation with community economic development throughout the U.S.

The Menominee in Wisconsin offer another example. Today, when I visit my Menominee friends and walk through their verdant forest, I find neither a land scarred by clear-cuts nor streams filled with silt from runoff, but instead land where cut stands are replaced by lush meadows and where wildlife is plentiful.

No strangers to lumber markets, the Menominee have been sustainably harvesting and selling timber from their richly forested land since 1850. The Menominee operate their business according to Indigenous economic principles that take only the trees that nature can afford to give. By operating this way, the Menominee have preserved the profit stream of the forest in perpetuity. If they aggressively clear-cut the forest, it would be exhausted in a matter of years. The Menominee’s sustainable harvesting practices have become a model for the forest products industry. Buyers aggressively seek their certified sustainable lumber and pay premium prices.

“If we maintain a healthy, vibrant forest over the long term,” tribal forester Marshall Pecore told The Christian Science Monitor, “it will sustain the people and the land itself.”

The Menominee are not alone in demonstrating the effectiveness of Indi­genous models of natural resource management. Through­out the world, a growing number of studies have concluded that Indi­genous Peoples applying ancient wisdom have been as effective in conserving biodiversity resources as high-cost conservation NGOs that advocate science-based models that have resulted in the eviction of more than 1.5 million Indigenous Peoples from their territories over the last 10 years.

My organization, First Peoples Worldwide, has sought through its Keepers of the Earth Fund to provide small grants to Indigenous communities throughout the world, to support them as they reclaim long-standing wisdom in managing their territories and demonstrating the scientific merit of ancient wisdom. This fund promotes sharing of this information both within the community of Indigenous practitioners and with the broader world that hungers for new solutions to endemic problems.

This kind of thinking—that our asset decisions affect not only our short-term bottom line but also future generations—has gradually infiltrated the investment world over the last 50 years. Particularly in the last decade, discussions of values and social impacts have become part of the mainstream business and investment lexicon, building on a half-century of social investment practice.

IN THE 1990s, social investors began to recognize and support Native American-led community economic development through targeted investments. With awareness of Indigenous rights continuing to build and the tools employed by social investors growing more sophisticated, respect for Indigenous Peoples took a giant step forward in 1999 when Kinder, Lydenberg, & Domini, a firm that researches the social responsibility record of corporations, committed to provide investors with specific information regarding corporate practices of engagement with Indigenous Peoples. Concurrently, the Calvert Social Investment Fund further upped social investors’ focus on Indigenous issues, becoming the first mutual fund to formally adopt an Indigenous-rights screen. The Calvert screen uses as its basis international treaties that define and protect Indigenous rights.

What the Indigenous-rights screen allowed that none of the human rights or environmental screens provided was respect and dignity for Indigenous culture, intellect, property, and self-determination. Too many times our children face the insults of advertising’s negative images, gross caricatures of their ancestors (from Tootsie Roll’s “little chief” on candy wrappers and Liz Claiborne’s Crazy Horse brand to the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians mascots), or cartoonish replays of their traditions, all in the name of marketing.

At the same time, some Indigenous tribal leaders were recognizing that the new tools developed by social investors could be useful in their efforts to bring corporations to the bargaining table. In the 1980s, the grand council of the James Bay Cree launched one of the earliest uses of such tactics in its historic struggle with a regional energy corporation, Hydro-Québec.

In response to concerns about environmental degradation on the Cree’s territory in northern Québec, the Cree launched a campaign to revoke the company’s license to operate and curtail future hydroelectric development on their land. Angered by Hydro-Québec’s violation of an earlier agreement, the Cree worried about the company’s far-reaching plans to build one of the largest dams on the continent on Cree land. Cree leaders first targeted utility customers of Hydro-Québec and won contract cancellations by utilities in Maine and New York. Next, in 1995, they targeted Hydro-Québec’s funders, convincing Tufts University’s trustees to be the first of several U.S. institutions to divest their school’s Hydro-Québec bonds. With key constituents withdrawing their support for the project, Québec government officials placed future hydro development on indefinite hold.

The disputes simmered over the next decade until the two sides and the Canadian government joined at the negotiating table and hammered out an agreement. Under the terms of a settlement announced last July, the James Bay Cree assume full responsibility for all policing, sanitation, courts, and social and economic development within their territory. Hydro-Québec paid the Cree $1.2 billion, money that the First Nation is using to adapt its economy to new realities in ways that continue to be based on Cree cultural values.

AFTER CENTURIES OF being in the position of reacting to the plans of powerful outside actors such as governments and corporations, a growing number of Indigenous Peoples are beginning to articulate their own culturally appropriate development policies for corporations seeking to operate on their lands. Aboriginal Australians are taking the lead in these efforts, specifying things such as “no-go zones” surrounding sacred areas and respect for traditional areas used for subsistence activities. Other Indigenous communities have begun to discuss measuring the success of development projects by Indigenous cultural indicators that consider the well-being of the human community and the environment, rather than simply measuring success by the economics-oriented factors commonly used by corporations.

Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and traditional practice also offer valuable technologies in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. Indigenous practitioners of traditional stewardship are forming global networks to share their experiences in living in respectful balance on the 22 percent of earth’s land surface that is home to Indigenous Peoples. The transformation will continue to be nourished by connecting communities to capital and by extending the wisdom gained by listening to these keepers of the earth.

Rebecca Adamson, a Cherokee, is the founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide, which helps strengthen Indigenous communities through asset control. For more information, see www.firstpeoplesworldwide.org, www.lakotafund.org, and

www.sustainabledevelopmentinstitute.org.

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