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A Native American Relational Ethic: An Indigenous Perspective on Teaching Human Responsibility

Abstract

Our exemplar of a Native American relational ethic is depicted through the Seven Grandfather Teachings, an ancient sacred story of Potawatomi and Ojibwe peoples. These teachings state that human beings are responsible to act with wisdom, respect, love, honesty, humility, bravery, and truth toward each other and all creation. We illustrate the possible uses of this ethic through exercises wherein students reflect on the values and learn lessons related to ethics, leadership, teamwork, and relationships, or create stories using Native American story form.

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Notes

  1. The term “Native American” is a term that often supplants “American Indian” in American English usage. Neither term is unproblematic, though a discussion of the origins of the terms and the many disputes as to the best nomenclature is beyond the scope of this article. Others prefer “First Nations.” Each tribe of Indigenous peoples has their own names for themselves in their own original languages. We note that Potawatomi people are Neshnabek (original people). We recognize this diversity and use both generic terms interchangeably.

  2. The first author of this paper is of both Potawatomi and European American descent. Our description is adapted from ones given to the first author with “author unknown.” That appellation distorts the sharing of this story through generations. We note that Potawatomi and Ojibwe were part of the Three Fires Confederacy, and share many stories, including this one.

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Correspondence to Amy Klemm Verbos.

Appendix 1

Appendix 1

Max’s Profile

Max is a businessman. He considers his company’s interests over the interests of others. This is central to every decision he makes, and making as much profit to increase his own wealth as well as shareholder value is his goal. Max is willing to “bend the rules” if it is more profitable. He wants his businesses lean and fiercely competitive. He has a generally pleasant demeanor and can be charming when he wants something. In other words, he is good at impression management and can change his behavior to suit his best advantage in a situation. Max believes that emotion and compassion are not a part of business; it is a rational cost–benefit calculation. He thinks of himself as an individual who has succeeded based solely on his own merit. He might be called arrogant because he does not consider other perspectives or really hear other perspectives.

Max is married to Minnie. Max generally ignores Minnie’s advice, because he does not comprehend what it is she does or why. They do not see eye to eye; in fact, he is oblivious to her views. They go against his instincts as a rational individualist.

Minnie’s Profile

Minnie is also a businessperson. She listens to Max’s plans and gives him advice from her perspective. She believes in the interrelatedness of all things. Minnie looks at all things created as living and animate, just that they express it in different ways: rocks, trees, bodies of water, grass, flowers, etc. To her, it is wise to take into account the social, environmental, and societal implications and possible consequences of decisions in addition to financial ramifications. Minnie advises Max about actions that would be respectful, caring, brave, and honest. She suggests ways that he could act with humility and integrity. Minnie possesses the power to bring Max back to life, but not to undo any harm he causes.

A Sustainability Story: Max’s Economics and Minnie’s Eco-Nomics

Max owns a large piece of property that has a mountain and streams. He and Minnie live on his property below the mountain, next to a piece of property owned by the Nature Conservancy. An organic farm sits adjacent to their property on the other side. The mountain is full of coal. Max sees this as an economic opportunity to extract coal in the least expensive way possible and make a huge profit. He gets permits from government agencies to blow off the top of the mountain. He is bursting with excitement as he tells Minnie all about it. Minnie counsels him against this course of action. Max is incredulous.

He walks along a path up the mountain, and the mountain tells him: “The coal extraction will blow me apart, and people will no longer be awed by the gifts the Creator has shown through me. My snowcap provides clean water and feeds our sister, the stream. Mining will cause noise, and toxic runoff.” As he passes close, the stream says: “I am a laughing, life-giving, happy presence, and your plan will turn me into a foul, toxic, smelly, and life-depleting presence. Our brothers and sisters, fish, the trees, flowers, and meadows in the conservancy, organic crops being grown for food, all will be poisoned, become sick, and die.”

Max shakes his head and goes about extracting the coal. The blasts cause such shaking in their home that the walls crack and many of their possessions are knocked from their perches and broken. The mountain is fractured and the blast site appears as an open wound. Machines cut across their garden and break the peace and quiet of the past. Minnie turns on the water and finds it is brown and has a funny smell. Crops on the farm lose organic designation. The farmer cannot sell his crops, and has no money for his mortgage. The bank forecloses. Wildlife has moved on. But Max hardly notices this; he is busy checking his payments for the coal. Following his normal routine, Max eats fish from the streams and drinks water from the tap. He gets ill and dies. Minnie tells him that he has much to answer for and brings him back to life.

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Verbos, A.K., Humphries, M. A Native American Relational Ethic: An Indigenous Perspective on Teaching Human Responsibility. J Bus Ethics 123, 1–9 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-013-1790-3

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Keywords

  • Native American values
  • Relational ethic
  • Indigenous perspectives
  • Team exercise
  • Leadership exercise
  • Values exercise
  • Creativity exercise