The Long Tradition of Defying Selfishness

Nov 15th, 1995 | By | Category: 7-3: Investing, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler
BCC IN 1991

Blackfeet Community College, 1991. Wealth is well disguised in reservation communities. Photo by Dick Bancroft for the American Indian College Fund.

Ever since they first arrived on this continent, some Europeans have been attempting to rescue indigenous people from their indigenous economic system. The words of U.S. Senator Henry Dawes in 1887 exemplify the basic conflict. After visiting the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole), he reported:

The head chief told us that there was not a family in that whole nation that had not a home of its own. There was not a pauper in that nation, and the nation did not owe a dollar. It built its own capital, and it built its own school and its hospitals.

Despite this success, Dawes vowed to change the system’s underpinnings. He said,

Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have not got as far as they can go because they own their land in common, and under that [system] there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbor’s. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.

Similarly, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles H. Burke wrote to the tribes in 1923 deploring their practice of “give-aways.” “You do yourselves and your families great injustice when at dances you give away money or other property, perhaps clothing, a cow, a horse, or a team and wagon.”

Believing that selfishness was essential to civilization, Dawes did his best to impose it upon tribes across the country. The Allotment Act that he sponsored bludgeoned the tribes’ economic system, splitting the communal estate into parcels and leaving thousands of paupers in its wake. As described in an article in this issue by Theresa Carmody, the Allotment Act destroyed many tribes’ self-sufficiency, but some are beginning to recover their land.

Yet Dawes and Burke could not destroy the tribes’ generous spirit. In the pages that follow, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, Sara Wiles, and Narcisse Blood provide insights into living traditions that reflect a different value system and different definitions of wealth and prestige. Driven underground, their traditions survived. On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, a honorable name represents great wealth to the Northern Arapaho. Given to a young person, it becomes an investment in the future with crucial, non-monetary dividends.

By outsiders’ measures, Todd County ranks as one of the poorest counties in the United States. Despite the scarcity, there is an abundance of generosity on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Memorials are one of the many Lakota events that involve giveaways. To honor loved ones who have passed away, Lakota people spend a year preparing gifts, according to Lydia Whirlwind Soldier. Instead of dwelling upon her own loss and feeling sorry for herself, a person shifts her thoughts to the gifts. Thus wancantognaka–generosity–provides its own reward.

In English, there is just one word for “generosity,” perhaps two if “sharing” is considered. Native language speakers have several words. Calls to the tribal colleges to research “generosity” translations for the Journal cover resulted in long conversations about the best choice. Dale Old Horn at Little Big Horn College says the Crow word baawaailuuo refers to generosity with material things, but another word would be used for emotional generosity. “It’s not just a virtue but also a lifeway that is expected,” he says. In Cheyenne, hotoehaestse refers to the connection to the earth and the connection to the people, as well as to giving, according to Jenny Parker of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

Just learning the ceremonies and songs demands great generosity of time and spirit. For example, Navajo Community College President Tommy Lewis called upon Avery Denny to present the invocation at a recent meeting of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) in Tucson. Denny teaches Navajo culture, philosophy, and healing at NCC. Since he knows thousands of prayers and songs, Lewis believes Denny has the equivalent of five PhDs. With the knowledge comes prestige within the community.

Visitors to reservations rarely see the rich, living traditions. Wealth is well disguised in reservation communities, obscured by the dust of unpaved roads and the shine of a polyester shawl. A person searching for an important ceremony might not recognize it when he or she arrived. Walking into the gymnasium where Lydia Whirlwind Soldier’s family was holding the memorial for her mother, for example, a visitor would see people in everyday clothes eating hot dogs and stew off paper plates. They would see Lydia passing out gifts from a plastic laundry basket and hear laughter, not the solemn drone of a pipe organ. Only by examining the needlework in the dozens of gift quilts could they glimpse the massive outpouring of love the event represented.

The survival of such traditions represents a miracle considering the incredible pressures to destroy them over the past 500 years. Yet even bigger challenges lie ahead. Tribes and tribal institutions are making unprecedented inroads into the world of finance. As they become more sophisticated, pressures increase to abandon old traditions. Yet as Gelvin Stevenson points out in his investment article, the best Indian money managers combine skills from the mainstream culture with their own value system.

In their search for balance between generosity and selfishness, tribes can look to one another for models:

–Tribes that have built successful casinos face internal pressures for dividends–per capita payments. Nevertheless, most gaming tribes have invested in projects that bring more long term benefit to members. For example, the Menominee Tribe and the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa have built tribal colleges with their gaming revenue (Tribal College Journal, Winter 1994). The Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin created an Oneida trust fund with a $1 million land settlement, augmented by several million annually from tribal enterprises. Income from the fund will be used for dividends to tribal elders. The tribe invests the fund only in companies that do not exploit Native peoples.

–More tribes will soon be investing their own trust funds, under the authority of the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994. More than $2 billion is at stake. The Blackfeet Tribe used income primarily from oil and gas development to buy the local bank in 1983. As a federally chartered bank, the Blackfeet Bank cannot dole out loans to tribal members without accountability. However, the tribe has joined hands with the local tribal college to provide personal finance education. The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe set up a permanent investment fund in 1986 instead of distributing its $10 million judgment to members. By tribal referendum, the tribe uses only the interest for programs, rolling back at least 10 percent of the interest into the principal each year.

–The tribal colleges themselves face unprecedented challenges to their generosity. Several new colleges are applying for membership to AIHEC, but appropriations from Congress and grants from private donors do not increase accordingly. Thus each new member means splitting the pie into smaller pieces. In the past, AIHEC has not hesitated to embrace new qualified members. How many more cuts can the colleges take to their basic budget? Could they accommodate one college from each of the 500 reservations? Or will they feel forced to put boundaries around Indian higher education to assure their survival? The answers are much more complicated than simply choosing selflessness versus selfishness.

Created as bicultural institutions of higher education, the tribal colleges are poised to lead the discussion as tribes try to reconcile their economic traditions with modern finance. The colleges can provide a traditional grounding for the new generation of Indian brokers, bankers, and investment managers, reminding these students of the importance of making decisions for the good of future generations. Their teachings can continue to defy Dawes and Burke.

At the Tucson AIHEC meeting in November, Leech Lake Tribal College President Larry Aitken expressed the importance of the tribal colleges’ role. Before becoming a college president, Aitken was the pipe carrier for an Ojibwe medicine man for 17 years. Aitken offered tobacco and prayed that the college presidents would always do the right thing for the well being and health of their people. “The decisions we make are sometimes difficult, but because of our experience and training, we are the ones to make them. We must do it in an equitable way for all concerned, not just our own tribe, but all concerned. The final line is that we do this for our children and our elders–the cornerstones of our world.”

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