Means vs Meaning

“What would you risk dying for — and for whom — is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.”
– Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

In 1854 in the plains of Wyoming, near Fort Laramie, a 10 year old Sioux boy watched as an American regiment shot and killed the Sioux chief during peaceful negotiations. He watched the Sioux retaliate and kill many Americans. This sparked a war. The Sioux didn’t stop with Fort Laramie. They would materialize out of thin air, raid forts, and kill foresters or destroy railroads. Soon, the railroad companies, settlers, and merchants compelled the United States to seek peace with the Sioux. They signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, giving the Black Hills to the Sioux people in order to end the war and pacify the hornet’s nest that they had kicked.

But when rumors of gold in the Black Hills began to circulate just six years later, the United States government tried to buy the land back. The Sioux said that the land wasn’t for sale. Then the US government (being the US government) promptly violated the treaty, citing “Indian hostility” as cause to deploy the military and relocate the Sioux to a smaller reservation.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, Public Domain

The boy mentioned above was now 28 years old, and had a new name: Crazy Horse. He became known for courage in battle, his visions, and his war paint: lightning on his cheeks. He participated in a peaceful protest with his people where they stood their ground against the military attempting to dislodge them from the Black Hills.

Crazy Horse led the Sioux through battle after battle for their beloved land and way of life. He waged war for the Black Hills until winter 1877, when he surrendered in order to save his starved and freezing people.

Crazy Horse fought to keep his head under the open Wyoming sky, fought for his place and his people even to his last breath. He was eventually mortally stabbed in the back. His story and battle for the Sioux way of life still hasn’t ended. 100 years after Crazy Horse died, the Sioux sued the United States government in 1980 for unjustly violating their treaty. They won, gaining over $100 million in reparations for their lost land.

But they didn’t take the money. They still haven’t.

Which begs the question: what is it that the Sioux value so much that they would consistently turn down large sums of money — even after they’ve been defeated? And, moreover, what do we have to change about our understanding of human motivation in order to account for this anomaly?

Clash of Dreams

“One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.”
– Crazy Horse

The American dream has always been about independence and individual wealth. Sioux were never interested in the American dream, and they remain so to this day. There is now a project to sculpt Crazy Horse into a mountain in the Sioux reservation, and as they continue to chip his face into the largest sculpture ever created, one billion dollars continues to sit in a bank account in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, collecting compounding interest, untouched.

Though they are arguably one of the poorest groups in the country, the Sioux as a people do not think that having more money will make their lives better. Many of them think the opposite. Mario Gonzalez, one of the lawyers that represented the Sioux nation in the case, told The Atlantic that, if the Sioux took the money, “and the money is all gone three years from now, that’s when the Sioux will become a defeated people. That’s when you will see them walking around in shame with their heads hanging.”

Some leaders interviewed by The Atlantic said they feared the money could actually tear the Sioux apart — a greater risk than the poverty they face today.

Even 100 years after their clash, the Sioux and the American government haven’t changed. The American government still can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want its gold, and the Sioux still say, keep your gold — give us our home, our land, our buffalo, our way of life.

Means or Meaning?

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

When people turn down large sums of money, the American consciousness is almost always shocked and curious. It can be hard for us to comprehend why someone wouldn’t want a nicer house and a better car and a bigger stash in their bank account for retirement — much less simply enough financial gain to live comfortably, as the Sioux have turned down.

I don’t think this is simply because we are greedy, though. We are simultaneously shocked and inspired by these stories because we have been misinformed about what humans really want, and deep down we know it.

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

Many Americans’ goals have been informed by the American Dream fully realized: amassing a substantial amount of wealth, through individual accomplishment, to be able to choose one’s own path freely, obtain any material good, give a small portion to causes we care about, and pass on wealth to our loved ones. The sacrifices we might need to make (working difficult jobs, etc.) are only necessary insofar as they eliminate the need to put our well-being on the line once again. We sacrifice to achieve comfort.

Again, I don’t think this is about greed. We take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seriously; we have been told that our belonging and self-actualization can only come after we have our material needs met. We have also been convinced that this is an individual pursuit; enlightenment-era ideals of rationality and individualism re-envisioned virtue as a personal accomplishment, rather than a communal effort. Happiness, then, begins with physical needs being met; belonging to a group or having a higher purpose are great achievements, but are the “cherries on top.”

While these movements brought about many positives, we have slowly drifted away from our natural evolution in tribes, and the wisdom of the tribal way of living. Not all tribes in history have behaved the same way, but the story of the Sioux is an example of its common patterns.

The means to live are less important than the meaning for which the tribe lives.

Most tribes with ancient roots are deeply spiritual, and they measure their success differently than modern communities, states, or countries. They measure their success by the unity of their tribe and its commitment to their spiritual beliefs. To them, individual accomplishment should be at the service of the tribe’s flourishing.

In the story of the Sioux we can see that their unity came from a commitment to the belief that their land was sacred. Their identity centered around a connection to the land and the spiritual practices that land enabled. Crazy Horse’s sacrifices are honorable, not because of his individual bravery or his ability to achieve personal comfort, but because he fought for the community’s identity — even when he could have chosen to have his and the tribe’s material needs met. To take money for their land would be to violate their identity, and to accept the values of their oppressors. It would be the infernal trade: losing their soul to gain the world. The means to live are less important than the meaning for which the tribe lives.

I believe that the story of the Sioux is the story of a struggle between two diametrically opposed worldviews about what should make humans happy, how humans should live, and what money is for. These worldviews have been at odds with each other for the last thousand years.

What We Can Learn

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”
– Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

At Sherwood Fellows, we are obsessed with learning how humans find meaning in their work. I’m amazed at the story of the Sioux because it runs counter to almost all business advice and “workplace culture” models.

Most modern businesses operate on the assumption that money is a valuable trade for your time. If we are a species motivated primarily by physical survival, and money is the primary way we obtain physical survival in this world, then — other than a literal threat to your life — individual wealth should be motivation enough for our work. Even more so, it justifies some of the sacrifices you may make (time away from family, dealing with difficult managers, etc.) because money gives you other, more important forms of material freedom. An enjoyable workplace, a fun culture, and meaningful causes are the proverbial cherries on top.

And yet. Workplaces are less and less able to keep people satisfied. Employees are not sticking around for the long haul, even as they get paid more.

And yet. Americans, despite our massive gains in wealth relative to other countries, are increasingly at risk for depression and suicide — especially the wealthiest among us.

And yet. The Sioux would bind together for over 150 years and collectively say “no” to one billion federal dollars, choosing instead to fight to the death, and live below the poverty line, and scrap together donations for a memorial to their hero.

What kind of change could you accomplish if people cared more for the core mission of your organization or movement than for their paycheck?

For what or for whom would you refuse a billion dollars — or even die for? What would it feel like to live in unity with other people who felt the same way? What kind of change could you accomplish if people cared more for the core mission of your organization or movement than for their paycheck?

Our world, our workplaces, and our communities need to undergo a paradigm shift if we hope to have any chance to live lives filled with meaning. I believe this is a shift back to the tribal way of living: a life where leaders set an example of sacrifice that their people follow, where we truly belong to one another, and where our individual achievements don’t stop at ourselves, but ripple outwards for the good of the tribe.

At Sherwood Fellows, we call those who dare to look inward, discover their true purpose, and radically live their beliefs so they can build tribes that offer meaning and belonging to others. Start your journey today at A Tribe of Me.

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