Indigenbiz Highlighting Indigenous People & Communities Engaged in Meaningful Business & Economic Development
WHY WE UNDERVALUE OURSELVES
by Steven McCoy
April 15, 2022
I recently met a woman and fellow Anishinaabe who makes her own jewellery and artwork from stones and materials she gathers from mother nature. Her work was incredible on its own merit but when she told me the story of how she gathers her own materials and the meaning behind her artwork, I was overcome with a sense of happiness for her because I could see the effort she put into making these wonderful little treasures.
When I met her, she was wearing these beautiful earrings she had made from porcupine quills. She told me the story of how she harvested the quills from an actual porcupine! She told me about the amount of time and effort she put into it and why her artwork was so important to her. I was very impressed with her talents and overwhelmed with joy to see how skilled and gifted our people really are! That is, until she told me her selling price.
$5.00 dollars! Yes, that’s right, $5.00 bucks! Barely enough to buy a Starbucks coffee. I was shocked and almost fell out of my chair when she told me what she was asking for those beautiful earrings! She clearly put a lot of time, effort and skill into making them. I would have valued those earrings at a minimum, $50 - $75 dollars all day long. The joy I felt moments earlier was quickly replaced by a feeling of disappointment when I heard how this talented woman was selling herself short and undervaluing her artwork.
I won’t even tell you the other story about the time she was selling her rock art at an art show for $10 a piece when a man came along and bought every single piece of rock art she had. She felt great that day, thinking she had done well for herself, even feeling a bit guilty for selling out when the other vendors were still sitting there trying to sell their goods. Then about a year later she found out that man who bought every piece of her rock art that day had gone and resold them at over $100 a piece! Yes, this really happened.
From that moment on I did my best to try and convince her that she needed to raise her prices. One of the main obstacles I ran into trying to convince her that she was worth way more than she thought, was that she felt actual shame for asking for more money, believing that her artwork was only worth $5 - $10 dollars apiece.
She didn’t see the value in her efforts to go out onto the land to harvest porcupine quills for her earrings. She didn’t see the value in going down to the river to collect rocks for her artwork. She didn’t see the value in her efforts she put in to make the artwork itself. She didn’t see the value in the experience she had as she got better and better with each piece of artwork she made.
I can’t totally blame this wonderful lady for undervaluing herself. This is, unfortunately, a very common trait amongst our people. And too many non-Indigenous people recognize this and continue to exploit us so they can add to their overall wealth.
This undervaluing of ourselves stems from the systematic ways colonialism has trained society to think about Indigenous people. A society of people can only feel good about what it has done to the Indigenous race when it sees them as less than equals. Colonialism only works when you can convince the members in the society to look at Indigenous people as less than human, savages who are not worthy of equal treatment or who don’t deserve fair market value for their work. This trained behaviour and way of thinking works on both non-Indigenous and Indigenous people.
I also undervalued myself in the past in various ways and must guard against being exploited all the time, even by my own people. I used to offer 1-hour free consultations to potential clients when I first started out as a consultant many years ago, thinking it was a good strategy to draw in new clients. All it did was attract slackers who wanted my advice for free so they could monetize it for themselves. I never landed a paying client from any of those free consultations and I quickly realized I was worth more than that and stopped giving away free advice.
Even though I stopped giving out free consultations years ago, someone recently messaged me and asked if I knew anything about patents and trademarks. I said, “Yes, I have a bit of experience in that area. My going rate is $125 an hour to access me.” She responded with “Don’t you give free consultations?” I simply answered “No.” and I never heard from her again. This has happened to me numerous times and isn’t isolated to small entrepreneurs. I’ve had a major executive of a publicly traded company come up to me and ask, “How can we be more inclusive to Indigenous people?” When he realized I wasn’t going to help him for free, he ghosted me.
My time is valuable and I can no longer afford to waste it by giving out free advice to others who want to make money for themselves but not pay me for helping them. What’s worse is when my own people expect me to help them for free because we’re both Indigenous. Once they find out I am not available for free, they usually try to guilt trip me and say things like, “Well, don’t you want to help out a fellow Indigenous entrepreneur?” My response is always “Yes, I am an Indigenous entrepreneur as well so what’s in it for me? How do you expect me to pay my bills?”
This attitude of undervaluing Indigenous people continues to this day and is evident everywhere if you know what to look for. It can came come in the way of dismissive or assumptive comments when you mention a major achievement you’ve accomplished or major purchase you made recently.
I just purchased a full bred Siberian Husky puppy from a very reputable breeder and was on a waiting list for over a year before I got her. She’s beautiful with the perfect black and white markings and striking blue eyes that look deep into your soul. She was only 9 weeks old when I picked her up from the breeder’s place, an 8.5-hour drive away from hometown. I bring her on walks multiple times a day and one of the most common questions I get from non-Indigenous people is “Is she one of those miniature huskies?” When I answer “No, she’s a full bred Siberian Husky.” The reactions I get are always the same. “Oh,” with a downturn of their eyes and no more comments or questions. Nothing more. Why? Because they’re having a hard time processing the fact that the brown Indian in front of them can afford to buy a full bred Siberian Husky.
It all comes back to how colonialism has taught society to look down on Indigenous people, to see them as less than human and not worthy of a fair price. These attitudes are slowly changing but we’re obviously nowhere close to being on even playing fields. Far from it.
Changing the way people think in a society doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time, communication and education to change people’s attitudes and their internal values. It can take years, even decades to change and only recently has Canada begun to take a hard look at the real history of how this country was built and how its wealth was created.
But with continuous effort and partnering with the right allies, we Indigenous people can start to feel good about demanding our true value because with everything our people have been through, we’re more than worth it!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven McCoy is an Ojibwe from Garden River First Nation in Northern Ontario and life-long resident of Sault Ste. Marie. He is the founder of Indigenbiz where he publishes his journalistic work highlighting Indigenous people in business. He is also a successful businessman who specializes in communications, marketing, public relations and Indigenous liaison through another company he founded called Gencity Consulting. In addition, Steven is a skilled public speaker with a unique ability to capture the audience's attention through descriptive story telling. He is also a motivational speaker who draws upon his life experiences growing up off-reserve while overcoming poverty, abandonment and racism to achieve success.