What native insight can teach us about responsible development

The criteria for economic decision-making among indigenous peoples often involves holistic considerations that go beyond simply balancing people, planet and profits.

Umi Perkins

An Australian aboriginal elder, David Burrumarra, was approached by an Australian oil company with a proposal for extracting oil from under his tribe’s land. The company offered what seemed like a generous profit-sharing offer. The tribal council deliberated, but slept on the decision, as the “dreaming” is a central feature of aboriginal decision-making. That night, the chief dreamt that while walking in his tribe’s territory, he found in a hole in the ground the largest nugget of gold imaginable. In his dream, he reached down and lifted the gigantic nugget out of the ground, thinking “all this wealth can be ours.” Precisely as he was lifting the gold out of the hole, his soul, his spirit, his identity—everything that made him who he was—drained into the hole in the ground. When he woke, he told the council of the dream, and, based on that dream, the tribe turned down the oil company’s offer.

This story, told in the book The Whale and the Cross by Ian McIntosh, former director of Cultural Survival, evokes elements of an indigenous philosophy that can inform economic decisions in ways that consider a larger perspective than is currently considered in the business community. In the emerging body of Indigenous theory, I have identified several recurring components; the concept of harmony or balance, the importance of place and history, experience, practice and process, the holistic and collective nature of indigeneity, and the cyclical and genealogical nature of time. In particular, the concept of balance, and the holistic view can profoundly alter the ways in which economic decisions are considered. In my native Hawaiian community, the word pono has many meanings, but all evoke balance—between rights and responsibilities, the individual and the state, even between right and wrong. Pono is holistic in that it views all sides of an issue even-handedly, rather than in a binary, black-white, right-wrong, dichotomy.

Moving beyond the “progressive” three Ps of the triple bottom line business model—people, planet, profit—a truly holistic model asks “What are the spiritual consequences of a decision?” This is seen in Native Hawaiian resistance to geothermal energy development, which is seen as tapping the life force of the volcano goddess Pele. An Indigenous, holistic framework can even consider the psychological, or “shadow,” impact of development, as seen in Native opposition to the introduction of cable television in remote areas with its adult content and concomitant effects on gender relations.

But native economic decision-making is not only about resisting development. In Hawaiʻi, MAʻO farms is a community-based agribusiness that simultaneously offers internships that offset college costs, works toward food independence and sustainability, and offers consumers the chance to “eat the community’s story,” rather than merely a food product. As native Canadian author Thomas King writes, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” MAʻO’s award-winning, multifaceted approach addresses many issues at once, not by ignoring the bottom line, but by viewing it a part of a larger context. Community, sovereignty, education, economics, and environment are all considered in MAʻO’s decisions. In a word, they strive for pono.

In an economic world that only views action as important, Indigenous people can provide a new lens by considering what does not happen. Preventing environmental degradation must be as significant an outcome as economic growth in a sustainable development model in which sustainable comes before development. As Native American leader Winona Laduke states, she is profoundly “conservative” in the sense that she promotes the conservation of shared resources. In the same vein, nature writer Barry Lopez offers an ethic of limits that is both environmentally, and, in a sense, fiscally, conservative. Laduke’s view is holistic, looking to heal “all our relations”—those with the Earth, and with each other.