Blackfoot wisdom, Maslow’s hierarchy, and open source

In a fascinating recent article called Could the Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow Guide Us Now?, Teju Ravilochan (along with contributing editors Vidya Ravilochan and Colette Kessler) shared that 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may have been inspired by the Siksika (Blackfoot) way of life… His time there upended some of his early hypotheses and possibly shaped his theories…. Whereas mainstream American narratives focus on the individual, the Blackfoot way of life offers an alternative resulting in a community that leaves no one behind.

Teju Ravilochan, Could the Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow Guide Us Now?
Image of the Siksicka Nation crest, with a stylized buffalo in the center of a circle, two feathers on the left and right side of the circle, and a pipe and hatchet at the bottom of the circle, crossed.
Photo by @AlbertaRhPAP, licensed under CC BY 2.0

According to Gitxsan, First Nation member, and University of Alberta Professor Cindy Blackstock, Maslow had been “stuck on his developmental theory” before visiting the Blackfoot Reserve, and found shape for his ideas in their teachings. In an article called Maslow’s hierarchy connected to Blackfoot beliefs, Karen Lincoln Michel recounts a presentation by Dr. Blackstock in which the familiar pyramid diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy* is compared to a First Nations perspective:

from Maslow’s hierarchy connected to Blackfoot beliefs by Karen Lincoln Michel

“First of all, the triangle is not a triangle. It’s a tipi,” Blackstock said. “And the tipis in the Blackfoot (tradition) always went up and reached up to the skies,” she said.

Another difference noted by Blackstock is that self-actualization is at the base of the tipi, not at the top where Maslow placed it. In the Blackfoot belief, self-actualization is the foundation on which community actualization is built. The highest form that a Blackfoot can attain is called “cultural perpetuity.”

from Maslow’s hierarchy connected to Blackfoot beliefs by Karen Lincoln Michel

* It’s worth mentioning that this pyramid diagram was not created by Maslow, and that Maslow himself “made it quite clear that we are always going back and forth in the hierarchy, and we can target multiple needs at the same time.”


This diagram is exciting because when I think about successful open source communities, they look a lot like this First Nations model. In open source, we frequently discuss ways to avoid the tragedy of the commons, but — at least in my reading — spend less time talking about what we could aspire to. If we want open source to endure beyond the closed/proprietary platforms that it’s competing with, I think we should aspire to a model founded in Blackfoot beliefs.

The contrasting diagrams above illustrate a difference in worldview that often appears when welcoming newcomers into open source. Many people who come to free, open source software communities are dazzled by the freedom, because they see that freedom as a way to accelerate their own self-actualization. 

In the case of the WordPress community, they see opportunities to found businesses based on WordPress extensions (themes, plugins), WordPress site building, WordPress hosting, or WordPress training. They see opportunities to build their skills through code review and design feedback from world-class developers and designers. They see opportunities to build a following through speaking at WordPress events and leading WordPress communities. These people are not wrong, necessarily, but they might not be aware of the whole picture. 

Participating in the WordPress community only to further self-actualization could be crudely described as a “what’s in it for me,” or an opportunistic, approach. Opportunism is an anti-pattern in an open source organization for many reasons, not the least of which is how it limits someone’s growth in the community. When someone is primarily interested in what an open source project can do for them, regardless of how that affects the ongoing success of the project, then their circle of caring is limited, as is their influence in the group. 

The First Nations diagram helps illustrate this: open source works much more along the lines of the First Nations model, in which self-actualization exists in the base, supporting community actualization and cultural perpetuity.

While Maslow saw self-actualization as something to earn, the Blackfoot see it as innate. Relating to people as inherently wise involves trusting them and granting them space to express who they are (as perhaps manifested by the permissiveness with which the Siksika raise their children) rather than making them the best they can be. For many First Nations, therefore, self-actualization is not achieved; it is drawn out of an inherently sacred being who is imbued with a spark of divinity.

Teju Ravilochan, Could the Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow Guide Us Now?

“In the Blackfoot belief,” according to Blackstock, “self-actualization is the foundation on which community actualization is built. The highest form that a Blackfoot can attain is called “cultural perpetuity.” Community actualization is the communal responsibility of “meeting basic needs, ensuring safety, and creating the conditions for the expression of purpose” for individuals. 

In the WordPress community, community actualization occurs in SO many ways: when experienced WordPress enthusiasts help new WordPress-ers find the right plugin or configure their theme the way they want it. Community actualization happens through the work of our support forum volunteers, and in the work of community organizers who make space for new voices in WordPress to share their unique perspectives. We’re also supporting community actualization when we “call in” those whose behavior causes harm, showing that someone may need extra support in their own self-actualization. The work of core developers and designers to continually fix and improve WordPress through regular software releases, bringing new and refined features to 42% (and counting!) of the internet, is community actualization too. And of course, the community actualizes when we gather to share knowledge (and food!) at a WordCamp or meetup.

A group of conference attendees, sitting in a circle, with plates of food in their laps, in a grassy space.
Photo taken by Aaron Hockley at WCSF 2013

WordPress community actualization provides space for the self-actualization of millions: all WordPress users, of course, and all those who work or play in the WordPress open source project. And when we do it right, when we bring our generosity and patience to how we collaborate, remembering to holding space for others to feel welcome and join in, and acknowledging all the people who got us here, then we also further our cultural perpetuity.

As Karen Lincoln Michel describes it, cultural perpetuity is “an understanding that you will be forgotten, but you have a part in ensuring that your people’s important teachings live on.”

WordPress works toward cultural perpetuity when we work in public, where our work is archived (so future contributors can learn from us). We support cultural perpetuity when when we welcome and mentor new contributors, and when we hand off leadership roles to others. I also see us shoring up cultural perpetuity when WordPressers blog about how to succeed, and when we share what WordPress has done for us.

Open source = a better internet

A clockwork-style spiral, metallic, with roman numerals and with rays on the outside of the spiral
Perpetuity, by Ghetu Daniel, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I love seeing WordPress grow, because I believe that open source makes the internet a better place. I also believe that welcoming people into thriving open source communities can help them find the kind of interdependent, mutually-beneficial society that is elusive in many parts of the globe. 

According to Blood and Heavy Head’s lectures (2007), 30-year-old Maslow arrived at Siksika along with Lucien Hanks and Jane Richardson Hanks. He intended to test the universality of his theory that social hierarchies are maintained by dominance of some people over others. However, he did not see the quest for dominance in Blackfoot society. Instead, he discovered astounding levels of cooperation, minimal inequality, restorative justice, full bellies, and high levels of life satisfaction. He estimated that “80–90% of the Blackfoot tribe had a quality of self-esteem that was only found in 5–10% of his own population” (video 7 out of 15, minutes 13:45–14:15). As Ryan Heavy Head shared with me on the phone, “Maslow saw a place where what he would later call self-actualization was the norm.” 

Teju Ravilochan, Could the Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow Guide Us Now?

This is the kind of idyllic state that I hope for, in the WordPress we are all building together. By continuing to support community actualization and cultural perpetuity, our dedicated contributors make this possible.

Thank you to all current contributors who make up this interdependent web of support. If you’re not already contributing to WordPress, check out our teams, and join us! There’s a seat for you at this table. 

Further reading

Embracing inclusion by fighting your brain

Recently I’ve been talking with community organizers about how we can both organize inclusive events and also do that organizing in an inclusive manner. WordPress is an open source project, and because open source depends on a large active contributor base, we have to constantly think about how to make the project welcoming and inclusive.

One of the goals for the WordPress Community Team is to organize in-person events (meetups and WordCamps) that help connect and inspire WordPress enthusiasts. We ask organizers to organize welcoming and inclusive events, AND we ask them to do that organizing in a welcoming and inclusive manner. (Double play!) This means we encourage organizers to recruit a diverse organizing team, work transparently, and embrace community involvement and feedback.

All of that sounds great and seems simple enough, right? We have great tools for publishing information for everyone to see (namely, WordPress), we have great language around how our program is open to everyone, we have a code of conduct, yay! Inclusion!

Except of course we’re all humans, thinking with our human brains. Human brains, alas, are not always our friends when it comes to diversity and inclusion, because human brains are primarily wired to keep our bodies alive. And from our brains’ perspective, diversity and transparency have not kept our bodies alive for millions of years. What human brains have found highly successful re: the survival of the human race is: to create and stay in small groups of people with similar looks and values.

So in many ways, the work of a community organizer in an open source project is to fight with your brain a lot. This is what happens for me at least, multiple times per day:

“Danger!” say my brain. “Someone different wants to join our group!”

“Shhhh…” I say back to my brain. “It’s going to be ok, they just want to help.”

“But they’re not like us and they might fight us and we might lose and then we’ll die!” suggests my brain.

“I see what you’re saying,” I reply, “but really this discomfort is not dangerous, and we really need more people who are different, to help us grow.”

“Harumph,” says my brain. “I’m certain you’re wrong, so I’m going to sit back quietly course-correct us toward safety with my favorite tools, adrenaline for change and endorphins for sameness, until you stop endangering us with your crazy ideas.”

“Ok,” I sigh, “I realize you can’t help it, so I’m going to use logic and patience to keep reminding us that tight-knit exclusive groups, paranoia, and suspicion will not serve any of the goals we have in building open source communities.”

And scene.

I don’t have a solution to my assertion that open source goes against human nature, other than this practice of fighting my instinctual attraction to exclusivity and closed groups/processes. If you’ve found a method that works for you, I’d love to hear it! 🙂