Ed. note: You can find Part 1 of this series on Resilience.org here, and Part 2 here.

In the first section we discussed the need for a radical change in our cultural beliefs, and in the way we live on the planet.  In the second section we focused on the need for leadership in making any significant transition.  In this section we will look at the ways native communities organized their government to insure the ongoing support of the tribe.

In order to insure fair representation and that all voices are heard, some tribes appoint representatives for the aspects of their world that have no voice, such as future generations, ancestors, water, fish, and animals.  Jeannette Armstrong of the Okanagan Nation talks about security as the result of every voice being heard.  She understands that to make decisions by vote of the majority is basically an adversarial approach.  “From our point of view the minority voice is the most important voice to consider.  The minority voice expresses the things that are going wrong, the things that we’re not looking after, the things that we’re not doing, the things we’re not being responsible toward, the things we’re being aggressive about or trying to overlook by sweeping under the carpet or shoving out the door.”  She goes on to describe the results of every person feeling heard, “People in the community change.  Something happens inside where the material things don’t have a lot of meaning, where material wealth and the securing of it or being fearful and being frightened about not having “things” to sustain you, disappears.  They start to lose their power.”4

The irony of our democratic system is that leaders win elections through a process that amounts to buying votes by making campaign promises either to pass particular legislation or bring new business or welfare to the constituents.  The perversion is that they promise actions that they cannot make good on when they are elected.  As a result politicians almost universally lose the respect of their constituents after the election “give away”.  In the United States, the Bureau of Indian Affairs mandates that the tribes be governed by a tribal council elected by popular vote.  I talked to community leader in one tribe who said that their elections were fraught with the same issues as our national elections, candidates buying votes and abusing their office for their own personal gain.  From that I conclude that the fault lies in the elections system itself, not with the gullibility of the voters.

Expanding Aboriginal Government to a Larger Population

How could this be applied to a larger body of citizens?  Without getting in the mechanical details which is the way we Eurocentric people tend to think, we need to come from a fundamentally different paradigm.  In the aboriginal cultures, there was no authority that had coercive power, the power to tax, to raise an army, to force people to work on a public project.  The system was set up on the basis that people wanted to cooperate and needed a format to come to consensus on the best course of action.

A system that functions on that basis must be founded on a local level in groups that are small enough so that personal relationships and trust can form.  These leaders would be chosen in local elections.  Local leaders would gather to choose regional or state leaders from among their ranks and regional leaders choose national leaders in a similar way, maintaining the chain of personal connection and trust.  For direct public input there would be a state and national referendum process to choose a minority of representatives and vote on specific measures.

Even on the local level, election reform is essential.  Ilarion Merculieff tells a story about a tribal election in the NW territories of Canada.  The campaigning had become bitter and contentious and was destroying the cohesiveness of the village.  The elders stepped in and made the rule that each candidate in their speech could only talk about the opponent, and could only say positive things about them.  The result was a profound healing, and one candidate backed down saying that he thought that in reality the other one would do a better job.  An extreme case perhaps, but the point is clear that some standard of behavior needs to be established so the debate is civil, informative, and relevant.  Campaigning as it is often done today on a national level, with its chest pounding exhortations that my way is the right way and the other guy is a jerk does not lead to trust in the leadership, or the ability of the leaders to work together for the common good.

Can we establish a system to vet candidates as in the tribes?  Why not institute a licensing system?  A license is required to drive almost any vehicle, but none to drive the ship of state.  To get a license to enter politics would require a course of study, call it a masters degree in leadership.  To get the license the final step is coming before a review board composed of elders, psychologists and retired politicians with a balance of genders, at least 40% men and 40% women. The board would make their decision based on the competence of the candidate, and also on his or her psychological fitness to serve the whole without succumbing to the temptation to use the office for their own gain.

In conclusion, the system based on the desire to cooperate for the common good must have checks in place to correct itself if any part of it devolves into an adversarial process.  Disagreements will occur and should be welcomed, but the means of resolving them should not be adversarial.  Immense damage to the system is done by the post election process of disassembling what a previous administration did just because it was done by an opposing party, not because of its own merits or flaws, and of removing talented leaders with valuable experience because they are of the wrong party.  The us versus them mentality leads to a situation of government versus the people, of one party versus the other with no room for compromise and little forward progress.

Decisions by Consensus

Decisions on a tribal level were by consensus out of necessity.  It would not work in a small community to have 49% of the community disgruntled over the actions of the majority.  On a larger scale it is difficult to achieve consensus since it is a process of working within a contained group of people and being willing to expand ones’ vision to include the whole group and how each option on the table will affect the whole.

Is there a system that can work with a larger population?  One example of an alternative is found in the constitution of the Haida Nation.   There is an elected Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) and a council of Hereditary Chiefs.  Decisions by the CHN require a 2/3 majority.  The Hereditary Chiefs have the function of approving or rejecting decisions by the CHN that involve international agreements as well as serving as an advisory board to the council.  They also must approve of proposals brought before the CHN.  The system retains the access to wisdom of the elders who are not subject to popular election while incorporating a democratic elections process.  Requiring a 2/3 majority insures that there is significant support for an action, not a bare majority leaving 49% of the people unrepresented.

The Economy

Capitalism is incompatible with a sustainable society.  We have a flawed financial system that is destined to go through cycles of boom and bust until it finally collapses under the debt load.  The essence of capitalism is the right of private ownership.  Other counties have tried other “ isms”, communism, Marxism socialism, but none of them seems any better.  What do we know of the aboriginal cultures?

Capitalism creates separation.  The primary directive is to accumulate resources symbolized by money through good business management and hard work.  There is little acknowledgement that the poor are a direct outcome of a system that focuses on building wealth in a competitive environment, which by its nature depends on the creation of a large population of poor and middle class workers to support the few wealthy “owners”.

There is no incentive to share wealth with the community, other than personal satisfaction from being generous.  We still have that value.  But most sharing takes place through taxation which creates an adversarial relationship with the taxing authority.

Private ownership of land in conjunction with the belief that we have “dominion over the Earth” leads to the degradation of the land and the commons because it is likely to be sold to the highest bidder or developed for the highest economic gain.   In native cultures the concept of owning the land made no sense.  Land was sacred.  It was a gift to all.

Perhaps the greatest dangers to our civilization are the parts of the environment that are not even under the jurisdiction of a country such as the ocean past the territorial limits, and the air we breathe.  We have done a poor job of managing the commons of every scale.  To make the system really work again implies a paradigm shift.  Just as in the case of the aboriginal tribal member thinking in terms what would support the community we, both as individuals and as a collective “nation states”, need to think in global terms.  It will not work to tackle the problem only on the national scale.  One country can plant trees while another with a much larger forest cuts them down for short term profit or political gain.

The Northwest coastal tribes probably had the greatest individual wealth of any North American tribe, and wealth was aspired to, but there the similarity with modern culture ends.  Wealth was not the goal in itself.  The honor came in how much a person could give away.  Wealth served the whole community, not just the individual.  Because of the principal of reciprocity, giving away wealth also created bonds with those who were on the receiving end, even if they could not repay the gift in kind, there was a sense of loyalty which held the community together.

The Potlatch was a business meeting, a spiritual revival and a social welfare program.  In one function, the guests were invited to witness the business transaction taking place, be it an agreement between tribes, the raising of a pole, or a wedding.  Since there were no written records having the event witnessed cemented the agreement in multiple eyes.  Following the business there was dancing and ceremony to honor the role of spirit in bringing the meeting to a successful conclusion and reminding those present of the essential role of their spirit relatives.  The final phase was the giveaway.  Often the gifts were essential supplies such as blankets, eulachon oil, or skins.  The gifts were both as payment for being the witness and as a way of affirming the status of the holder of the potlatch in the community.  The Potlatch cemented relationships within the community and with the spiritual ground of being, nourishing the participants on multiple levels.

Aboriginals did not have a global impact, but they did form alliances and have treaties among neighboring tribes over territories resource management.  Agreement was possible because they understood that it would benefit the whole to conserve their environment and the animals they depended on.  Maintaining the commons was not an issue to be tackled in isolation, it was an outgrowth of the basic desire to live well together by insuring that everyone was taken care of.

Without that ethic it is hard to imagine a global agreement on preserving the commons taking place.  True, we have made those agreements in the past most notably on the ozone depletion, but capitalist ethic supported by carbon fuels are woven so deeply into our society that resistance to change has stalled any meaningful action, and likely will continue until the system fails.

Tweaking the edges of capitalism will not work.  However, there are valuable parts of the capitalist system.  The free market – if we actually had one – is an efficient way to allocate resources. The market economy is not intrinsically linked to the capitalist value system.  All aboriginal tribes traded freely with other tribes, sometimes half a continent away.  There are many flaws in the current system.  Some stem from private ownership which is reflected in the excess of wealth in a few hands, and in the stockholder-owned corporation which owes its allegiance to the stockholder and not the community. This results in having no long term incentive to preserve resources, to treat workers fairly, or to create products that are sustainable or recyclable.

Are there examples in our own culture that are worth developing?  One hopeful shift is the growth of not-for-profit businesses.  These include co-ops, government-owned businesses and foundation-owned businesses.  They are not necessarily set up as tax exempt non-profit corporations, but because they are owned by the employees or the customers, they do not owe allegiance to stockholders.  In the end that saves money and allows them to focus on serving their customers’ needs which gives them a competitive advantage.

Another is the public banking movement gaining momentum in California.  A publicly owned bank would have the advantage that decisions on who to lend money to and the interest rate involved could be regulated based on the value of the enterprise to society and not strictly on the level of security the borrower can provide.  If there was a national public banking system, the federal government could use public works projects to create money and control the money supply rather than depending on private banks to do it.  If done judiciously, the government could run with far less debt creation than currently because capital expenses such as roads would be paid for by creating the money rather than selling treasury bonds or raising taxes.  However, until we create a government that can control spending, a public banking system will only lead to inflation.

The greatest damage to the environment and to society comes from the multinational corporations that are mandated to focus on profits for their stockholders.  To tame them we can adopt principles from the Algonquin: every voice must be heard, and the minority voice is the most important.  Based on those concepts, corporate board of directors would include a balance of men and women, representatives for the workers, the residents of affected neighborhoods, consumers, and the planet, in addition to shareholders.  Each class of representatives would have veto power over actions that directly affect their interests.  Workers could block moving a manufacturing plant to China, neighborhood representatives could block a fracking operation that threatened their water supply, the earth representatives could block a plan that would export pollution to a third world country or damage the commons in some other way.

Ultimately, to be sustainable, the economy needs to be downsized and localized.  According to the Global Footprint Network, The USA is exceeding the bio-capacity to support our consumption by 122%.   Merely transitioning from carbon based fuel to solar and wind power will not solve this, for it does not address all the other factors, such as the extraction of metals, minerals or water for manufacturing and agriculture.  It does not account for the loss of topsoil or biodiversity.  None of these assets are being replaced by the natural system in a time frame of the rise and fall of civilizations.  While better recycling programs can help, common sense dictates that we need to reduce our consumption.  What we need to give up will depend on how soon we make the change, but we will need to let go of some of our material goods.  From the perspective of our material culture this looks like a sacrifice, but the rewards of living in a supportive community, connected with what it truly means to be human on this earth far outweigh the loss of gadgets.   To live from our heart, connected to all life and to the earth itself, requires a level of humility few westerners have experienced.  It is from that sense of humility that the wisdom of how to live in harmony will arise.

In summary, if we are willing to do our personal work to live from the heart and return to living in connection with the earth and each other, we can create models of a more sustainable society that meet our real needs better than the current system.  With the support of a community we trust and a clear view of our potential, we can experience the growing crisis as an opportunity to make the needed changes rather than sink into despair or live in fear of the future.

  1. Original Instructions:Indigenous Teachings For a Sustainable World. Ed by Melissa K. Nelson, Bear & Co, 2008
  2. http://data.footprintnetwork.org/?_ga=2.242021698.1950006330.1571497516-1179314747.1571497516#/