Indigenous economic health: Q&A with Rebecca Adamson

On the TEDMED 2014 stage, Indigenous economist Rebecca Adamson, founder of the First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide and a globally recognized advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples, shares how culturally appropriate, values-driven, sustainable development based on indigenous principles contributes to a new concept of health. We caught up with her to learn more.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

Understanding health as an emergent property, and seeing the individual’s health as merely a part of society’s collective health, aligns closely with the holistic approach found within Indigenous Peoples’ worldview. This understanding provided me a natural bridge to make the case that the old medical paradigm that has operated until now with a single, limited, linear worldview needed rethinking. I wanted to show how much the Indigenous worldview has been literally and figuratively handcuffed and prohibited from use. Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same conscience that created it.”  I wanted to present how culturally diverse perspectives, especially Indigenous perspectives that emphasize the health of the community rather than the health of the individual, are compelling and relevant technologies for today.

Medical science has determined that healthy individuals emerge from a healthy relationship with a healthy society in a healthy ecosystem. This means that the distribution and delivery of healthcare must meet the needs of the whole society, not merely a part of it. For me, this is a game-changer. As a Cherokee Economist, with a lifetime invested in Indigenous development, my experience with western models has been that they focus on accumulation with little attention to distribution. One of the most crucial aspects of the emergent property of health is that well-being is achieved collectively, meaning that the distribution and delivery of our healthcare actually determines the efficacy of our medical system, our individual health, and the well-being of our society. I believe the Indigenous paradigm lends a new perspective in rethinking healthcare and the medical profession.

Rebecca Adamson at TEDMED 2014
“One of the most crucial aspects of the emergent property of health is that well-being is achieved collectively, meaning that the distribution and delivery of our healthcare actually determines the efficacy of our medical system, our individual health, and the well-being of our society.” Rebecca Adamson at TEDMED 2014

Why does this talk matter now?

Indigenous Peoples are still being handcuffed, figuratively and literally. We are being arrested, shot at and killed for our natural resources. This is going on at the same time that many of our sciences (not just medical) are uncovering the interconnectivity of life – all Life. Holistic worldviews are not exclusive to Indigenous Peoples but the millennia of empirical data on how societies can organize politically, socially and economically for sustainability is being lost. Right now there is an overemphasis on the technological and financial aspects of our society. As medical practitioners, you can really see it in the healthcare system. For example, if we know that health is an emergent property then why is so little or no attention given to the distribution and delivery of healthcare for all – not merely a portion – of society? Sure, we need technology and sure, we need to pay for it – but I wanted to challenge my audience to consider a new way of thinking about healthcare and medicine, one that encompasses society as a whole. Remember the distribution of the whale hunt in an Inuit village, compared to the distribution of cash in the same village? Could you imagine our society if healthcare were to be distributed with the same sophistication as the Inuit whale harvest?  However, if we were to map the distribution of healthcare services in our society today, I fear that it would follow the pattern of hierarchical cash distribution, as opposed to holistic asset or resource distribution, where everyone is accounted for.

The efficacy of traditional medicines is just one part of what Indigenous Peoples can offer the field of medicine. Because the Indigenous worldview is holistic, Indigenous Peoples are brilliant systems thinkers. Indigenous systems leverage and account for the inter- and inner-connections between individuals, community, society and even the ecosystem. Today, we are at a critical point of opportunity where changing the distribution of healthcare is imperative for changing the health and wellbeing of our society. An Indigenous paradigm that values the interconnectedness and interdependence of society can serve as a crucial guide in shifting emphasis from financial gain to collective well-being in the medical field.

What impact do you hope the talk will have?

Our healthcare system today is riddled with problems, that I see stemming from an exaggerated focus on the individual and neglect of the collective wellbeing. I hope my talk will lead TEDMED to focus on the importance of access, distribution and healthcare delivery with the same attention that it dedicates to technology, data and finance. The answers lie in alternative ways of understanding healthcare and medicine. TEDMED has a commitment to diversity that it demonstrated in this incredible gathering of experts, both in speakers and in the audience. I challenge you all to do more. Take the mental handcuffs off. Challenge paradigms that prevent diverse voices and perspectives, as they are the only way we are going to solve the complex issues facing us today. An Indigenous way of thought accounts for the collective – an individual is just one part of a community, just as a plant is one piece of an ecosystem. In the Indigenous paradigm, the health of the individual is dependent on the health of the community. I hope my talk inspires those in medicine to begin rethinking how they approach health care, and to begin considering how our current system can reach society as a whole rather than merely a part.

Please share anything else you wish you could have included in your talk.

Ultimately, I wanted to leave the audience with this question: what do Indigenous Peoples have to share with TEDMED? Remember the distribution of the whale hunt – isn’t that, at its very best, the kind of distribution you would wish for today’s health delivery system? Can you imagine the preventative savings in a health system that reaches everyone? In a society where everyone is someone else’s mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, cousin… It is the entire society, not merely a part of it, that must survive.

What are some actions viewers can take in support of this cause?

In my talk, I challenged the audience to begin thinking about healthcare from an Indigenous perspective. Now, I challenge them to start working from that perspective – begin exploring how to make healthcare delivery reach the furthermost places in our society; how to begin emphasizing the health of the community over the health of the individual; and how to distribute medicine and healthcare so that it resembles the whale distribution map, and not the cash distribution map. I challenge medical professionals to imagine a society of collective prosperity and health, and to begin a collective discussion on how to achieve that dream.