I get asked a lot when telling people about my book and the work we’re doing in bringing Indigenous Principles to business as a force of culture change, “What do Indians have to teach us about business when they can barely function in the modern world?” It’s a fair question, one to which my publisher specifically asked for more elaboration on and not just to leave it as a truthful irony. The truth is that we draw some of our greatest learning from unexpected places.
Consider that if Indigenous People were naturally adept at adjusting to modern culture, and in particular to the world of business and commerce, we wouldn’t have much of a reason to look at their culture at all. We would just assume that modern culture is better and point to their easy adjustment as a sign that our way is better. We might look at their prior culture from an anthropological perspective and point out how interesting their lives were and then wax poetic about how great it is that we were able to save them from their primitive lives and deliver them to the much better modern world with all our modern conveniences, technology, and sophistication.
I don’t mean to make generalizations, as there are a good many Indigenous People who walk quite effectively between the worlds of Indigenous and modern culture, but there is a large majority of traditional Indigenous People who can barely make it in the big cities. They find them too noisy, too fast, too complicated, and too disconnected from nature. They don’t instinctively take to such tools of modern society as technology, spreadsheets, legalese, and deal negotiation. My Navajo relations have a tradition of burying the umbilical cord of their newborn babies on the land of their ancestors as a way of connecting their children with the Earth at the time of their beginning. As the children grow they are taught of this connection and reminded that a piece of them will always live in “this land.” This is a cultural tradition that remains strong to this day and speaks to why it is so difficult for many Navajo people to leave their homes and move to the big cities.
There is something for us all to learn from the observation of how Indigenous People struggle so much in the modern world. Just as any parent will attest to moments of illumination from their five-year-old, or a teacher learning from a student, or a scientist stumbling on a great discovery by accident, or physical illness teaching us about health and respecting our body. The point is that we so often learn our greatest lessons from unexpected places, and that significant learning can come from discord, disharmony, and disconnection. Nice lessons tied up in a pretty box with a bow tend not to draw our attention as closely or as deeply as those that are thrust upon us through confusion and difficulty.
Indigenous People do have a very significant learning for those of us immersed in the business world, one that can deliver us to balance and harmony and shared abundance for all. The irony isn’t an irony, it’s the discord that draws our attention closer, that sparks our interest and desire to understand why this modern world is so difficult for traditional Indigenous People to comprehend and to adapt to. There in lies the lesson. Our modern world is upside down to the Indigenous mindset, which begs the question: Why?