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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