Indigenous Economics


In 2019, I was fortunate to work on an oral history of the US social investment movement with Cherokee economist Rebecca Adamson. Along the way, she introduced me to the principles of indigenous economics that I later summed up in the list below.

Enoughness: Western economics is based on the idea of individuals with infinite wants competing for scarce resources. Indigenous economics assumes that nature provides enough for our needs.

Subsistence: Western economics focuses on accumulation of extra resources beyond what is needed now. Indigenous economics focuses on providing what is needed now and maintaining the ability of the ecosystem to provide what is needed in the future.

Risk avoidance & diversification: While Western economies tend to plan for the average year, indigenous economies plan for the worst year. Relatedly, while the West has become focused on a relatively narrow set of foods, indigenous peoples maintain many animal and plant food sources.  Their lands contain about 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, although they cover less than 20% of the Earth.

Stewardship and production: Western conservation opposes humanity and nature, seeking to keep parkland human-free. The indigenous view is that nature produces what we need because we protect it, and we protect it because it produces for us. (Worldwide, over 1 million indigenous peoples have been displaced from their traditional lands to make way for parks.)

Flexible & multiple roles: Western economics is based on the division of labor, with people specializing in different jobs. People in indigenous communities do many different tasks in the course of a year, as everyone participates in projects that need to be done at a particular time (e.g., hunting of an animal at a particular season, harvesting of a certain plant, or building homes).

Leveling of social ranks: Because surplus resources are immediately shared, people do not become rich; and many customs exist to prevent the development of hierarchies. Among the Yanomami in Brazil, it is the custom for hunters to exchange the prey they kill in the forest before returning to the village, so that men do not become overly attached to their achievements. Humor is also often used to prevent arrogance. For example, one source I read noted that among the !Kung bushmen, the comrades of a successful hunter engage in a ritual insulting of the kill and his ability (e.g., “that’s so small! Maybe we should just leave it and go hunt something bigger.”) By convention, the successful hunter must respond in kind: “You’re right!  Even a rabbit would be better.”) After everyone has a good laugh, they cut up the meat and go home.

I’ve thought of these principles often since, and wondered: could they be adapted for our modern lives?

~ Kimberly Gladman ~