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Traditional Knowledge Reclaimed: Indigenizing Wins for the Native and Nonprofit Community

August 27, 2020

As a modern-day Native American champion working in our local nonprofit community, I keep up with trends in writing concepts, program design, and buzzwords. Our current social, environmental, and economic climate is shifting toward the discourse of diversity, equity, and inclusion for Indigenous Peoples. Traditional knowledge is a buzzword frequently used to describe an old way of thinking that remains relevant in our modern day. I’ve also recently heard Indigenous used in the form of a verb—to Indigenize. But what do these terms really mean? For Indigenous Peoples, traditional knowledge and the Indigenous perspective it informs is not a buzzword; it is a way of thinking that has survived the test of time. Could your nonprofit program benefit from the wisdom traditional knowledge shares? Can the Indigenous perspective enhance your program design and service outreach in our local community? Here is some information to help inform your use of traditional knowledge to enhance the impact of your nonprofit in our community.

Traditional Knowledge: Local nonprofits work to make change at both the individual and communal levels. Traditional knowledge is based in the communal mindset that considers a wider perspective of change. Traditional knowledge accounts for society as a whole, looking at the impact of all individuals in a community. It entertains the idea of “it takes an entire village to raise a child,” meaning that the entire community of people have an essential role in raising a child in a safe and healthy environment. For Native Americans, traditional knowledge values community over individualism, whereas American or Western knowledge typically emphasizes the individualistic form of thinking that supports change in the singular form. Traditional knowledge supports the impact of many forms of change in the community as a whole. I invite you to explore how an integrated, communal approach can benefit your programs or services, especially those that work with Indigenous populations. Imagine the valuable impact you can make by adapting your services to focus on serving the whole community rather than just one person at a time.

Seven Generations Model: Traditional knowledge looks forward and back by using a seven-generation model to measure time. Native Americans inherently believe the negative and positive impacts of the present day will affect the next seven generations. Historical trauma exists among Native Americans because of the trauma imposed on previous generations. Recent generational traumas include forced removal and loss of lands, termination policies that sought to eliminate the “Indian problem,” and the cultural assimilation imposed by the boarding school system. Unfortunately, past traumas can reoccur in the present-day lives of Native Americans. Historical trauma persists due to a lack of understanding of Native American cultures, the continued stereotyping, and systemic racism that persists in any number of ways for people of color. The “American dream” promotes the idea that anyone—individual—can change their life with enough determination. However, this thinking fails to consider the historical trauma inflicted on Indigenous societies and how that has resulted in the current conditions seen in Indigenous communities. Native Americans do not see these conditions as a result of individual issues, but rather the communal impact of social issues that requires a wider scope of change, across multiple generations to make a difference.

Gratitude: Honoring our elders and those who came before us are concepts highly practiced in Native communities. For example, Native Americans honor their elders by thanking them and the people who have paved the way for present day achievements. The usual practice for Indigenous Peoples is to give gratitude or prayer in their native language at the beginning of any gathering of people or meeting. This Indigenous tradition honors the past and looks forward to the future. Showing gratitude through prayer at the start of a meeting is a beneficial way to show honor. Nonprofits could adopt this traditional practice, whether it is in the form of prayer or thanksgiving. Taking a moment at the beginning of your meeting to honor your history and the people who came before you remind us of why we are doing this work, which empowers providers with a sense of purpose and uplifts staff.

Cyclical Thinking: Another form of Indigenization that can benefit your nonprofit program is to apply solutions that expand the relationship between time and space. Indigenous thinking is cyclical and non-linear. What cycles—or rhythms—of service does your organization use? How can you improve or expand the impact of your services within its defined cycle or rhythm? The Indigenous perspective seeks to define a rhythmic pattern in a place of a standard progressive sequence. For example, most Americans use the nuclear family structure to describe the growth process of children into adulthood. This process is singular and linear going from one stage to the next, whereas the Indigenous perspective describes the family structure in a continuous circle. It places the very old and the very young in symbiotic opposition where one relies on the other at both the beginning and end of life. These are two very different models of the family structure.

For integrating this idea into the nonprofit setting, you can look at the trends and models that your program data reveals to help define the cycles of your organization’s long-term impacts. How does the beginning of a project inform and support the end or revision of the project? What does it lead to next? If we apply traditional knowledge, which values the communal over the individual, then what kind of communal impact are your services making? Indigenizing your services involves a collective thought process versus an individualistic viewpoint; it considers everyone’s perspective as part of a whole, and the whole is then defined by its cycle. How could you Indigenize your services to make a more significant impact in the community or population you serve?

Some questions to help Indigenize your program include: What individuals paved the road for you? How can you honor those that made your current work possible? Who has helped you to reach your goals? How can you expand the communal reach of your services? How can you honor the past in recognition of the present?

It is an understatement to say that Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives have not always been acknowledged or honored. Given the current social, environmental, and economic shift our country is in, it is critical to work to understand and honor the value of traditional knowledge and the opportunities it offers for our cultural evolution. I challenge you to engage traditional knowledge and to incorporate the Indigenous perspective into your nonprofit program design. Consider the thought process of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Seek ways to empower Indigenous People by including them in the decision-making process and respecting their diversity in language and culture. Acknowledge that traditional knowledge makes a valuable contribution to our communities and can improve program design and service outreach for our local nonprofits.

In closing, I give you some seeds of traditional knowledge and hope they help you and your nonprofit services grow.

  • Wealth is not measured in dollars; the most valuable things in life cannot be purchased.
  • After the last tree has been cut down, we will discover that we cannot eat money.
  • Ever heard the story of the good wolf and the bad wolf? Which one are you feeding?
  • In order to get something, try giving something. The practice of regular, selfless giving is its own reward.
  • We do not own the land; we borrow it from our children.
  • Water is life, water is sacred, honor our waterways.

I encourage your comments and welcome any added discussion to explore the Indigenous perspective.

Contact: Deanna Aquiar, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, Resource Development Officer, deanna@thegrantplantnm.com
with Tyanne Benallie, Diné, Resource Development Officer, tyanne@thegrantplantnm.com

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