Canyon of the Colorado river. Via envato

What can Indigenous wisdom teach the world?

A value system based on relationships, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution

How do we define our own values? What drives our actions, our desires and our decisions: purely money, or love and compassion?

Value systems shape our identity, influencing our decision-making processes, and providing us with a sense of purpose and direction in life. They offer a framework that guides us individually or collectively in determining what is important, desirable and morally right or wrong. In other words, they dictate how we understand and interact with the outside world.

At times, I find myself lost in existential questions about the societal values of the Western world I live in. Amid ecological collapse, war and growing inequalities escalating everywhere, I think it’s imperative that we question the roots of the value system around which our society is built.

Last October’s GLF Nairobi 2023: A New Vision for Earth was one of those moments. Together, we unlearned and deconstructed our values and beliefs with the help of over 120 experts – from top climate scientists to critical thinkers, farmers activists and Indigenous leaders.

Among the countless takeaways and inspiring moments during the event, these wise words from Lyla June still echo in my head:

What has worked in the past century won’t work in this century. It’s the value system that runs our entire culture. If our value system is profit maximization, that’s not going to work.

But if our value system is reciprocity, reverence, respect, responsibility, restraint, regeneration and relationality – seeing all of creation as our relatives – that, to me, is as much a part of our ‘survival guide’ as the inner, softer part of our being. It’s about what we deem valuable and important.

If we continue to prioritize ‘profit maximization’ as a value, we are going to perish.

Dr. Lyla June Johnston is a Native American poet, musician, anthropologist, educator and activist of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages. She often combines artistic expression with a commitment to raising awareness about issues affecting indigenous communities.

At the very end of GLF Nairobi, she made us all tear up through her words and her a-capella song ‘All Nations Rise’ – a rallying cry for self-determination for people all over the world. As our tears dried, we were left to reflect on the prospects of a value system rooted in the seven R’s: reciprocity, reverence, respect, responsibility, restraint, regeneration and relationality.

This powerful combination of words starting with ‘R’ combines centuries-old wisdom with revolutionary modern solutions, encouraging us to reimagine our society as one based on compassion and inclusion.

June’s seven R’s are an evolution of the six R’s (respect, relationship, representation, relevance, responsibility, and reciprocity) commonly associated with Indigenous values worldwide and often cited as guiding principles for inclusive education and cultural preservation.

The numbers of R’s can vary, with various sources adapting or expanding on these principles. Some variations introduce terms such as relationship, reverence or redistribution, depending on the specific interpretation, but most scholars have highlighted four of the seven R’s: relationship, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution.

These four principles are recognized as fundamental Indigenous values transcending generations, geography and tribes, offering an alternative value system to the two P’s – profit and power – that drive today’s global economy. They lay the groundwork for the emerging concept of ‘Indigeneity’ as a valid alternative value system.

  • Relationship, or the kinship obligation, emphasizes that all things are interconnected – humans, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. Interconnected relationships should be considered family relationships, where everyone and everything is valued.
  • Responsibility, or the community obligation, recognizes a responsibility to care for all our ancestors and relatives, including animals, plants and stones. Indigenous leadership is based on the responsibilities arising from relationships and societal roles, emphasizing an ethos of care over coercion.
  • Reciprocity, or the cyclical obligation, highlights the circular patterns observed in natural processes, such as the changing seasons and the cycle of life, as well as the interactions between any two entities in a relationship. Once we encounter another entity (another human being or entity in nature), a relationship is established. The Indigenous idea of reciprocity is rooted in the understanding that we are all ‘kin’ to each other.
  • Redistribution, or the sharing obligation, aims to balance and rebalance relationships. Indigenous societies often have ways of redistributing material and social goods, with possessions meant to be given away rather than owned. They highly value generosity and the sharing of material wealth, information, time, talent and energy. Redistribution ensures that everything is kept in circulation, creating a sense of value for each person in the community.

So, what would happen if we shifted from a value system that prioritizes profit maximization to one based on the Indigenous four R’s of relationship, responsibility, reciprocity  and redistribution)?

Of course, I decided to reach out to our best buddy for philosophical conversations in 2024: ChatGPT. Here’s what it had to say:

“Shifting from profit maximization to the four R’s of Indigenous knowledge (relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution) could lead to stronger social bonds, sustainable practices, ethical economics, cultural preservation, holistic well-being, inclusive decision making, long-term planning, and reduced inequalities. However, success depends on adoption, cultural context and overcoming resistance to change.”

Okay, that actually sounds like a society I would like to live in. But first, let’s take a step back. How can we start adopting the Four R’s in our global systems?

In an article titled “Indigeneity, an alternative worldview,” La Donna Harris and Jacqueline Wasilewski argue that each of the four R’s imposes both individual and collective obligations on members of Indigenous societies.

These values are interconnected and altogether advocate for people’s self-determination, rather than the cultural and ethnic conflicts that result from the imposition of power or profit-driven motives.

Skyscrapers in Wall Street financial district, New York City. Via envato

The Four R’s represent a promising alternative to the two P’s (Power and Profit) worldview that currently dominates the global economy. A system that focuses solely on profit cannot self-regulate effectively – it simply leaves social and environmental costs unaddressed in the form of pollution, poverty and resource depletion.

It also perpetuates inequalities both between and within countries, as highlighted by Club of Rome co-president Sandrine Dixson-Declève at GLF Nairobi.

We need to tackle poverty and inequality, not only between low-income and high-income countries but also within countries. We are actually growing inequalities in those countries that are supposedly the wealthiest, and well-being has dramatically plummeted in the last 10 years, particularly in the U.S.A.

That wealth differential and lack of wealth distribution has created huge social tension. The capitalistic model that is anchored in extractive economies has proven absolutely and categorically not to enable people to thrive, and it’s creating a part of the population that needs to survive.

By focusing on profit and power, we prioritize individualism over collectivism. We believe that our own well-being is more important than that of others, forgetting that we are ‘others’ to everyone else, and that someone else’s power is currently hindering us from thriving.

By neglecting our collective identity, we also forget about the core element of our humanity: humans are social animals, and our strength lies in our social activities. There is only so much we can do alone.

But together, by collaboratively dividing duties and responsibilities, we can evolve, create and build a supportive society with the shared goal of creating  a meaningful and joyful life for all – and for those who will come after us.

Indigenous knowledge, with its emphasis on harmony with nature, offers a crucial and alternative guide for humanity’s conscious evolution – one that can enable us all to thrive. 

There is a strong emphasis on harmony with nature. Via envato

When we make decisions, solve problems or engage in conversations, we need to ask ourselves: what values are guiding my actions? Power and profit, or relationship, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution?

If we actively integrate the four R’s into our value systems and various aspects of life, we can move toward a more equitable society and enlightened existence – one rooted in love, care and respect rather than the exploitation of people and resources for profit.

By prioritizing the four R’s and fostering collaboration, we not only embark on a journey of personal growth but also contribute to a collective and common good.

So, every time you have to make a decision, big or small, ask yourself: what sort of world do you really want to live in? One where everyone only cares about themselves, or one where we look after each other and the planet we call home?

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