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Indigenous Wisdom & Modern Innovations: Bridging Divides to Transform the World

Combine ancient leadership traditions rooted in sustainable living with modern innovations to provide "medicine" for our ailing world.

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Imagine that a great killer stalks your society, emerging as the fourth leading cause of death. Imagine a small group of people coming together to neutralize this wave of death. This is where our journey began 15 years ago on Navajo Nation. A group of Diné/Navajo and allies came together to address diabetes.

Our epidemiologically-based research on what works led us to community wellness models that prioritize community engagement, responsibility and healing. The effectiveness of community wellness planning is directly related to the degree of local community ownership and control. It is vital for communities to state what is important to and for them. This led us to explore different community models of leadership and facilitation.

Developing a cadre of Diné facilitators was central to our plan to address diabetes across Navajo Nation. They would facilitate the development of leadership and collaboration within communities, community responsibility and contribution, and a commitment to growth and learning.

As we developed our model, a “light bulb” went off. We had been reviewing and adapting the best of modern facilitation and leadership practices. All of a sudden, we realized that the essential components of facilitation (collaborative problem solving, conflict resolution, mindful communication, etc.) were practices that Diné people had mastered over thousands of years. However, for many, perhaps most, Diné, these practices had fallen by the wayside. So we went to some of the most sacred people of the Nation, those entrusted to carry and continue the oral history traditions of the Tribe, as well as peacemakers and other elders, to transmit to us knowledge of how, over thousands of years, these practices had been done.

They transmitted to us their stories and knowledge, and approved our codification of such into a living, breathing, series of workshops to revivify these traditions amongst the Diné people. On our journey, we discovered that we needed to supplement our traditional ways with some contemporary innovations, while remaining true to core aspects of traditions that have been successful for millennia. The success of the program was astounding. 

67 Diné facilitators participated in an Advanced Facilitation Workshop to learn new tools and techniques for enhancing their effectiveness as facilitators working with Navajo communities. Multiple community wellness plans have been developed across the Navajo Nation with the guidance and support of Diné facilitators. Beyond the Diné, the Healthy Native Communities Fellowship curriculum incorporated key components of the Advanced Facilitation Workshop, and has trained over 300 Native facilitators in numerous Native nations across the United States.

Such efforts are often measured in four levels (Kirkpatrick's Levels of Evaluation): (1) workshop participants' reactions, (2) acquisition of new learning, (3) changes in behavior, (4) results/outcomes (i.e., the degree to which our workshops impacted the prevalence, severity, etc. of diabetes). While we did not receive funding to assess level 4, the data on levels 1-3 points to a resounding success. Additionally, successes in dimensions of cultural revitalization, and global citizenship, are of the utmost importance. Words cannot convey the palpable pride, joy and upliftment that occurs when a people taps into the very best of its traditions, uses those in service to its own protection, healing and betterment; and begins to sense the power and possibility of extending these gifts to the entire world.

A very brief case overview of the project is here:

From this creative enterprise was born a methodology for bringing the best of ancient wisdom, in tandem with some of the best contemporary advances, as “medicine” to heal many ills of the modern world. Clearly this prototype and pilot centered on diabetes. Our aim is to tap into some of the best Indigenous traditions and modern advances in leadership, transformation and related fields, and apply them especially to sustainability, *broadly defined* (i.e., meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; and living in harmonious interconnectedness with all life, all our relations, on Mother Earth). This set of definitions from the UN Brundtland Report, and from many Indigenous nations, encompasses and bridges themes of peace, prosperity and planet.

Two people from the original project independently nurtured an idea to expand the initial model, and came together years later. They noticed the worldwide resurgence of Indigenous wisdom and leadership, as well as continued and intensified attacks on Indigenous lands, people, resources, and ways-of-being around the globe.

The world stands on the brink of many shifts. Global warming threatens the entire biosphere and all its inhabitants of many species. We are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction on the planet. The gap of wealth and income, between haves and have-nots, has increased globally and brings with it a host of ills of inequality and inequity. In the midst of these and other changes, we propose a solution that enables Indigenous people across the planet, working within their own nations, to tap into the best of their most ancient traditions; to blend this with contemporary innovations; to connect with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous people through OpenIDEO – in order to develop leadership practices for peace, prosperity, and planetary sustainability that will strengthen and revive our Indigenous nations, while also strengthening and reviving our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters, while also providing medicine to strengthen and heal many of the ills of the modern world. That is our journey so far.

Explain your idea

See the attached document: "Indigenous Wisdom & Modern Innovations: Bridging Divides to Transform the World -- Key Ps." We use it as a framework to illustrate the interconnected dimensions of our project idea.

Who Benefits?

Indigenous & Non-Indigenous peoples, & all life forms on the planet, will benefit: * Indigenous Nations will be recognized for our place in the world as caretakers, peacemakers, leaders in peace, prosperity, & planetary sustainability - especially important in light of having been marginalized for generations * Indigenous youth & elders will benefit from the shared experience of connecting different generations to ancient teachings * Non-Indigenous sisters, brothers, & gender-fluid others will benefit from more ecological & holistic ways of being, thinking, doing * Indigenous & Non-Indigenous specialists will deepen bridge-building across fields, such as dialogues between modern scientists & ancient wisdom-protectors on complementary practices for sustainability Ultimately our Planet, all the life forms it sustains, & future generations will benefit from the shared approaches to living with peace, prosperity & sustainability, grounded in ancient traditions & modern approaches

How is your idea unique?

* Approach: provide initial method, connectivity & supports; each community cultivates uniquely – in context of larger collective; new directions & innovations emerge from interactions of all * Strengthens Indigenous communities + engages modern world + transforms global ills * Successful pilot (, rooted in ancient wisdom & modern innovations, leverages actual & virtual technologies, blends resources from multiple sectors (community-based, non-profit, private, etc.), global span * Extensive experience with Indigenous leadership models, from Leadership Development initiatives with 75 tribes spanning 30 years, to Exec Producer of global telesummit: * Deep networks with Indigenous leaders & communities on all continents: International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, Healthy Native Communities Fellowship, international luminaries in film "Planetary" (see & more

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about you

Karen John is Navajo/Diné from Shiprock, New Mexico. She is a Health Promotion/Disease Prevention Program Specialist with Shiprock Health Promotion. She has 24 years experience in group facilitation, strategic planning and community wellness planning. Her facilitation and training journey began with an international Tribal non-profit organization and a private consulting group. Eighteen years ago, Karen returned to the Navajo Nation where she was born and raised and has gained countless valuable insights about historical and cultural teachings related to community wellness planning. Karen shares group facilitation and planning methods support, training and resources with local Navajo/Dine’ community groups and organizations working toward community wellness (e.g. Restoring & Celebrating Family Wellness, Sisters in Circle, and San Juan Community Health Equity Committee). In addition, Karen has led or participated in Indigenous Leadership Development initiatives with over 75 tribes spanning 30 years. Lawrence Ellis's heritage is a blend of many peoples of Africa and Turtle Island (North America). A complex systems consultant and theorist, he is focused on sustainability, organizational change and transformational leadership. A former director with one of the oldest change-leadership consulting firms in the U.S., his consulting projects have helped create 25 national anti-pollution demonstration projects, and dramatically strengthened EPA legislation. Lawrence is also a producer and activist. He is Lead Consulting Producer of the sustainability documentary "Planetary"; Executive Producer of the Indigenous Wisdom & Modern Science global sustainability tele-summit; Trustee of World Merit, and Chief Sustainability Advisor of/Engager with its 100,000 young leaders around the globe. A Rhodes Scholar, he earned an MA at Oxford University focused on individual and large-scale change. His websites:,, To’nihailyila: Together Growing Our Dreams To’nihailyila: Together Growing Our Dreams is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that partners with groups in the Shiprock, New Mexico, community to promote social, cultural, and physical wellness by serving as technical assistance and fiscal agent. To’nihailyila means blessed by the river - Shiprock’s biggest natural asset. To’nihailyila: Together Growing Our Dreams was founded on January 15, 2012, by a group of community members who want to the make the community of Shiprock a healthier place to live in all aspects: socially, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Paths To Change (PTC) is the online home for Lawrence Ellis & Associates (LE&A), a sole-proprietor business that also serves as a network/hub for a small team of consultants, and as a platform for projects related to Indigeneity, sustainability and related fields. LE&A/PTC has been in existence since 1995. The website is here: (Note that we are currently

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.
  • Yes, we are a registered company.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Karen!

Thank you for sharing the great work you are doing!

How would your work evolve over a 3 year timeline?

Photo of Karen

Thanks for your inspiring comments, Kate – and also for your question. We apologize for the delay. We’ve been juggling major projects and travel.

Our work occurs within traditional Indigenous frameworks, blended with modern approaches. For example, a millennia-old model situates all activities within the Four Directions. Each direction corresponds to several states of being and types of activity.

Creation space - Represented by a whole circle. At center is the balance point between being receptive (paying attention to what is already present or is emerging), and being active (designing an approach for the community process). Diné/Navajo tradition teaches that this balance is the source of life energy – as well as the energy of any group problem-solving process.

Intention Space – Setting intention, represented by the East direction, involves making conscious decisions. This entails spoken and unspoken commitments by all participants. Diné/Navajo traditional philosophy about intention connects Bík’ehgo da’iináanii (that which gives direction to life) with the concept of thinking “good thoughts” (Nitsáhákees). Drawing from a background of values and guideposts for living, one projects into the future in a positive way that which one wants to see happen. Since both thoughts and words have the power to influence and create subsequent reality, intention-setting must be done with care.

Vision Space - the group or community aligns on an ideal image of the “future,” of what is possible and what has meaning in support of the highest good. This is a key part of the process of Nahat’á (planning), represented by the South direction.

These are brief excerpts from a robust traditional model, which we have augmented with modern approaches, under the guidance and authorization of revered elders. Other spaces include: Understanding, Solution, Action, Renewal.

Our work will be guided by such models and practices, which we can map to distinct phases over a 3-year timeline. Short-term phases and activities include:
* Refine charter (Key Ps document attached to our proposal)
* Broaden stakeholder analysis
* Engage key stakeholders
* Expand core team
* Finalize governance
* Secure funding
* Refine core method of accessing, learning, codifying, transmitting ancient wisdom & practices - combined with modern innovations
* Acknowledge & celebrate accomplishments

There would be many more phases - through Implementation, Impact Analysis, Continuous Improvement and more. Note that many phases will occur concurrently.

What's our vision of success for 3 years from now?
(Note some items below mature most fully in a timeline beyond 3 years)
* Dozens of Indigenous nations & communities on many continents have adopted our core methodology; have tailored it to their specific needs, under their complete sovereignty and autonomy; and have helped enhance it
* Extensive virtual and actual forums for exchange and learning between these nations & communities
* Several rings of non-Indigenous allies from multiple arenas of society are engaged with this effort
* Using these hybridized ancient and modern approaches, nations & communities, in tandem with non-Indigenous allies, have taken on solving key challenges related to peace, prosperity, and the planet. For example, Indigenous people who have gone through these processes have attained numerous individual and collective leadership positions on topics like climate change and global sustainability, such that we are increasingly at the table in hallways of power and influence, and are making vital contributions. Another example: this method has greatly enhanced several existing grassroots struggles for peace, prosperity & the planet, and has catalyzed new ones
* Participants have created myriad workshops, courses, books, videos, articles, campaigns, actions, exchanges, collaboratives, blogs, etc. that transform policies in governmental, nonprofit, educational and other spheres, around topics like sustainability, peace studies, peace initiatives, economic models of prosperity and well-being, and more
* Indigenous nations & communities have built and deepened alliances with other nations, and with non-Indigenous allies
* Numerous divisions within and between nations & communities have been healed, and also between the Indigenous & modern worlds
* Significant cultural revitalization, autonomy, and empowerment of several nations & communities: we are the foremost knowledge-holders and interpreters of our own traditions; and we are emerging leaders in applying hybridized methods to pressing regional, national and global issues of peace, prosperity and the planet
* Broadening interest in embracing our traditions by people of all generations who may have forgotten them, never been aware of them, or only been partially aware
* We are tracking and celebrating early successes on multiple impact metrics established early in the initiative

~ Karen & Lawrence