What an Indigenous Worldview Means to Me — and Business

For social justice and for human survival, the Indigenous worldview needs to become our guide for decisions. Businesses can play a role in this transition.

Dr. Tima Bansal is Professor at the Ivey Business School and Founder of NBS.

I started writing this article on Canada Day – July 1, 2021. Canada formed on that day in 1867, with the passing of the British North America Act. It is normally a day of celebration.  

Canada Day was different this year. It was not a day of celebration but, instead, a day of reflection. Canadians are reeling from the discovery of almost 1000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children who were stolen from their homes and placed in residential schools from 1890 to 1969. Over 4000 graves are expected to be ultimately uncovered, yet the true number of dead Indigenous children will likely never be known.  

This shocking information is just another part of the narrative about the violence done to Indigenous peoples generally and to their land and their culture – from Colonial times through the modern era. 

But, this wasn’t the only reason to reflect today. I am also writing from Calgary, where we are experiencing the heatwave scorching all of Western Canada. Most heat records are broken by tenths of a degree, but the one shattered two days ago was by a mind blowing 4.6 degrees in a town called Lytton in the interior of British Columbia.  

The two tragedies – the violence to Indigenous peoples and the violence to the climate – are deeply connected.  

Indigenous peoples have stewarded land with an eye on future generations. Here’s a telling statistic: Lands occupied by Indigenous peoples, who make up only 5% of the world’s population, contain 80% of the world’s biodiversity.  

Settlers started supplanting the Indigenous worldview with what Indigenous peoples call a ‘Western worldview’ almost as soon as they started landing on the shores of North America. Climate change is arguably a consequence of this Western worldview.  

Although it is impossible to return to the past, there is an opportunity to learn from the past. And, an Indigenous worldview has much to offer business, which is based on a Western worldview. The insights can help assure a better future.  

An Indigenous worldview can help embed business in society

An Indigenous worldview is relational. It is holistic, so that the whole is valued more than its parts. People see themselves as deeply connected with everything and everyone around them.   

To understand one’s self requires understanding all that is around. To hurt the land and the community is to hurt ones self. This orientation requires people to listen and learn, to give and take, and to value the future as if it is today. 

Western business leaders, on the other hand, seek understanding — of the world, their operations, their supply chains — by breaking down to their parts. They want to control operations, people and outcomes to secure success. The goal of business is to create value for itself, not to create value for society.  

These two worldviews are incompatible, so business leaders must choose one over the other. Not surprisingly, most businesses take a Western worldview, which is why there is currently a climate crisis and catastrophic biodiversity loss. 

How Western business can learn from an Indigenous worldview

By adopting an Indigenous worldview, Western business can create value not only for itself, but also for society. One doesn’t have to be at the cost of the other.  

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn about how a business might build on the relational approach of an Indigenous worldview. I had organized a workshop for Innovation North, a cross-industry consortium, with Melanie Goodchild, co-founder of indigenous “think and do tank” the Turtle Island Institute.  

The participants were asked to put themselves in the shoes of Cisco executives, who were asked to provide wireless infrastructure to Indigenous peoples on Tribal Land in California. The participants were asked how they would measure success. Many of them answered in ways that reflected a Western worldview: success would be measured by the number of households served, the speed of service, and satisfaction ratings.  

Melanie Goodchild then described to them what she calls ‘relational systems thinking,’ which embodies an Indigenous worldview. She said that any measure of success defined by Cisco executives was inevitably the wrong metric. Success needed to be defined by the community, not Cisco. The only way Cisco executives would know how to measure success was to spend a lot of time listening to the community.  

If they did listen, they would hear that wireless services needed to support, not erode, the culture, the relationship to land, and language. This might mean, then, that Cisco would limit their coverage and accessibility, rather that seek to offer seamless, universal coverage–almost completely at odds to where Cisco would have started.  

An Indigenous worldview aligns with a sustainability

I am not Indigenous, yet what I heard from Melanie Goodchild resonated deeply with my view of sustainability.  

Indigenous peoples talk about the need to account for seven generations in their worldview. This perspective is consistent with sustainability, which also speaks to meeting the needs of future generations. An Indigenous perspective values the practice of listening to land, people and animals, as too does a sustainability perspective. Sustainability calls for harmony among economic development, society, and the environment. It asks that all people be recognized and heard, not just those that ‘create value.’  

Recognizing an Indigenous worldview is not simply a matter of equity, diversity and inclusion. It is much more than that. Our future may actually depend on it.  

I wrote more about the Indigenous worldview in an article I wrote in Forbes

Follow up: Lessons from Lytton

The day after I drafted this article, a story emerged that served as a powerful metaphor for this article.  

Lytton, British Columbia – the place that broke the heat record for Canada — is a small town of about 250 people built on land once owned by the Nlaka’pamux people. The town was formed as a stopover during the gold rush. It was named after Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a colonial secretary and novelist, who was also known for starting his novel with “It was a dark and stormy night.” 

The day after the heat record was broken, a fire broke out. Within 15 minutes of the smoke being detected, the fire had raged out of control and burned down 90% of the town. The territory colonized by the Western pursuit of wealth (gold) had become a lightning rod for climate change.  

Both the Indigenous peoples and the settlers had to evacuate the land.  

Is this the future that has been created by a Western worldview? What colonialists stole from Indigenous people were not just the children, the land, and the culture, but arguably our collective future. It is time for Western business to hear and learn from an Indigenous worldview.  

More From Tima’s Desk

Dr. Tima Bansal, NBS’s Founder, regularly shares her observations about business sustainability. Click the button below to see the full series.

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  • Tima Bansal is the Founder of the Network for Business Sustainability and Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the Ivey Business School (Canada). She also heads Innovation North, which helps businesses create value for themselves and society simultaneously over the long term.

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