MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Seeing with Native Eyes

"At the margins of the capitalist economy there…exists hybrid economic models... no less scientific because they are not couched in equations or produced by Nobel laureates. Out of these situations might emerge other ways of building economies, dealing with basic needs, of coming together into social groups."
A. Escobar. Encountering Developing:
Making and Unmaking of the Third World

Among those living at the margins of the United States' economy are rural and tribal communities of color that are structurally poor, socially conflicted and generally powerless. Surprisingly, within these marginal communities during the latter half of the 20th century, innovative hybrid economic strategies have emerged which graft aspects of the modern market economy to cultural assets and traditional practices. The goals are to meet basic needs while creating culturally sustainable economic opportunities. Many of these development organizations are led by Native American women and Hispanas. They were formed in resistance to the imported development strategies which left women at the "bed making, dish washing, piece work" bottom of the benefit ladder. Disruption of cultural practices, social alienation of youth, and degradation of cultural assets was too high a price to pay for a minimum wage job. Under the leadership of these women, cultural, economic, and environmental justice was woven into the range of strategies created to provide sustenance with dignity for families, and secure economic futures for the children within respective cultural legacies.

In 1998, nearly three decades into these economic experiments, eight Native American and Hispana women met on a brilliant spring weekend in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Between us was nearly 200 years of experience in community development and creating hybrid economic strategies within traditional land based cultures. Numbered in our group were two MacArthur fellows, directors of several award-winning nonprofits and a couple of published authors. We came together out of mutual concern that our visions of indigenous economic development were being paved over by "silver bullet" policies and funding fads. We sought to understand the cultural and economic assumptions embedded in our work and searched to surface its economic theory. We were self critical about not taking ourselves seriously as practicing economists. While the mainstream doesn't generally view women, especially women of color, as economists or economic developers, there is no excuse for us to accept this judgment.

We began by evaluating decades of failed public and private economic development strategies within our communities/native nations. Many of these failures had motivated us to design hybrid economic strategies from the vantage point of knowing what we didn't want in an economy. From this analysis came questions which captured some of the challenges and opportunities in creating equitable culturally sustainable economies.

  • What conditions are necessary to connect traditional economic values, practices and resources to modern business practices to create successful enterprises leading to vital hybrid economies?
  • What does it take to stop destructive resource extraction which degrades environments?
  • What innovative methods can be developed to heal degraded environments in a manner that provides economic benefit to communities?
  • How do we deal with some in the environmental sector who utilize legislation and litigation to seek domain over land, waters and wildlife within cultural homelands?
  • Can tribes and villages create "parallel economies" that meet the basic needs of the community, sustain cultural values and environmental health (or healing) while engaging in profitable economic intercourse with the mainstream economy?
  • What conditions are required to utilize a culture's land and natural resource base profitably within its spiritual values?
  • What methods of education and skills development are most effective in oral traditions or in cultures where the learning process is "to do" rather than "to study?"

We made plans to address these issues in a series of retreats, research papers, and dissemination of case studies. Needless to say, we were unable to find support to continue this work after our first retreat. I believe it's the price we pay for a holistic, culturally steeped approach to economics. Perhaps we are seen as romantic. But our work does not emanate from untested ideologies, nor do we have illusions about re-constituting an intact pre-conquest past. Perhaps the heart of the matter is that most policy makers, funders, corporate leaders, and academic researchers cannot see our work. Anthropologist Barre Toelken (Seeing with the Native Eye) describes this affliction: "Scientific experiments prove that if certain ideas are offered people in patterns they have not been taught to recognize, not only will they not understand them, they will not even see them…..a person will look right through something he or she is not trained to see."

A native eye is needed to see that when women practice development, we aren't "building a house," we are growing an organism. This organism marries indigenous knowledge with modern best practices in a process that transforms individual and community dependence and powerlessness. Transformation is more important than the enterprise or product developed. Transformation is the development. A native eye is necessary to understand that reversing the ravages of conquest and racism cannot be accomplished in three year funding cycles or silver bullet economic development fads. Transformation requires persistent, culturally effective support for generations.

As resources are generally in the hands of those with a "non-native eye," this work is woefully under-supported or ignored. Women indigenous leaders, often along side men comfortable with women's leadership, have created programs which grow out the practical details of how to make cultural legacies and economic opportunity accessible. We have rewoven relationships: intergenerational, inter-community, inter-continental, inter-cultural and inter-indigenous nations. We have restored old practices, healing ways, ceremony, endangered breeds, seeds, and uses of the land and water. We have worked to reclaim traditional arts, language, stories, sacred sites, historic buildings, and community owned spaces. We have developed economic programs which spread benefits widely through long term commitments to share the risks of enterprise development and provide effective experience-based skills development programs.

Today in the Hispano homelands and Native nations some of the more mature development organizations are disappearing. Their work doesn't fit funding fads, and/or they have been the victims of back room deals with policy makers and/or funding gatekeepers who decide resource allocation. Some of the organizations are led by women who have been judged as weak, inarticulate or passive. They are seen as ineffective, as it is difficult to "measure" or "evaluate" their method of leadership. Many of these women lead with hands and hearts in networks of relationships that accomplish change. They reach people excluded by cerebral approaches by involving them in practical work which eventually informs indigenous analysis and experience based ideology. The nonprofit sector gives ample lip service to the need for diversity except when it comes to accepting diverse leadership styles.

As we lose these organizations we are losing cultural knowledge and leadership development methods tested over time. And yes, some nonprofits have made their mark and outlived their usefulness. Others, however, continue to be critically relevant to this ongoing experiment of building hybrid economies and societies. It takes the native eye to know the difference.

Untrammeled capitalism is the breeding ground for a terrorism constructed of structural inequity, chronic racism, and violent intolerance. There are solutions to this kind of terrorism in communities working at the margins of the global capitalist economy. Innovative leaders world wide are testing hybrid economic strategies which can reverse inequity by harnessing aspects of the market economy to cultural assets and practices. The goal is not singular: to create opportunities for individuals to amass wealth. Its goals are holistically interdependent: to meet basic needs of the people, protect environments, protect ancestral land, water, and culture, and provide economic security for future generations. If successful, the outcome will be societies where culture is not static but transformative; where people revitalize their way of life for future generations by taking hold of the reins of their economy. This kind of work is indispensable to accomplishing effective sovereignty in indigenous nations and on cultural homelands. Hope requires me to believe that poverty, racism and intolerance can be reversed through this work which provides a place to practice justice and a place for the non-native eye to learn to see.

— Maria Varela

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"Una cosa es vestir y alimentar a nuestras hijas, sin embargo lo esencial es enseñarles que otras personas — fuera de ellas mismas — son tambien importantes. Lo mejor que pueden hacer con sus vidas es dedicarlas al servicio de los demás."

"Giving kids clothes and food is one thing, but it's much more important to teach them that other people besides themselves are important, and that the best thing they can do with their lives is to use them in the service of other people."

--Dolores Huerta

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