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Washington State University business professor Joe Gladstone doesn’t have a lot of Native students. For that matter, he doesn’t have a lot of Native colleagues either. 

That doesn’t stop Gladstone, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, from infusing his curriculum with Indigenous perspectives. Amid teaching principles of business management, Gladstone imparts what he calls Native American “transplanar wisdom” — emphasizing the Indigenous perspectives that objects are both animate and valuable, time is fleeting, and people are intimately connected to the place they live and work.  

“It demonstrates that Indigenous ways of knowing and wisdom are all equally valid as Western ways of knowing, writing, and communicating,” Gladstone, who has a Ph.D. and a master’s degree in public health, told Tribal Business News

Gladstone’s students appreciate the perspective, per his student reviews, but he wants to see more Native students out there helping to share and promote the same perspectives. He envisions a future where more Native professors and researchers can broaden perceptions of business and economic development. 

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Dr. Gladstone spoke with Tribal Business News about the differences between Western and Native business cultures, the importance of increasing Native representation in academia, challenges in Native student retention, and the need for endowments that support the preservation of Indigenous ways. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

Talking about the variations between Western and Native business cultures, what do you consider the most significant difference? 

What I found just speaking to Native enterprisers is that there's a deeper connection between their role as business leaders and greater service to the community. Their businesses exist - we all want to make an income, but it doesn't seem like bringing in great massive wealth or being a captain of industry are the main drivers. These enterprisers identify needs in the community and this is the way they can fulfill that need. 

What else do you see as a major difference between the cultures?

I have found that some see the sense of competition is different. There's competition within tribes and outside of the tribe, and those are different. Within tribes, what I have seen is that people recognize the other person has to eat, too. 

Even a person with a similar business to me needs to eat too, so I don't want to cut deeply into their business, because they need to take care of their things. Gloves come off when you're dealing with folks outside of the community, though.

Can you point to an example?

Indian gaming is a very good example of that. Indian gaming is not a competition intertribally.  Tribes recognize they're competing against private [non-Native] enterprises on that level.

That still requires more study, which is why I need more doctoral students.

You don’t see a lot of Natives working in the upper ranks of academia as professors and researchers?

Right now, in the Pacific Northwest, we’re in the great minority. I work closely with just a small handful of professors, and we're always the single Indigenous professor in our schools.

That creates a representation problem.

It’s just sheer numbers. Like any organization, the more numbers you have, the more work you can get done in an organization. We shouldn’t have to rely on a single person to run an entire department.

Having more Native professors would help share that perspective with students, is that right?

It’s not just that. Professors do more than teach. We're researchers. We generate the material that teachers teach. We do the research, we find the new things, we find the new wisdom and that's what gets into textbooks.

A person who's a PhD-level professor is extremely well trained to do critical research, determine the validity of their research, and then have the capacity to report that. Having more Native professors increases the volume of Indigenous knowledge into the communities.

The reason it's important to have those numbers is that it's very hard to do this work when there's only a very small handful of us.

Talk to me about Native students and retention.

That's also part of it. Outside of business, we have Native American students in the universities. We also have a retention problem. A common lament is that “I don't want to go there because they're trying to turn me white.” 

We have a lot of social support, we have Indian advisors, Indian mentors, but the people who actually impart the knowledge and grade the students are the professors.

Does that connection affects how students are assessed and taught?

You can have all of the non-academic support in the university, but what you really need are the professors (because) they not only teach, they assign grades. 

I don't just give A’s to any Native students. They have to demonstrate their chops. But I have the ability to transform that knowledge into something that's useful for them. It's not taking away their identity, it's adding to their identity as professionals, as professional workers. They gain knowledge they can use both in their communities, both as business professionals and tribal members.

American Indian business professors can bring in this Indigenous wisdom and can hopefully help people start thinking differently. 

Give me an example. 

It would have been nice to teach this art of animacy and place and time. We wouldn't have that same problem of global warming right now.

So what’s the call to action? 

The process begins at the community level. The communities, when they identify their students who are going to go to college, they need to provide as much emotional support as possible. The knowledge that they gain will be good for (the community). 

Besides having individual families encouraging and providing emotional support for their students who are away at school, those youth who grow to become professors will highly value financial support from the tribes and Native American business leaders who can afford such support. Financial support is a community investment. And not just tribal communities.

What about private investment, such as from Native-owned businesses or entrepreneurs?

The support I would like to see from Tribal and Native business leaders are named professorial endowments to universities. A named endowment is more than a donation to a department. A named endowment is an investment in a research scholar. 

More than that, it's an investment with strings. When you invest in an academic chair, you secure a job and research support for a professor. 

It could be more than that, though, right? 

Being an endowment, that chair could be permanent. When the first professor retires after years of research, teaching undergraduates, and transforming some of those undergraduates into professors … a new professor fills the chair to continue research and teaching. 

So an endowment chair is a way to involve all that support at once and guide the eventual research.

That is the power you have endowing a professorial chair. You not only create a professor position in a university, you specify what that professor will research. I, and I suspect many other Native American professors in universities throughout the nation, would be honored to be appointed to a chair sponsored by tribes, tribal consortiums, and Native American business leaders.

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About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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