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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Reflection from Indigenous People’s Day

Ann Skeet

Ann Skeet (@leaderethics) is the senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

Here at the Ethics Center we are fortunate to have advisory councils of business professionals from different fields who can help us keep current on issues of the day. The group I work with regularly, C-suite executives and board members largely, met in late September. We were fortunate to be walked through a reflection of Indigenous People’s traditions and consider how they might be useful to leaders in business settings.

Alexandra Roddy, vice president, Ecosystems and Alliances at IBM Cloud, provided us some reading in advance and opened our discussion. Her perspective is informed by her family, members of the Secwepemc, a Canadian First Nations people, including her son, Julian NoiseCat Brave, an activist and policy maker who has written, by way of example, about how the Indigenous People offer us a way of thinking about our relationship with land and water rather than our ownership of it.  

What if more corporations and individuals thought about our interactions with natural resources as relationships rather than competitive advantages? What would it change?

Would it offer us the opportunity to think about the land and water beyond just our use of it but also the use of generations later, the same way we consider other assets we gather and want to pass down to our heirs? Might it offer us patience to work towards a more sustainable way of using and reusing our water, not just in times of drought, but always? Would it nudge us to listen more carefully to desires and innovations of today’s youth? Would it give us courage and air cover to plan and execute plans that extend beyond a Wall Street quarter?

Perhaps it’s naive to think it could be that simple, that the practices we need for our future are the practices of our past. But the conversation in the council meeting started to show a path forward. I think of the practices we described as truly the wisdom of the ages, a feeling I have also had recently re-reading certain parts of the Bible. What I experienced as convoluted story telling when I was a child now reads like today’s best mental health practices upon reflection. Our ancestors were pretty smart. And the traditions of native peoples seem like a primer for handling climate change, social change, and even the ways we decide things. Hey, that’s ESG (environment, social, governance), the freshest business-organizing principles.

Here are the native traditions, the Wisdom of the Ages that we identified in our council meeting. Maybe they will spark something in your next meeting.

  • Linkage to generations past and future: a tradition of acknowledging where the present day and the people alive today come in history
  • Long-term view: responsibility for outcomes over the very long term, including impact on future generations
  • Patience: willingness to work on seemingly intractable problems in a sustained way
  • Humility: recognition that the work of a current generation may not be enough to resolve an issue fully, though this recognition does not stop the current generation from making its contribution to the solution
  • Earth is for all life: the planet and its resources are here for us to share, not hoard or expend. Plants and animals are an integral part of our ecosystem and deserving of our respect


Oct 18, 2021

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