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Tribal ethics at work

By Amanda Bradford

Researcher finds that tribal wisdom, business ethics more related than they seem.

Relationships. Sharing. Trust. Usefulness. These are some of the attributes that are highly valued in indigenous cultures. 

Meanwhile, recent headlines outside these tribal communities too often relate tales of how some business leaders have breached the public trust and prioritized what they might benefit from, rather than what they could contribute.

But research going on in New Mexico State University’s College of Business has shown that commonalities do exist between business ethics and tribal wisdom.

Grace Ann Rosile is studying how Native American tribal values can be applied in today’s business world. Today, technology has created a “global village” and these ancient ethical perspectives, which come from tribal communities, suddenly seem very relevant again.

Rosile, an associate professor of management at NMSU’s College of Business, has been a Daniels Fund Ethics fellow since 2010, when the university received a $1.25 million grant to develop a principle-based ethics program over five years. The grant is part of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, whose goal is to strengthen principle-based ethics education and foster a high standard of ethics in young people.

Grace Ann Rosile

NMSU’s Grace Ann Rosile is exploring the application of tribal values in today’s business world.

In the paper, “Comparing Daniels Principles of Business Ethics and Tribal Ethics,” Rosile and her co-authors, NMSU colleagues Don Pepion, associate professor of anthropology and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe; David Boje, business professor; and Joe Gladstone, assistant professor of public health administration and member of the Blackfeet and Nez Perce tribes, identified “Eight Aspects of Tribal Wisdom for Business Ethics.”

• Relationships – These are very important and the key to survival.

• Gifting rather than getting – Giving is valued and conveys higher status than getting.

• Non-acquisitiveness – The wealth economy discourages hoarding because there is “enough,” and sharing and gifting is more important.

• Usefulness – Use is more important than possession, thus community property is common.

• Egalitarianism over hierarchy – Equality of voice adds to consensus and unity.

• Trust – Trust is the foundation for good relationships and is highly valued.

• Disclosure–Trading partners volunteer information to build relationships.

• Barter systems – Barter emphasizes usefulness of goods rather than accumulation.

Rosile worked with local filmmakers to produce a 30-minute video that explores some of the common themes that unite business ethics and tribal ethics. The “Tribal Wisdom for Business Ethics” film is an effective teaching and outreach tool, she said, because it presents traditional ideas from an indigenous perspective.

“It doesn’t work as well when we as researchers try to say what these Native people are saying,” she said. “We have to let them speak for themselves.”

The film – along with six accompanying teaching videos that are about 10-15 minutes each – serves as a platform and showcase for the scholarly work that’s being done in tribal ethics, she said.

The research is part of the outreach goal of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, expanding ethics education in the region, said Bruce Huhmann, an associate professor of marketing who is the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative chair.

“I think we can all learn a lot by seeing the similarities in ethical principles across cultures,” Huhmann said. “Many of the tribal ethics principles documented by Dr. Rosile and her colleagues are shared in other cultures, although each culture does have its own unique ways of expressing and living those ethical principles.”

Rosile and her team are planning a gathering in fall 2014 that will include people in the “Tribal Wisdom” films and other indigenous scholars, as well as Native American business leaders and students, to explore ways Native values regarding science, art and ethics can inform ethics education.

The film and videos along with accompanying materials, can be found on the NMSU College of Business Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative website.

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