Systems Shifting: Learning from Indigenous

by Colleen McCormick

gina ’waadluxan gud ad kwaagid
everything depends on everything else

Haida Nation Marine Use Plan

For at least 14,00 years, Indigenous knowledge systems have been critical for
problem solving, sustainability and survival. From traditional conservation and
circular systems and aquaculture and agriculture food systems, to inclusive
community governance systems and cultural healing stewardship practices,
Indigenous ways of being show us the path forward for healing the planet and
ourselves with a simple invitation to return to the heart.

Centring on Indigenous Fundamentals for Systems Shifting, this special feature
blog will highlight the principles, teachings and practical solutions offered by Global
Intrapreneur Week’s 2021 Indigenous Innovators panel featuring Christine Smith-
Martin, Executive Director, Coastal First Nations – Great Bear Initiative, Gina
Jackson, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Return to the Heart Foundation, and Michael
Vegh, one of Canada’s most promising Young Impact Intrapreneurs from Heiltsuk

Principle of Interconnectedness – Working with All Our Relations

For generations Indigenous peoples around the world have developed and
practiced real ecological know-how and knowledge networks to manage resources
sustainably. In comparison to systems only 152 years old, such as Canada,
Indigenous survival systems have been operating for millennia , demonstrating a
more just world, while charting a new path forward through economic inclusion.
Indigenous relationships embrace the understanding that people and their families
are strongly connected to the communities they live in, the land they live on, their
ancestors and future descendants, and all the species that live upon it.

Introducing the first principle of interconnectedness, Michael shares “at the heart of
the climate emergency is a fractured relationship with our relatives, both human and
non-human, and it needs to be healed.” He asserts, “given the state of ecological
crisis the world is in right now, there is a lot we can learn from Indigenous
communities from around the world and it’s time we take lessons from Nation
societies that have been here for at least 15,000 years, and bring their survival and
sustainability knowledge to the forefront of our systems changing efforts.”

From the time Gina can remember, she was exposed to the abuses in the world,
acknowledging the harms done to Indigenous women and girls through her close
relationship with her grandmother. It was through this understanding that she
realized, “she was a bridge builder, meant to bring healing to tribal Nations, to the
world and beyond." When it comes to systems shifting, Gina believes “everything is
about relationships and a return to the heart, finding our way back to our original
instructions and the values deeply held within ourselves and our organizations – for
the good of the whole.”

As the lead of Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative, Christine shares that her
key systems focus is on “shifting large corporations and organizations to embrace
the conservation economy through supporting the communities on the front lines of
protecting eco-systems.” By investing in new ways such as Carbon Offset Credits
that feed directly into Nation-led programs like the Coastal Stewardship Network
and community youth training initiatives, everyone can be a part of protecting the
ecological systems of the Great Bear Rainforest, the last standing intact temperate
rainforest on the planet home to over 20 percent of the world’s salmon.

These opportunities present an incredible opportunity to address the UN’s
Sustainable Development Goals by working directly with Indigenous communities
along the Pacific Northwest Coast, especially given the UN’s Decade of Oceans

Fundamental to Christine’s focus is a core principle Indigenous people are raised
with: to live respectfully with the land for human survival. “Don’t take more than you
need” and “give back more than you take” is a teaching Christine shares, reminding
us that “Indigenous communities have always maintained a strong relationship with
their natural systems.” Striving to uphold conservation-based values, the
Indigenous worldview sees our systems as interconnected and views the salmon,
cedar, four-legged and winged-ones as relatives to be honoured through respect.

Principle of Indigenous Intrapreneurship

To better understand the principle of Indigenous Intrapreneurship, we start at the
root – the wisdom of the original Indigenous Intrapreneurs, who have sustained
existence on this planet for the last 15,000 years by leading change from within.

Despite ongoing genocidal attempts and dominant oppressive colonial systems
constructed to eradicate their wisdom and source of spirit – their cultural connection
to land, Indigenous communities have survived and are now becoming leading
hubs for clean energy transition and economic transformation.

Reflecting on Indigenous intrapreneurial values, Michael shares, “When it comes to
Indigenous intrapreneurs leading change within our communities, scale has never
been a problem for us. It is up to us to maintain our values and strive for
sustainable scale – it’s these kinds of values and principles we want to share with
the rest of the world.”

Christine highlights two great examples of Indigenous Intrapreneurship, the first
was the creation of the Chinook language established for trade so Nations could
communicate. Imagine, one language created to conduct inclusive business to
bring all communities together. The second example was Coastal First Nation’s
Guardian Watchmen Program, a globally renowned stewardship effort that protects
the Great Bear Rainforest . She shares that, “Tribal Nations have always relied on
each other to sustain and maintain their relationship with natural food systems and
live their conservation-based values to uphold their ancestral responsibility to the
next 7 generations.”

The ills of this world were not caused by Indigenous communities – although they
are the ones directly impacted by our capitalistic growth mindset. Christine reminds
us that “combatting climate change falls on the shoulders of all of us to find new
ways to come together to address impacts.”

Empowering Indigenous women and girls through supporting voices that have long
been ignored and unsupported is Gina’s systems change mission. After working in
a range of high-profile roles in government and in community, returning to a spiritual
way of being is the intrapreneurial path forward for Gina. Encouraging non-
Indigenous people to respect Indigenous people’s connection to the land and the
strong values they uphold to do that, Gina reinforces, “we’re people of place, and
we treat the land, like we treat our mother – and we would never harm our mother.”

Principle of Protocols for Access and Inclusion

When it comes to protocols, Gina explains that it is important to share who you are
as a person and where you come from as a matter of deep respect. This simple act
of respect, “goes back to the land and asking for permission to be here,
acknowledging who you are with integrity” which for her is a gamechanger in
building respectful relationships, as “generosity is at your sacrifice, not at your

Gina reminds us of the simple truth that many untold stories are a result of not
having a voice to address the atrocities of our colonial past. “Unless we talk about
the truth, we can’t get to healing.” It is all of our individual responsibility, “to learn
more, dig deeper and seek ways to better support each other and the Indigenous
lands you are walking on to see who is being left out of your policy making and
economies.” Gina sees inclusion as a matter of systems justice.

Indigenous people didn’t choose to be marginalized, they had to adapt to the
constantly changing systems of colonial impact. As a system change agents, we
need to ask ourselves a fundamental question, where is the pain within our system
and how can we work together to heal it?

Principle of Proximity to Shift Power

Acknowledging the time that we are in right now as we shift into pandemic recovery,
Christine believes “people are more awakened today about the need to take care of
the planet and each other more than ever before.”

“We are seeing climate changes on the ground, and in our eco-systems, and if you
see Indigenous people protesting, it is because we’re protecting against what is a
great threat to our territories and our communities – we have always done business
but its based on not harming,” she asserts. “When Coastal First Nations builds
partnerships, we don’t go into our partners realm, we bring them into our realm –
we’ve been doing this work for 15,000 years and we know a few things.” And
Christine reminds us that when community does the hard work of self-sacrifice, “it is
for you and your family’s benefit so find ways to partner in a meaningful way.”

Closing Reflection

Throughout my community development work with Indigenous communities over
the years in the public service, I have witnessed a fundamental difference between
Indigenous ways of being and the superiority complex of European and Western
civilizations. The Indigenous difference is a humble understanding that humans are
not above the laws of nature, they are in fact bound by the interconnectedness of
our natural systems – the very systems that we rely upon to live.

As a civilization, what will it take to adopt this fundamental Indigenous systems
worldview, and rebuild our relationship with the very forces that give us life?

As we continue to witness the irreversible damage of an economic system centered
on growth profit and waste, such as the decline of species by more than 50 percent
on average in the last two generations, there is only one conclusion. The dominant
systems we have built are killing us while the Indigenous systems that have
operated in parallel for millennia by honouring the principle of interconnectedness,
illuminates a path forward.

Choosing our future means taking actions that will result in creating the kind of
communities we want to live in and pass on to our children and grandchildren.

Following our own systems of impact is a good place to start. Understanding the
land and space that you occupy, is and important step in recognizing the values of
the First Peoples who have taken care of those lands for millennia. Our Global
Intrapreneur Week theme of making the invisible, visible, reminds us that
Indigenous peoples are in our rainforests, and are connected to every element of
the ecosystem.

The invitation and call to action for the League of Intrapreneurs is to find you, see
you and ask how we can be of service and find ways to become Guardians of
Mother Earth within our organizations and communities.

We began a Systems Shifting conference with root of the system – the system that
nurtures and feeds our extractive, hyper growth focused colonial systems that have
only known how to take. Let us reflect that the wellbeing of our families, friends,
finances and ourselves all grows from taking care of the roots of our natural
systems. Let us end with the final principle of reciprocity: never take more than
what you can give.

If you would like to support the good work of Coastal First Nations and the Return to
the Heart Foundation, here is how you can water their roots.

Investing in what matters with Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative 



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