Economics from an Indigenous Perspective

Both David Morse ("A Quaker Response to Economic Globalization," FJ May) and Jack Powelson ("Economics by innuendo and error," Viewpoint, FJ Aug.) seem genuinely intent on bringing justice and balance to an exceedingly powerful economic system. The concern raises the question of how we introduce recognition of indigenous cultural ways not yet recognized in Western economic structures. Indigenous peoples are increasingly insistent (and rightfully so) about being equal participants in the process of recognition in order to meet increasingly critical situations. The marginalization of indigenous perspectives reflects an asymmetry of ideas and priorities between western and indigenous cultures.

The conditions of participation in Western economic aid projects through the WTO, IMF, and other institutions are determined by their very structures. As noted by Jack Powelson, "No government is forced to borrow from the Fund, but if it does borrow, it must accept the Fund’s conditions." The altruistic "arduous task of training to increase worker skills" reflects a denial in many instances of legitimate indigenous ethics and practices regarding work and life. Indigenous leaders are very patiently working to express their ways to the Western systems of nations. These differences are a gift and they introduce perspectives that perhaps yield greater clarity for us if approached in the spirit of Matthew 7:2-5. In a spirit of reciprocity one must ask how it is that we enjoy the fruits of cultures born of a way of being that Western systems seek to dominate, control, and at times eliminate. It is not an easy question, but all of us can benefit from the answer.

Both justice and balance involve equal recognition of perspectives of the people seeking to engage in life. We must be aware that to claim the right to define the terms by which we "help" is in fact a form of governing. How do we address the concept of informed consent of the governed of peoples about whom we are still learning? This is a basic element of democracy.

Fortunately concerned individuals, theologians, anthropologists, and archeologists are documenting indigenous peoples’ oral history and integrity that have been denied by U.S. society during the whole of its existence. In the process of choosing to engage as equals, subtle and rich perspectives are once again being heard.

The culture of many indigenous peoples is based in an economy of reciprocity. This includes material matters but is also based in a meeting of equals in all encounters, including elemental respect for spiritual clarity. The Western idea of profit through accumulation is neither accepted nor rejected, but simply not a part of the heritage of many indigenous cultures. To find oneself with an excess of something is to be enabled to assure the well-being of others. We in the U.S. have been conditioned to reject this as communism when it is a communitarian practice. This ethic and spiritual perspective reflects Matthew , Chapter 14. To accumulate, without distributing so that everyone has what is needed, is interpreted by many cultures as a profound spiritual weakness. Perhaps these questions are worth exploring while considering why so many of our societal patterns and practices are troubled by being addictive, wasteful, and poisonous to the environment. Many surviving indigenous people live the Christian ethic: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Mbya-Guarani of South America have continued to practice this spiritual ethic despite 500 years of conquest of nearly every aspect of their way of being.

If we claim that Western systems of thought must define all reasoning we exclude ourselves from the breadth of the Creation at our own peril. What does it mean for our own spiritual integrity if we ignore the path of our indigenous brothers and sisters in the family of humanity? In the words of Martin Buber, "Relation is reciprocity. My You acts on me as I act on it. Our students teach us; our works form us. The ‘wicked’ become a revelation when they are touched by the sacred basic word. How are we educated by children, by animals! Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity."

For the Mbya-Guarani of Morro dos Cavalos in Brazil the word for "word" is the same as for "soul." Their way of life is informed by the myth of the "Land of no Evil." Rather than being a utopia or dream of a perfect world, this is an internalized balance that has historically been sustained through sacred everyday activity, including migration through vast regions of forest protecting and nurturing balances we are only beginning to understand. The children are nurtured from conception and nested in the community. Parents hold sacred their own well-being through dietary and behavioral practices and are supported in a sacred community network. Anger is regarded as the root of all evil, and spiritual integrity informs community activity to assure protection of the children, which sustains the way of being true Mbya-Guarani.

The forest in which they live is what a Westerner might think of as home, library, pharmacy, and link to the cosmos. It has been said that a jurua (non-Indian) could walk through a portion of the forest regions without even being aware of horticultural management because it is so well integrated with natural forest growth.

Western economics is an imperfect institution of human design. Unlike Western structures, which historically seek to impose ways of being, the Mbya seek only the means to continue to exist in full integration with the sacred in daily life. There is increasing evidence that within our ecological, social, and economic problems, when considered in this context, we may find richly promising perspectives to explore.

We are being asked to affirm that the sacred Creation involves how we do everything we do, and to journey together at a mutually critical time. Humility, spiritual clarity, and fearless faith to journey in this evolving reality can only prove to be a gift for all of God’s children.

Margaret A. Kidd
Peterborough, N.H.