US Socialism: Indigenous community wealth building

Community wealth building can help to tap into the culture and resources of marginalised communities, says Stephanie Gutierrez.

March 13, 2020 · 5 min read


Groundbreaking of Thunder Valley Community Development in 2015. Photo by James Pendleton.

For the Lakota people of the Plains, ‘wealth’ has always meant to live by our virtues in order to have a happy, well-balanced life. Wealth was not and is not about materialistic things but helping, giving and taking care of one another. Our wealth is measured in our ability to care for our people and to provide a strong foundation for future generations. Before colonisation, our culture was what made possible our immense, largescale management of our people, homes, lands and resources. As a matriarchal society, with hundreds of millions of acres, we operated a self-sufficient economy able to support the needs of all the people. Although our communities have been greatly affected by colonisation, wealth building according to our traditional ways can still be seen in our relationships and in the ways our people continue to survive and thrive.

When I was introduced to the community wealth building (CWB) framework, I was working for the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in South Dakota, which had committed to a five-year project with the Democracy Collaborative. In order to make sense of the process, we spent time reading their report Cities Building Community Wealth on building a more inclusive economy grounded in broad, local ownership, and discussing the drivers of community wealth building with family, friends and community members. We came to understand the notion by referring to our values as a people and considering how the framework translated to Lakota beliefs and traditional ways of being.

At the same time, we were learning about unique and unconventional modern methods to grow wealth, such as community benefits agreements and participatory budgeting. I immediately thought of our old Lakota ways of tiospaye, based on the belief that we are all relatives, and how we made decisions communally and for the benefit of all. We gathered all the ways the CWB framework spoke to who we are as Lakota people. Phrases such as ‘devotion to place’, ‘respect for all those who live there’ and ‘keeping ownership locally rooted’ resonated with our Lakota values.

Cultural values

Community wealth building isn’t just another economic approach that is imposed upon us. It resonates with us and our cultural values. It is about loyalty to place and to our people, with ownership held by the community, working with and for each other. It treats every person as part of the economy, a circular economy in which everything is connected – consciously recreating sustainable communities that honour the relationality of things, the interconnected dimensions of knowledge, spiritual, emotional, mental and physical. We believe in a collective system that does not survive independently of everything else. As in nature, we understand that nothing works alone.

The economic system evident in our communities today has been forced upon us, despite our sovereignty as a nation within a nation. Given the magnitude of our desperation to survive, we took what we could get, leaving us dependent on federal government dollars and profiteers and tricksters who continue to offer get-rich-quick schemes. Many tribes have adopted capitalist market activity through extractive economic development strategies such as big industry in natural resource development, mining, manufacturing and tribally owned enterprises. Although this has benefited some tribes monetarily, these benefits do not always trickle down to the broader community.

Woke up and fed up

This is true of many impoverished communities. It is clear humanity cannot sustain an economic system that benefits just a few while it exploits the most marginalised. I believe communities of colour are woke up and fed up. The system has failed us and the only way out is by decolonising our minds, giving voice to our young people while heeding the wisdom of our elders. This comes through our engagement in acts of moral protest to demonstrate that we’re no longer interested in the system imposed on us. Utilising the CWB framework is a moral protest. It gives us this opportunity to see ourselves as part of a system where we can contribute and receive, equally, in a way that honours all living things.

Culture is the one driving force that provides hope and conviction in communities that have experienced oppression and marginalisation. CWB is easily translatable to different cultures and values. It is inclusive, with special consideration for those left behind or issues at the forefront of social injustices affecting women, children, the environment and so on. It offers communities opportunities for expansion, growth and coming together as a whole. And it benefits everyone to see themselves in the economic development process in order to understand their role and how they can contribute to their local economy in a way that aligns with their culture and values.

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