Radical Economics: Centering Indigenous Knowledge, Restoring the Circle

The article below concludes Nonprofit Quarterly‘s series—Narratives to Build Collective Economic Power—which NPQ is publishing in partnership with the national racial and economic justice nonprofit, Common Future. In this series, the authors write about their economic justice work and how, in their work, they challenge conventional narratives and offer new ways of thinking about who can be owners in the economy and what community economic development means. (Original article available here.)

In my “day job,” I am a systems designer consultant. The firm I helped found, Roanhorse Consulting, employs six people, soon to be eight. I am also a co-founder of Native Women Lead, a nonprofit that supports Native women business owners across the country. In my work, I didn’t purposefully set out to build “collective economic power,” yet that phrase describes a lot of the work that my colleagues and I do. Why?

It’s all about my own cultural background and the community I serve. If you grow up Diné (Navajo), collective wellbeing is core to your value system and permeates how you see yourself as five-fingered people, which is how we relate to the world around us through our clanship system. For example, I recently attended a conference in Vancouver. There were other Navajo people in the room of over 1,600 attendees, and when they introduced themselves, I was able to connect with another Navajo woman who had been living in Manitoba for the last 20 years as my granddaughter through our clans. This expression of Ké is a reminder that we are all connected, that no matter how far we go, as Navajo people, we can always find ourselves through this system as part of the broader collective of people. We share an unspoken sense of commonality and responsibility. This “collective” mindset is so integral to everything we do, and it upends the default, stodgy worldview of individualized economic power, which doesn’t actually represent most of us.

So often, in our capitalist system, we are told that our mutuality is not productive or scalable and should therefore be abandoned. It is exhausting how destructive capitalism and white supremacy have been on Indigenous people worldwide and how a singular western worldview has dominated our global economic paradigm. So much so that, even amid a climate crisis, we still evaluate financial risks based on the impact such risks have on the company’s bottom line versus the risks to the Earth we live on.

In the wide spectrum of health disparities in the US (and globally), we see the results of a siloed economic perspective that does not acknowledge the cyclical relationship we have to all living beings and the environment around us. In short, the system is broken. If we do not acknowledge that, then we’ll never be able to have a real conversation about economic justice or imagine forward a different economic paradigm. And for us to get there, we need a cultural shift across the board; we need a collective admission that white supremacy, colonization, patriarchy, and capitalism are the root causes for where we are today.

What Does an Indigenous Worldview Look Like? 

Because of the dissonance that happens when we speak with non-Native partners, we’ve started using the slide below at the beginning of conversations with people who are interested in partnering with us. The people at these organizations tend to be folks who are privileged, have capital, and want to do something good. However, they have a very different worldview than ours. I tell them that in order to have a meaningful conversation, we need them to start from a new place. To bring them to our perspective, we present this slide and ask them to imagine what it would look like if we were to ground ourselves in this worldview when tackling the questions they’re asking.

One critical point this slide makes is that we must acknowledge that the world’s resources are finite. We are connected to all living beings; therefore, all humans have a responsibility to be stewards of our living world. We believe that building real, lasting, sustainable economic power means acknowledging that there is a multitude of worldviews, all of which are valid. If we do that, then we can build new frameworks, measurements, and outcomes that actually meet people where they are with what they need, instead of building for only a few. This requires acknowledging there are many ways to tackle a problem.

Our model acknowledges that economics affects the whole person, their families, and their communities—it is not separate from other things happening in a person’s life such as health, safety, and education. In other words, we approach the issue from a place of “centering those who are most impacted and investing in their solutions.”

These days, when I speak with potential partners and organizations that are non-Native, it’s not always clear to folks what we mean when we say to “lift up Indigenous worldviews.” One example in the Southwest is bringing back waffle gardens, a sustainable farming technique used by Pueblo peoples for thousands of years. This technique is designed for more arid climates where water must be properly sequestered and soak into the ground efficiently. During the pandemic, we saw many Indigenous people return to the land as they saw food supply chains disappear in their communities.

In January 2022, the Food Research and Action Center released the Reimagining Hunger Responses in the Time of Crisis report, sharing that 48 percent of respondents experienced food insecurity; however, through the lockdowns and scarcity, people started their own gardens, and folks began to find locally available meat and other produce. There already was a movement to return to ancestral eating and growing by fostering Indigenous agriculture (or “regenerative agriculture”). However, now the urgency to achieve self-sufficiency by investing in our tribes’ local food systems is the charge forward. For many, eating ancestral food means that tribes can practice their own communities’ form of eating and catching/hunting, and we’ve found that eating this way leads to reduced heart disease and diabetes, and slows down desertification. It also encourages a local food system that is not reliant on fragile outside food systems that can be easily broken.


This article was originally published by NPQ online, on July 20, 2022, https://nonprofitquarterly.org/radical-economics-centering-indigenous-knowledge-restoring-the-circle. Used with permission.

Artwork: Stéfano Girardelli on unsplash


Going Further:

About the Lead Author

Vanessa Roanhorse
Vanessa Roanhorse
Vanessa Roanhorse (Navajo) is founder and CEO of Roanhorse Consulting & Co-Founder at Native Women Lead, based in Tiwa Territory/Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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