On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Honoring Our Ancestors Who Built and Sustained Thriving Economies

Fourteen states — Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin — as well as the District of Columbia and more than 130 cities celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of or in addition to Columbus Day, which is still observed as a federal holiday. Pictured: Native Business Executive Editor Carmen Davis (Makah/Chippewa-Cree/Yakama)

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which honors Native Americans as the first inhabitants of our country and celebrates our distinct cultures and histories, we at Native Business are commemorating the remarkable innovation and self-determination of our ancestors.

They built thriving, self-sufficient and self-sustaining communities of commerce — from Cahokia to Tenochtitlán to Machu Picchu and beyond. Our ancestors went to work and engaged in trade on a daily basis. They demonstrated that business acumen and an enterprising spirit are innate and traditional Indigenous qualities. 

Take the hundreds of mounds across Cahokia for instance. The ancient Indigenous epicenter 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.

The sheer size and scale of Cahokia’s most substantial mound is a testament to Indigenous vision and ambition. At 30 meters tall, and covering 14 acres at its base, Monks Mound is the largest earthwork in the Western Hemisphere and still stands today. By comparison, the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt stretches across 13 acres.

South of the border, the Aztecs flourished 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.

And in Machu Picchu, built atop the Andes mountains in Peru, the Incans prospered through a “vertical economy” that offered numerous advantages in the harsh Andean climate.

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

Creativity and adaptation have always been hallmarks of Indigenous character. Our ancestors were the original innovators, and we need look no further than our past for inspiration. When we deploy our incredible capabilities, skills and resilience that we’ve been born with and have actively cultivated, we honor those who came before us. 

There’s never been a better time for Indigenous peoples to assert sovereignty over our livelihoods. Today, technology is the greatest leveler of the playing field. We have an ability — no matter where we’re geographically located — to get our message out and engage in the economy. 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.

READ MORE: From the Editor: Tell Your Own Story & Improve Indigenous Representation 

Tribal Power Across Indian Country 

As our ancestors demonstrated, we are stronger when we unite and do business with one another — as sovereign to sovereign Tribal Nations, and Native entrepreneur to Native-owned business, and Tribal enterprise to Native-owned business. 

We need to understand the power we have collectively as an economic engine across the United States. Throughout Indian Country, we are able to stand up enterprises and invest in businesses that can truly create a nationwide Tribal economy. 

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. This should be the intention of not only reservation-based economies but Indian Country as a whole. 

Our ancestors in Cahokia, Tenochtitlán and Machu Picchu serve as examples of how we can empower ourselves and be sovereign in our own lives, while creating economy by doing business together. 

Self-sovereignty was inherent in our people before the term “sovereignty” even existed. That spirit of resilience and fortitude is why we are still here today. And when you embrace the truth that those traits live in all of us as Indigenous people — then you can better understand the power in this mantra: We are who we’ve been waiting for

We are tasked with carrying on our ancestors’ commitment to self-sufficiency, self-sustainability, innovation, resiliency and ambition. We are responsible for innovating, persevering and prospering today. 

So, on this Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020, and in celebration of all of those who walked this earth before us, let’s all reaffirm our commitment to rise higher, stronger and in solidarity ensuring that our ancestors live again each day through us! 


Carmen Davis is a proud Native American woman and member of the Makah Nation and also from the Chippewa-Cree and Yakama Tribes. She is extremely devoted to her culture and has spent her professional and personal life impacting Native communities across North America. Carmen is the Founder, Publisher and Executive Editor of Native Business Magazine, president of Davis Strategy Group and owner of the Native Style clothing brand.