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Indigenous Indian Innovation--What Native Americans Can Teach Us.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on August 23, 2006

I’d like to make a bet that sometime in the next five years, indigenous indian innovation will become hot in fashion, food, contemporary art, and, most important, business culture. Just as we now see IIT-trained Indians from Mumbai and other parts of India holding positions as chief financial officers and chief information officers throughout US companies, I expect to see Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo, Apache and other Native Americans holding chief creative officer positions in the years ahead.

It’s not such a far-out idea. When it comes to innovation and creativity, there is a huge pool of Indian talent that can be tapped by corporations. On a recent trip to the annual Indian Market in Sante Fe, I saw amazing innovations in metallurgy by some of the best silversmiths in the world. Materials play a huge role in Indian art and materials are the hottest thing today in design. I saw breakthrough work in textiles, painting, glass and pottery. Building on tradition, these Indians are among the best contempory artists in the world. Their work belongs in the Museum of Modern Art, not just the Museum of Natural History.

Most important, the discourse surrounding Native American art is all about creativity and innovation. That’s what artists talk about all the time. For example, the work of Charles Loloma, Wes Willy and Sonwai have the look and feel of modern architectural—more like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gerhy than old-fashioned jewelry.

And yet this modern art has an authenticity to it. Much of it involves telling a story, a traditional story about people and their struggles or journeys or their joys that is emotionally compelling. It’s the kind of authenticity and narrative that companies are trying to build into their products and services these days.

Back in the 80’s I believe, Xerox PARC, that famous innovation center, paired up artists and engineers and researchers to generate creativity. Today the site, we-make-money-not-art shows how new artists can inform the creation of high tech products and services.

Designers are fond of making an annaul trek to Milan to see the latest in trends and ideas. Corporate execs are fond of taking learning journeys to benchmark the best innovation practices. Both designers and managers should start thinking of tapping a new source of creative thinking and energy—the Navajo, Hope, Zuni, Pueblo, Haida, Ogala and other Indians who’ve been around for many centuries but who are doing some of the most innovative work today.

Reader Comments

niti bhan

August 24, 2006 10:56 PM

>>the Navajo, Hope, Zuni, Pueblo, Haida, Ogala and other Indians who've been around for many centuries but who are doing some of the most innovative work today

well, in that case, perhaps we should refer to the community only as 'native americans' rather than indians, no? less confusion :)

RitaSue Siegel

August 25, 2006 4:56 PM

The Museum of Art and Design in NY, just across the street from MoMA, has had 2 exhibits of gorgeous contemporary Native American art. The first opened on 9 May 2002 and was called Changing Hands-Art Without Reservation. The second opened on 22 Sept 2005 and had the same title. For a broader range of older native American art and artifacts, go to the National Museum of American Indian Art at 1 Bowling Green, at the base of Manhattan. I think one of the reasons that Native American art is so appealing is that it is hand made--it has an element of craft and a delight in making things beautiful that is missing in much of contemporary Western art. I am not so sure there is a connection with [the way you talk about]Innovation, and what you saw in Santa Fe. It is more like incremental innovation than breakthrough, change the world type of innovation. I think the element of beauty touches a part of us that is not satisfied by many other forms of contemporary art. The Native American artists are not obsessed with the new, or the need to create work to change the face of art or how we look at things, which is so important to Western artists. Contemporary Native American artists are often making art connected to references in Native American history in imagery, form and materials. If you are sensitive to these forms from the various tribes and locations that have evolved over time, it is very satisfying to see them in new work reflecting the old.


August 28, 2006 7:46 PM

Xerox parc had a great notion - put the left and right brainer's together and magic happens. I believe this collaboration of art and science resulted in the first example of what became the GUI interface with the use of a mouse. Instead of remarking on it's heyday why aren't companies trying this same wonderful combination of brain power again?

Carol Calkins

May 6, 2007 1:09 AM

I am promoting the indigenous artwork of David Elizondo-Elizondo, also know by his Maleku name, "Kanherreu". The Malekus are a small tribe of some 600 members located near Guatuso in Costa Rica. They have their own language, and David is making his living selling his traditional artwork.

David was born in Palenque Tonjibe in Costa Rica on Dec 17, 1978. He began doing Maleku artwork at age 17. David has never had any instruction, and he works strictly from his own inspiration in keeping with the Maleku culture. Much of his work is based on his perception of his natural surroundings... the Maleku reservation.

At a very early age, he instinctively felt a natural affinity and love for artwork, and he believed that this was his "calling".

David began his career by carving and painting traditional, ceremonial masks, and then he gradually began adding other pieces to his repertoire over time. He uses no machinery, and his only tools are a knife, sandpaper, paints, and his hands.

Representative pieces of artwork can be viewed at Anyone wishing to purchase art items can do so by contacting me at

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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