Indigenous economic history, entrepreneurship, and pimâcihisowin: Interview with Milt Tootoosis

As part of Saskatchewan Economic Development Week 2017, the Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network interviewed leaders in the First Nation business and economic development community. Below, SFNEDN Board member Heather Exner-Pirot talks to Milton Tootoosis, a Councillor at Poundmaker Cree Nation, Director of Livelihood and Economic Independence at the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, and Founder and Chair of the SFNEDN, about Indigenous economic history, entrepreneurship, and pimâcihisowin.

Exner-Pirot: You often talk about concepts such as livelihood, trade and self-sufficiency in your work.  What do you see as an Indigenous, or Cree, understanding of economic development?

Tootoosis: Most Indigenous peoples have been excluded from fully participating in the mainstream economy since the fur trade leading up to the numbered treaties era. We tend to forget that prior to 1492, Indigenous peoples were very engaged in inter-tribal trading. They had a different type of economy and commerce system compared to the Western model. We know the early Indigenous nations were innovative and did in fact have a system that included setting a value on an item. They did not however include incorporating a dollar figure on a person’s labour for example. They practiced an early form of compassionate consumerism if you will. They only took what they needed. They helped one another. They shared the meat and used almost every part from the bison for example here on the prairies. They had enough to sustain their livelihoods.

That all changed with the arrival of the settler society and the intentional demise of the bison herds. The near extinction of the bison was catastrophic to the livelihood and sustenance of the prairie Indigenous cultures. Some scholarly research has shown that there was a deliberate attempt to starve the Indians into submission that resulted in easier treaty-making for the colonial government.

Most Indigenous communities have not recovered from colonial enforcement of the Indian Act, the Indian Residential Schools policy, the Pass and Permit systems, systemic racism in general and underfunding.

Exner-Pirot: What is the role of the Treaty in developing First Nations economies?

Tootoosis: The Treaty was to a large extent an economic agreement, one that was intended to benefit both parties. The Treaty was about sharing very large tracts of land in exchange for Treaty promises of a good livelihood. The Chiefs at that time were aware of the changes occurring and that they needed to adapt to the new economy. Negotiating for the right to continue hunting, fishing and trapping and requesting for farming implements and some essential tools to get started was driven by the knowledge that the culture was shifting. The promise for these provisions was understood by the Chiefs that a new way of life was going to occur and that the Queen was going to assist them with that adaptation.

Exner-Pirot: What kind of partnerships make sense for First Nations as they try to grow their economies?

Tootoosis: From what I have learned over the past two decades, most First Nations governments and their corporate development arms have created partnerships using the Incorporation, Joint Venture or Limited Partner model.

There appears to be potential for First Nations governments to support the growth of more private entrepreneurs, sole proprietors and co-operatives. I would recommend that First Nation governments should focus on creating an environment for growth in these new structures, and avoid monopolizing all good business opportunities through First Nations government companies (similar as Crown corporations Sasktel, SGI, and SaskPower do for example). We need more entrepreneurs to come up with a good solution to solve a problem, to carefully think through the innovative idea, a business plan, an effective marketing plan, excellent financial projections and controls and execute with passion and hard work. There is a risk in everything, but if it all lines up who knows who can be the next business wonder. Not enough Indigenous people are trying and most focus on just the Indigenous market which is minimizing the potential to capture a much larger market.

Exner-Pirot: You’ve long been involved in the Word Indigenous Business Forum and brought it here to Saskatchewan in 2016.  What do Indigenous peoples have in common when it comes to economic development and business?

Tootoosis: Indigenous peoples globally have many things in common. First, if they did not enter into peaceful treaty relationship with the Crown, they have had conflicts with settler society. Some engaged in war while others found peace. Many have not been conquered as some historians have eluded. Most Indigenous peoples have unsettled disputes over their traditional lands and territories. Second, most Indigenous leaders have realised that they should get into a sustainable business. The common model includes creating jobs and wealth but primarily it seems to be about creating jobs. Thirdly, most Indigenous leaders want to continue respecting the land, the water, the animals, the plants, and so on. They have a common worldview that this universe and all that is here on planet Earth was put here for human consumption and livelihood. Therefore, it needs to be respected. That is why in pre-contact times they only took what they needed for their subsistence. Greed and total exploitation for gain was not a common value.

Exner-Pirot: Who or what has most influenced your thinking on economic development?

Tootoosis: For community economic development, I would say leaders responsible for nation rebuilding success stories in Canada, such as the West Bank First Nation, Osoyoos First Nation, Membertou First Nation, the Cree in Northern Quebec, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Enoch Cree Nation, and Lac La Ronge Indian Band. In the USA, I admire the Southern Ute Tribe, the Seminole Tribe, the Mississippi Choctaw, and others profiled in the Native Nations Institute and The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. None are perfect but they are better than they used to be.

My favourite thinkers for entrepreneurs include authors such as Famous Dave, Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Jim Rohn, Tony Robbins, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. I am inspired by the leadership and passion by David Tuccaro, Dr. Ron Martin, Doug Goloski, and the local micro home-based business owners on the reserve who manufacture unique jewelry that have potential to be sold in the global marketplace. I respect anyone who is self-employed and is living and practicing the ancient Cree concept of ‘pimâcihisowin’ (the ability to make his own living).

Exner-Pirot: What does success look like – for Poundmaker, for the SFNEDN, and for Indigenous peoples more broadly?

Tootoosis: I think success would mean a greater percentage of First Nation governments have viable and profitable businesses and partnerships with credible companies that commit to employment and capacity building so that top leaders are some day all First Nations. The community owned businesses should be reinvesting some of their profits back into their businesses, saving some for a rainy day fund (in trust like Norway has done) and distributing some back into community infrastructure and social programs. I also see success when more First Nations entrepreneurs are owning and operating their own businesses that are ethical, sustainable and environmentally responsible. I would also like to see more wealthy First Nations people that are taking care of themselves, their children, grandchildren, saving some money for their future college education or business start-up capital, have a good retirement savings account, and have some extra to donate to First Nations education, alleviation of hunger, sport, culture and recreation programs. Having more First Nations philanthropists would be living the ancient Cree value of mamawîcihitowin (sharing and helping each other).