Cahokia to Today: Gary & Carmen Davis Reflect on Indigenous Entrepreneurial Spirit and Self-Sufficiency

Aerial perspective of Cahokia at its peak by William R. Iseminger (Photo Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)

This feature originally appeared in the debut November 2018 “Entrepreneurship” Issue of Native Business Magazine. 

Indigenous people need only look back in time to realize their capacity for success. Cahokia, an ancient indigenous epicenter of commerce and trade, thrived between 700-1300 CE, just 8 miles east of modern-day St. Louis, Missouri, in southern Illinois. Larger than the city of London, the agricultural community teemed with self-determined, contributing members of society. At its peak, the population of Cahokia is estimated between 20,000 to 50,000 people. 

Gary Davis: To this day, these ancient epicenters serve as an example of where Native communities should raise the bar of expectation of what we aspire to be across Indian Country. Click To Tweet

Residents built hundreds of mounds across Cahokia, but the most substantial, 30 meters tall and 316 by 240 meters at its base, is the largest earthwork in the Western Hemisphere and still stands today. Known as Monks Mound, it covers more than 14 acres at its base. By comparison, the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt covers 13 acres. 

Today referred to as the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city was protected by a wooden wall that doubled as a sun calendar to determine solstices, equinoxes and other important dates. 

Beyond Cahokia, the Aztecs flourished south of the border in Tenochtitlán, current-day Mexico City, between A.D. 1325 and 1521. The Aztec economy prospered through agriculture, tribute and trade. Goods were exchanged via a system of canals and causeways, supplying an estimated 400,000 people who lived there. 

Community life at Cahokia by Michael Hampshire (Photo Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)

The Incan city of Machu Picchu, built atop the Andes mountains in Peru, likewise reflects indigenous innovation and ambition. 

“Our Native ancestors demonstrated entrepreneurship, sustainability and self-sufficiency,” said Gary Davis (Cherokee), Founder, Publisher and CEO of Native Business Magazine. “They stand as an example of how we can empower ourselves and be sovereign in our own lives.” 

Carmen Davis (Makah), Founder, Publisher and Executive Editor of Native Business Magazine, underlined why the media business chose to focus on entrepreneurship for its debut print issue. Entrepreneurship is one of the most traditional activities that Native people can engage in, she said. 

“We wanted to kick off our first issue with a topic that is vital to our communities — entrepreneurship,” Carmen said. “Traditionally, we’ve always traded and had thriving communities, and we weren’t dependent on anybody but ourselves.”  

Yet across Indian Country today, entrepreneurship isn’t deployed nearly to the degree that Tribal Nations applied it within these Indigenous centers of commerce. “If we’re going to be successful, and if we’re going to have thriving communities, we need to take it upon ourselves to ensure that, every single day, we’re doing our best to engage in entrepreneurship and teaching the next generation by example,” Gary said. “I think today, we need to communicate to our people that we cannot sit around and wait for somebody to do something for us. We have to act like those who walked before us — get up, go out, and deploy the incredible capabilities, skills and resilience that we’ve been born with.” 

There’s never been a better time for Indigenous peoples to assert sovereignty over their livelihood. Today, technology is the greatest leveler of the playing field.

“We have an ability — no matter where we’re geographically located — to engage and to get our message out through accessible technology. We can utilize those tools to market and tell the world what it is we have to offer. We can retail our goods and get top-dollar via technology and implementation of e-commerce,” Gary said. 

Limitless Potential 

Limiting beliefs sabotage success, and one of the most crippling perceptions is a scarcity mindset that keeps Indian Country from prospering. “I think today, there is a tendency to think that there’s a limited scope of opportunity. That isn’t true,” Gary emphasized. 

His anecdote for shifting from that small-mindedness to embracing full potential is trusting that the Creator puts everyone on the Earth to fulfill their very unique purpose. His message is not to let people or situations define your capabilities and competencies. “Get back to understanding that resilience and through ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ kind of mentality, you can make it happen,” he said. 

Ancient communities thrived because people embraced their unique talents, gifts and desires to create something nuanced and different than what the next person offered. “No doubt there would have been healthy competition. You also get diversity in the marketplace, and it works together for the greater good,” Gary said. 

He continued: “No one individual person is put here to do exactly the same thing as the next person. That individuality, and the way that people see the world, that expression comes through in the things that they choose to do with their life. Subsequently, you have many, many different people doing many, many different things all in the spirit of giving back and providing to the community. It takes everybody. The idea that ‘it takes a village’ didn’t come from nowhere,” Gary said. “It was part of our general daily operating procedure.”

Aerial view of 100 foot-high Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas (Photo Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)

Carmen expanded upon that idea: “When you find your purpose, when you find what makes you tick and what you’re passionate about, I think that’s ultimately what drives you. It drives you to do better, to do your best, and to continuously work on and hone your skill. When you have that sense of purpose, you also have that sense of pride. I think when you’re working toward something and you’re working toward a common goal, really, it’s everything. That’s what motivates you,” she said. 

The Davises agree that the success of one person in Indian Country benefits the whole. For example, throughout history, people have gone on to achieve the “impossible.” And once something has been accomplished, it raises the bar of expectation and creates new opportunity for future feats and ventures. “It really is powerful when we understand that an individual may have been put here to do something that nobody else has ever done. It’s inspirational, it’s motivational,” Gary said. “How are we strengthening those people?”

Stagnation slows progress, Gary stressed. “We find people thinking that, because someone else couldn’t do something 10 years ago or 5 years ago, that that dictates what’s possible today. That simply means that it might have been the wrong person at the wrong time, and we shouldn’t stop working to figure out the solutions or to advance initiatives based on the shortcomings of one person. We have to keep going at it,” Gary said. “And when we do find that synergistic timing and the right people or the right person to get it done, then it changes the whole trajectory of everybody that follows after that, because it’s no longer a limitation, it’s an inspiration.” 

Carmen considers every individual a critical part of the overall picture. Every person needs to step into their calling and their power to help the collective achieve its full potential. “If only 10 pieces of the puzzle are showing up, that takes away from the bigger picture,” Carmen said. 

Supporting Innovation and Positive Disruption

Gary and Carmen Davis believe that supporting those who take leaps, create opportunity and dismantle systems no longer serving the greater good is the way to empower Native people. “I think we need to support innovators. I think we need to support positive disruption, because that always keeps everybody on their toes, evolving. It keeps industry innovating,” Gary said. “The next generation is the beneficiary of all of that thinking, and all of that action. They’re brought up questioning, ‘Can we do it better? Can we do it more efficiently? What can I add to this conversation to find ownership in this?’ I think that that’s something that we absolutely could do a better job of in Indian Country.”  

The most rudimentary definition of an economy is keeping a dollar in a community seven times, before that one dollar leaves the community and goes someplace else. “That’s the hope, and that’s the desire — that we can create enough businesses, and that we can create enough spirited, self-motivated, powerful entrepreneurs that we can have businesses and that diversity of economy, so that people can spend their money and not have to take it outside of the community to buy goods and services,” Gary said. “That’s one of the lessons we can extract from Cahokia and Tenochtitlán and all of these great epicenters, where our people came together and worked together.”  

Driving and realizing those economies of scale requires embracing inherent self-worth. Put simply, “the key is understanding that we are good enough,” Gary said. “We’re competent enough. We’re capable enough. We’re visionary enough.” 

Community life at Cahokia by Michael Hampshire (Photo Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)

Gary and Carmen advocate for building core capabilities, strengths and thus trust in one’s dynamism as an individual. Believing in one’s own worthiness and competencies enables an entrepreneur to see the potential in another Native entrepreneur or business.   

“We’re trying to get people empowered; we’re trying to get people to be self-sufficient and sovereign. As an entrepreneur, you’re not only helping your family, you’re uplifting the community and motivating that next person. You’re a demonstration of what used to be just an idea,” Gary said.   

It’s victim mentality that cripples progress, Carmen noted. “Every day, we have a choice — to overcome what has happened to us, or to continue to live in the past and not heal from those hurts, and not heal from that trauma,” she said. 

Generational trauma is an overwhelming obstacle to overcome. It can seemingly define the scope of possibility for a person or a group of people. “We have to break free from that lie,” Gary said. “We have to remove ourselves from believing that the Creator put us here to do anything other than occupy some years on this Earth and move on. I don’t agree with that. I know that we’ve all been put here to do something amazing, something powerful with our life, that we’re not an accident, that our lives are not for no reason, that we all have something to contribute, and that’s what we’re here for.” 

Gary emphasized that no one should stop another individual from accomplishing that — and especially not that person. “We should be the last person that gets in our own way,” Gary said. 

So many Native communities are logistically challenged with limited access to broadband or opportunity, but it’s critical to invest in hope and solutions. “If you want it bad enough, you can achieve it, you can accomplish it,” Gary said. “But you have to realize that you have an intense amount of power as an individual. Put your faith and your hope into sustaining yourself, into the Creator, and to create a plan, and be malleable — understand that you’re going to have to reshape and rework that plan, but find a way to sustain it, find a way to look at your surroundings, and look at how you could provide one step forward.” 

Ultimately, the message Native people can take from the people who walked before us is: “Empower yourself,” Gary said. “When you look at the cities they built — with the lack of what we would call today ‘advanced technology’ — they were able to align buildings with the movements of the sun to tell time by the shadow on the steps of the smaller pyramids. Those are the people we come from. Given what we have today, I believe, if we just remember how amazing we are, we’ll be able to apply the same sort of genius, the same sort of wherewithal and self-sufficiency to accomplish more amazing things,” Gary said. 

Entrepreneurship demands resourcefulness and intentional focus, Carmen underscored. Block out “any outside noise or thoughts of ‘what are people going to think.’ As an entrepreneur, you have to be all-in.” 

Photo Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Honoring Our Ancestors, Inspiring The Future 

Gary and Carmen Davis’ intention with the debut, entrepreneurship-themed issue of Native Business Magazine is to pay their respects and give honor to the Indigenous business visionaries who walked the Earth before them, and to celebrate the Indigenous entrepreneurs driving progress today.  

“We hope that other Native businesses and businesspeople, Native leaders, and economic development-focused men and women across Indian Country realize that there is a platform here to support their great work. We have to come together. We have to realize that there’s more collective good that can be done that would speak in aggregated form,” Gary said. 

Beyond that, the publishers of Native Business Magazine consider their platform as a vital resource for encouraging and offering a model of success for “The Future” — young, aspiring Native entrepreneurs and business leaders. “We need to make sure that the next generation of our people is inspired, that we’re lifting them up, and that we’re pushing them forward to be the best that they can be, to help ensure that we’re ahead of the curve,” Gary said. 

Economic self-sufficiency begins with an individual or community, and like a ripple effect, influences the rest of Indian Country. 

“I think we need to understand the power we have collectively as an economic engine across the United States,” Gary said, “to be able to, in short order, stand up businesses and invest in businesses that can truly create a nationwide Tribal economy.”

The entrepreneurship issue of Native Business Magazine aspires to shine a light on Native entrepreneurs who embody that same sense of self-sovereignty and determination demonstrated by our ancestors at Cahokia, Tenochtitlán and Machu Picchu. 

Gary added: “To this day, these ancient epicenters serve as an example of where Native communities should raise the bar of expectation of what we aspire to be across Indian Country.”

This feature originally appeared in the debut November 2018 “Entrepreneurship” Issue of Native Business Magazine.