In #SAcdn, Articles

by Sarena Johnson

As far as academics go, Abraham Maslow is a household name. Maslow’s Hierarchy is one of those quasi-academic concepts people love to throw around in conversation, knowing that pretty much anyone will get the reference. However, in a sort of online outing, Maslow has recently been accused of both stealing Indigenous knowledge and “getting it wrong”. By no means a comprehensive analysis, this quick post is meant as an introduction to some of the scholars and discussion on this topic in general.

Although scholars have been aware of this for decades, the Blackfoot/Maslow connection first came to my attention during an epic keynote presentation this past March at the Think Indigenous conference in Saskatoon. Veteran Indigenous academic Leroy Little Bear, himself a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy, focused his presentation on Blackfoot science and worldview. Little Bear mentioned that Maslow’s hierarchy was based on Blackfoot knowledge. He went on to explain that the original concept had not been meant as a hierarchy, but his presentation was so vast the Maslow point felt like a footnote. I had been meaning to dig into Little Bear’s teachings further, when this month the Blackfoot/Maslow connection caught my attention on Twitter:


This most recent attention to the concept caught my eye through the SA community flagging it with the hashtag #SAcdn. From my brief foray into the topic, Dian Squire’s viral tweet are based on a blog by Karen Lincoln Michel about a presentation by Cindy Blackstock at the National Indian Child Welfare conference in 2014.  

Blackstock is an award winning Indigenous scholar and activist. In her Breath of Life Theory, Cindy references Maslow’s visit to his anthropologist friends on a Blackfoot reservation in Alberta. While there, Maslow learned a great deal from them and used their knowledge in his theories. His 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” and specifically the triangular diagram of the hierarchy, went on to become world famous, yet he didn’t fully acknowledge the Indigenous influence on his work.

This slide shows basic differences between Western and First Nations perspectives, as presented by University of Alberta professor Cathy Blackstock at the 2014 conference of the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

As Karen Lincoln Michel lays out in her blog, the triangle format of Maslow’s world famous hierarchy diagram was actually based on tipi teachings. As illustrated in Blackstock’s diagram, the self actualization part was on the bottom, as the starting point. The self was only the beginning for the Blackfoot, who placed community actualization and cultural continuity above the individual. As in, we need to deal with our stuff and be our full selves so we can contribute to the wellbeing of our society. But Maslow’s western lens flipped it around to prioritize the individual. 

With a brief Google search I was pleased to find other research in this area, such as Ryan Heavy Head and Red Crow Community College’s 2005 SSHRC funded research on the Blackfoot approach to science titled, “How First Nations Helped Develop a Keystone of Modern Psychology”. Heavy Head’s research looks at the time Maslow spent with the Blackfoot nation and how that influenced his work.   

“Naamitapiikoan” was the name given to Maslow during his six-week stay at Siksika (Blackfoot Reserve) in the summer of 1938. This visit completely changed his perspective on human motivation, resulting within a decade in the development of his hierarchy of needs, his notion of self-actualization, and his theories of organizational synergy. His knowledge gathered from Siksika has shaped the disciplines of psychology, education, business, and management as we know them today.”

Ryan Heavy Head and Narcisse Blood

If you haven’t already, check out Michel’s blog on the topic. Hopefully this post provides a starting point for people interested in finding out more about this connection. The story of Maslow demonstrates a typical extractive relationship between western academics and Indigenous knowledge. It’s ironic that Indigenous worldviews were not credited for contributing to this theory while colonization ensured we remained at the very bottom tier of the hierarchy.


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  • Anna Williams

    How can people steal an idea? You can be inspired by an idea and then develop a theory, that’s how the mind works nothing is original. Also, self- actualization wasn’t a new idea Kurt Goldstein has been reported as coining the term then it was Carl Rodgers.

    The fact that its a pyramid is interesting but it is highly debated, and by looking at the research its not as straightforward as that, you don’t simply go from one level to the next. In fact, one study used a questionnaire to measure these ideas and had shown that both college students and homeless people have similar levels of high and low self-actualization. Therefore indicating that food and shelter are not essential for reaching higher levels of self-actualization.

    Interestingly much of these ideas are also rooted in Judaism and probably other religions. It is likely that it is something which is universal and doesn’t belong to one tribe. Its because it illustrates the basic and higher order needs of all humans of which we all are, and it is not a big secret. Furthermore, Self-actualization theory is very similar to spiritual awakening and could be seen as the same psychological or some would say spiritual mechanism.

    In addition, also Maslow’s theory is supposed to be individualistic, and this is something he often tried to clarify. This is because those who are highly self-actualised also have deeper relationships with others and have better interpersonal skills. My third-year dissertation is on social connectedness and my findings have shown that people who score highly in self-actualization report feeling more socially connected than those who have low scores. Therefore, there is a strong relationship to a person feeling of purpose and growth that occurs in-line with their relationship with others. They are more likely to feel open to other people but also to the world around them. They are outward, rather than inwards facing. Scott Kaufman has also made some interesting research into this area also. That is people who are more open are shown to experience more peak experiences in life, and report high scores of wellbeing and low scores on depression.

    Also, this diagram that is presented is not the official hierarchy of needs. There are physiological needs (food and shelter) Saftey, Love and Belonging and self-esteem, then self-actualization. However, he died before he could fully explore this theory, that’s why it shouldn’t be taken as a ‘truth’ neither should anything in life, especially when it comes to science. It is clear that above everything we need love, and you can think of it when people have depression they don’t eat or really care about where they live or care about safety but they desperately seek love. The Aesthetic needs, I think is to do with perception – that is as an outcome of high self-actualization people tend to create more, and also perceive works of art differently. It is normal for humans to see a piece of art, and then get bored, however high SA individuals will always find something beautiful and interesting in it. Because being open and connected, as opposed to closed and disconnected heightens your senses, much like falling in love.

    There are many theories of human motivation, but I believe this one is really useful in understanding illness in others especially from mental health. However, the sorry end of the story is this theory being misinterpreted to mean success and money or individualistic goals, hence why so many business people use it. However, if you read becoming of psychology of being by Maslow, you’ll see it is not that at all. Its how we perceive the world, and how we actualize in ourselves. I’m certain that this must be true of any indigenous have people who although serve the community but they also have their own unique abilities, and they grow into this – they also have a connection with others and the environment. The problem with our society is not Maslow’s theory but that we are chasing something that makes us ill and destroys our environment and makes us disconnected. So I for one am glad that Maslow spoke to them and that they shared knowledge and inspired each other and do you not agree that this is the point of life?

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