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Creation and Organization:

A Native American Looks at Economics

by Paula Underwood

Paula Underwood, who holds a masters degree in International Affairs, is the Keeper of an ancient Native American oral tradition handed down in her family for five generations. This oral tradition has become the basis for The Past Is Prologue Learning Way (PIP), recognized as an Exemplary Educational Program by the U.S. Department of Education and used by many corporations. Her books include Who Speaks for Wolf: A Native American Learning Story (1983); Three Strands in the Braid: A Guide for Enablers of Learning (1991); The Walking People: A Native American History (1993); The Tribe of Two Press, Georgetown, TX.

Paula Underwood can be reached at the Learning Way Company, P.O. Box 216, San Anselmo, CA 94979; 800-995-3320; e-mail:

Back in 1955 when I took my first class in Economics, I was stunned to learn how little the Gross National Product included.

"But if you only count those things that are given a money value, how will you ever truly understand the flow of goods and services?" I asked my professor. "What about goods and services that are created by volunteers, by housewives?" How can we plan effectively as nations and communities if we count so little?"

We debated this issue for two days. In a way, that debate is still going on. Paul Hawken's "true cost" is a current way of raising some of the same issues, the cost to the environment. But unpaid labor is still not counted. Logic only functions to the extent the database is relevant.

There is something else.

Brought up in an Iroquois tradition, I understand that what we consciously consider increasingly dominates our thinking, filling up those nooks and crannies until it seems to us that we are considering everything.

We are not.

Assembling an image of our circumstance from the bits and pieces that we consciously consider is like assembling a model of the Universe with Tinker Toys! Just imagine, for a moment, the image of the Universe you could represent with those wheels and connecting rods. Now imagine your town or city represented the same way. Does a "family tree" describe the way a family lives from day to day, interacts with one another?

Not only does our conscious foci begin to seem like the whole, but those elements not included in our consciousness increasingly lose their apparent value. It is this concept of economics, counting only what is counted with money, that is partly responsible for the dwindling efficacy of our family structures. Unpaid work has become increasingly something few want to do, nothing of "value." But all the work in support of a family -- except "earning a living" -- is done for free.

Now the pendulum begins to swing in the other direction. I would like to give it a push!

Language Predicts the Conclusions We Reach

As we translate ideas, which are pre-verbal, into language, which is not, half our decisions are made for us by the nature of the language into which we organize our thoughts.

Thoughts are whole. Language is partial, an abstraction from the whole. This is all right; it is the nature of things. But, as with many other aspects of life, we will become the innocent victims of this truth to the extent we fail to understand it.

Awareness genders immunity.

European languages in general are noun-dominated. This is especially true of English. Naming is everything, or at least close to it. European languages encourage category-dominated thinking, from which we are not supposed to stray.

Many other languages do not function this way. Native American languages, for instance, are verb-dominated. In fact, Hopi has no nouns at all. (Try that on your Funk & Wagnalls!)

Perhaps you can immediately see how this difference would affect thinking. Verb-dominated languages have an inexorable focus on process. What something or someone is called is not nearly as important as describing the flow of energy through that circumstance. "How things work" is closer to the thinking engendered by verb-dominated languages.

Try for a moment organizing your next agenda using almost exclusively verbs. Think for a moment of our economy in that way.

Indigenous Economics

It seems to me important to realize that indigenous communities have their own concepts of economics -- not separate from the whole, of course. Nothing is ever truly separate from the whole. Cultures and communities that already understand this may well help us understand ourselves and our present circumstance in ways that are currently out of our reach.

In my experience, indigenous traditions of creation (manufacture) and community have much to tell us about the essentials of human behavior. It is stunningly inaccurate to understand indigenous cultures as "primitive," meaning "having nothing to teach us about complex things." Indigenous cultures are not just at peace with Earth, our Mother. (Come to think of it, conceptualizing Earth as a living being, all elements at the same time -- that's a pretty good image of complexity.) They have been dealing with concepts as current as chaos and complexity for thousands of years. All cultures have, of course, each in its own way. But many indigenous cultures have kept their awareness of wholeness throughout, never losing sight of the while, even while considering this or that.

In my tradition, for instance, there is no such concept as "chaos." Rather, there are only as-yet-unrecognized patterns. When change occurs, it is critical to be free of assumptions, so that you are able to perceive the emerging patterns. Chaos is understood as the condition of failing to recognize oncoming change. If we feel uncomfortable and out of balance, it's a pretty safe bet we are failing to recognize just such a change on pattern.

There is much we can learn form this. Such concepts can easily be applied to consideration of shifts in market behavior and product acceptance. Skills in monitoring changes in pattern would be just as useful to stockbrokers as to woodland hunters. Learning Ways designed to develop such skills as just as useful in our present society as they have been over the last several thousand years.

As to organization and economics, many of you already know that the U.S. Constitution is partly based on the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.(1) In addition, Frederich Engels studied Iroquois organization during his stint in Brooklyn. (2) He tried to integrate industrialism with Iroquois concepts of community ownership and responsibility. My father used to say that Engels borrowed our ancient saying -- "From each according to ability, to each according to need." -- and worked to include such thinking in his concepts of economic organization.

And Marx learned from him, giving the United States and the former Soviet Union a surprisingly common base. It's just that we emphasized aspects of Iroquois democracy and individual rights, whereas Engels emphasized community ownership and mutual responsibility.

They do better together. One without the other is half the story.

But, more than this, the present transition in Russia et al. might have been eased had enough individuals thought their way back to Engels, picked up the concepts of community responsibility he was trying to include, and moved from there to a somewhat less rampant entrepreneurial capitalism.

As my tradition points out, evolutionary change works. Revolutionary change tends to be self-defeating.

Three Strands in the Corporate Braid

I think it's clear now that neither the formerly Soviet system nor our own meets all human needs. We have not yet effectively dealt with rapid and ongoing change. We have not brought less-skilled community members along with us into an economic world based substantially on electronic information. No extended family sustains them while we argue about a viable welfare system and the effects of downsizing.

As we try to consciously and conscientiously fit economics and business back into a holistic approach to life and living, there is much that can be learned from societies and communities that have never forgotten that wholeness, communities that understand Life as flows of energy, communities that train appropriate people to monitor energy flows. Such people can feel the bottlenecks in production almost without looking. And it doesn't matter whether the product is buggy whips, microchips, or the evolving thought of the e-mail communities springing up along the information superhighway. We may create new products in cyberspace, but the human element will not have changed When any form of organization puzzles me, I go back to the basic elements of organization in my tradition and ask myself, "What is being overlooked here, now?" Those basic elements are Clan, Medicine Society, and Community. My tradition helps us learn that these aspects of individual and group needs must be met in ongoing ways for the People to survive as a People. This applies equally to our present organizational structures called cities, nations,global corporations, and international NGO (non-governmental organizations).

Corporations often functions in many ways as Clans, as Medicine Societies, and as Communities. Here is how my tradition understands these three vital elements in human organization:

Clans, Medicine Societies, and Communities form the Triangle that supports and strengthens the Circle of our Circumstance. Working together, they stabilize during times of rapid change -- and impel during times of social lethargy.

These days, in this society, when I try to decide whether a given corporation -- or any organization -- will last over time, I go back to these three elements and ask myself how these needs are being met, and by whom. No business needs to fulfill all these needs, but sooner or later, someone must! No tree lasts without its foliage. Leaves die if the trunk is ailing. Individuals and Community work together, or they do not work at all!

Although, "company towns" are pretty rare these days, some elements of corporate organization take place in the community.

I do not mean that any business must or should hire people for life. Communities grow, shrink and grow once more. But Clans do not forget their obligation for the well-being of all members. In lean years, some may be asked to move to a different part of the forest, but they are not forgotten, not treated with cavalier disregard. All are related. Some may be invited back.

On Falling Through the Cracks

One of the oral histories handed down to me is called "Six Who Went to England." It is the telling of one member of this Native American delegation, his view of their experiences on the Atlantic and in England.

Once arrived, they were led through a myriad of "wonders," which they did not find impressive. One day, the narrator -- who was a physician -- saw a man lying on the cobbled pavement. Even from such a distance he could see the man was ill -- something was wrong with his liver.

Before he reached the man, a housewife came out of her door verbally excoriating the unconscious man. She ended her diatribe by pouring a chamber pot over him.

The physician was horrified! He understood at last an attitude common in Europe at that time, but unknown among Native Americans. People as refuse, to which he gave the name "Throwaway People."

Furious that they would not let him help, he finally turned his guides and said, "Show me no more palaces! Show me instead how you treat these, the least among you. For it is by this I will judge you!"

The jury is still out.

In nature, nothing is wasted. In my tradition, this includes human beings. Everyone belongs to a Clan.

My father used to say, "If you don't have a 500-year plan, maybe you ain't really thinking ahead!"

I like to quote this statement, as it does an excellent job of clarifying the Iroquois requirement that every decision must be made with a keen awareness of its effect on the Seventh Generation hence. My father's comment always gets a laugh. The contrast with our usual "quarterly report" thinking is pretty severe!

This was really brought home to me recently when, under the sponsorship of Xerox, I shared this story with 250 MBA candidates who had just received fellowships from the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management. With this group I couldn't get past the first line! As soon as I said "500-year plan," the whole audience nearly fell out of their chairs laughing. When they finally quieted down, I went on, "maybe you ain't really thinking ahead!" and they fell out of their chairs all over again!

What Now?

As my Father used to ask, "What may we learn from this?"

How do we as members of our economic communities, of the interactive global economy, as business people -- how do we meet our needs through these three ancient and ongoing structures?

-- As we can, where we are, with what we have. (I paraphrase T. Roosevelt.)

In my tradition there are two major steps toward any important decision for change:

Where do we want to go? and, How soon can we afford to get there? In evaluating this last, we measure such things as dedication, purpose, clarity -- as well as our store of wherewithal, be that corn or capital.


In colonial times as the American nation was founded, clan tasks for colonists were usually fulfilled by churches and synagogues. Quakers cared for Quakers, Baptists for Baptists, Non-churchgoers might "fall through the cracks," but whole communities were often based mainly on one religion. That religion would take care of community citizens.

These days, as businesses and organizations, provide health care, sick leave, day care, perhaps even housing, they increasingly fulfill the role of Clan. Some corporations facing the exigence of downsizing have given employees a choice. Given a choice, they have often chosen a pay cut for all in lieu of pink slips for some. That's business functioning as Clan.

Medicine Society

As the concept of corporations as Learning Organizations spreads throughout the business community and deepens in terms of experience, corporations increasingly act as Medicine Societies. Xerox Business Services has done an exemplary job here. In each of the last two years they have held a Camp Lur'ning, described as a summer camp for adults. During each 4-to-5-day Camp they have brought the leading edge organizational skills to a group of 250-300 Xerox employees and customers, with the idea that these individuals will take these skills back to their own bailiwick, and enable the learning of others back home.

This is a superlative idea, an effective way of spreading newly acquired skills throughout any organization. It reminds me of Sequoia's invention of an alphabet for the Cherokee language. Since the Cherokee -- who are related to the Iroquois -- had high standards of community education, this new skill of "reading Cherokee" spread throughout those people {in a matter of months!} The Cherokee Nation rapidly had a newspaper in their own language and one of the first public schools in this country. As to what happened later..well, that's a subject for another treatise.

As one presenter at both Camp Lur'nings, I had the wonderful luxury of being. This gave me time to talk with participants and to explore their new understandings, as well as their continuing needs. What became clear to me was that wonderful skills were being taught, but no one was addressing the thread of connection between the nature of the learning and the nature of the learner.

In my tradition, you see, the very first question about anyone is, "How does this individual learn?" Vast and specific attention is given to helping each individual understand how he or she learns -- and attention is given to helping the broader community understand how each individual learns. Effective communication is based on accurate understanding of how the listener listens, and on what they are able to hear.

As businesses begin to incorporate such things as Quality Circles, consensus as part of the decision-making process, caretaking of the environment, interconnection with education -- as such things are considered, corporations become communities. They may not do everything we expect of community, but taking over some of these community tasks of governance and education will prove essential.

For instance, Hewlett-Packard has built a new plant next to a new school near Santa Rosa, California. HP provided land and some of the costs of school construction. HP also gives parents paid time to work as volunteers in the school. You will probably not be surprised to learn that productivity has increased, absenteeism reduced, and parents, teachers, and students are delighted. That's corporation as community.

But can we get there from here.

Remember the two questions my tradition asks: Where do we want to go? How quickly can we afford to get there?

These two questions imply no overnight change, no revolution in organization. Instead, they imply careful, sometimes rapid, sometimes slow evolutionary movements along a path we foresee with increasing clarity. They call for responsibility, for careful thinking through just what needs -- to be met by Clan, Medicine Society, community -- are not being met here, now. They call for deciding quietly just which of those unmet needs we can begin to address.

The shift can be gradual and painless. For, as these images fill our consciousness, or at least take up a few unobtrusive corners, we will move increasingly in more effective directions.

One Last Thought

In my tradition there is an ancient saying: If you want to be clearly understood, you must say what you have to say three times in three different ways -- once for each ear, and once for the heart. The first time is for the Path, what we call in English "logical sequence," the second time is for the Forest, what we call in English Holistic thinking or Wholeness. The this time is as a balance between.

This article, a more usual, more "rational" treatise on economics, speaks to the left brain, or the Path. The following thought piece, "The First Half of the Bridge," is replete with images, and speaks to the Forest. This is for the right brain, for those who understand better through mental images and as a backup for logical sequential thought.

And I unite both in this closing statement. Listen once. Listen twice. Integrate your perceptions of Forest and of Path.

Three times, in different ways. Once for the left ear, once for the right ear, and once for the balance between.

It is the manner of our People.

Let it be so.

The First Half of the Bridge:
Awareness of the Whole

An interesting effect takes place when left-brain planning attempts to deal with wholes. The abstraction becomes the perceived reality.

For some time now Western society has been entranced with "solving problems," never quite understanding that, in solving problems out of the context of the whole, you only move water around the pond. Not quite seeing this, we stand hip-deep in our circumstances and bail water from one place to another -- and wonder why the water seems to rise when we are working so hard.

Or we see our "difficulties" as something like a swamp, a mire out of which we certainly wish to extricate ourselves. And so we build a bridge, a plan to rescue us. But where does it go, this bridge? Up out of the swamp, yes, certainly -- but from there, where next? And we forget that the swamp itself is the natural progenitor of life.

It is as if we are standing on the first half of a bridge. Like the fog-bound Golden Gate, its destination is lost in the mist. Yet, unlike that pillared span, no map shows us the continuation, no signposts mark out our future.

And so we bravely step out, we human beings, step out on the span that carries us -- well, forward!

A Path is relevant only to the extent that the Forest is understood. If our Path, our logic, our left-brain cannot apprehend this Forest of the whole, what then? Give up? Sit in circles on a quiet Earth?

If it is dark, do we disallow flashlights? Or do we gather all the flashlights we can find to illuminate that darkness? Travel form pool to pool of circled light? Reassure ourselves that vision is possible?

Perhaps. But if we make this choice, we should remind ourselves that pools of light convince our eyes that light is necessary -- and further obscure the darkness.

If vision were enough, there would be someone behind the mirror.

The ancients have told us, "That which is invisible is nonetheless there."

So let us find another way, something to add to the flashlight circles. Let us close our eyes and study what we see then. Let us look at wholeness. And let us describe the song, joining the circles of light in a coherent chain -- like beads on a connecting strand.

No part is separate from any other part.

The health of the whole enables the health of any part thereof.

Sickness of the smallest part affects the whole.

So it is when we measure off energy -- Earth energy, human energy -- and call it "economics." We build ourselves a system, pools of light in an endless darkness, and tell ourselves the connecting lines represent the whole.

And perhaps they do -- represent the whole!

Yet they are not that whole. Who will say the circle is empty? What, then, does it contain? The wholeness of circumstance. The completion of Life.

Perhaps, after all, the bridge itself is a circle, merely part of the arc, one more partial representation of the Circle Dance of Life. Whoever said that circles lead nowhere? Whoever said they never themselves dance?

So let us gather up our flashlights. Let us illuminate this, and later, that. But let us never mistake these little bits of dancing light for the wholeness of our Universal circumstance. Let us understand that these little beads we string one after the other never are the thread that connects them, nor yet the velvet on which it is all laid.

Take my hand, Brother...Take my hand, Sister...and let us begin the chain....


  1. Many, perhaps most, of our Founding Fathers, especially Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the Adamses, and John Rutledge, were intimately familiar with Indian governance structures. Franklin studied Iroquois Haudonosaunee organization under the Great Law of Peace and clearly used it for his Albany Plan of Union published in 1754. The Albany Plan was used as the basis for the U.S. Constitution. Some scholars date the Great Law of Peace as early as 1054.

  2. See, for example, Forgotten Founders, (Gambit, 1982) pp.121-123, which cites Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, first published in 1884 and included in Marx and Engels Selected Works, New York; International Publishers, 1968.

Reprinted with the permission of the author from: PERSPECTIVES ON BUSINESS AND GLOBAL CHANGE;   World Business Academy Journal, vol. 10 no. 4, 1996

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