What I Got Wrong: Revisions to My Post about the Blackfoot and Maslow
“The fastest way to learn is to be slightly wrong in public.” — Patrick O’Shaughnessy
In April 2021, I published a post originally titled Maslow Got It Wrong. Turns out, I got a number of things wrong in that post myself. Feedback from readers led me to digging in deeper to the story of Maslow’s being inspired by the Blackfoot in the development of his hierarchy of needs, and publish a more thoroughly researched and nuanced piece that I have retitled “Could the Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow Guide Us Now?” The process helped remind me the difficulty of arriving at historical truth, particularly when neither Maslow nor the Blackfoot he spoke with during his 1938 visit are now alive. My revised post emphasizes what I think is most important — there is something powerful in the Blackfoot teachings as we examine the future of our civilization. This post details the pieces I did not describe accurately in my original post.
Blackfoot and Blackfeet are Not Interchangeable
These words represent different groups. This is a significant mistake on my part. The Blackfoot Confederacy consists of four tribes: the Siksika (or Blackfoot), the Apatohsipiikanis (or North Piegan), the Kainais (or Blood), and the Aamskaapipiikannis (or South Piegan). The first three groups each have reserves in Alberta, Canada. The Aamskaapipiikannis are known by the United States government as “The Blackfeet Nation” and reside in Montana (Lokensgard, 2014). Maslow spent six weeks with the Siksika (Blackfoot) in Alberta, Canada in 1938. In this post and in my revised post, I will use both Siksika and the English word Blackfoot. Siksika is also used by Blackfoot scholar Ryan Heavy Head (more on him later) as the name for the Blackfoot reserve.
There’s More to Maslow than the Pyramid
Maslow did not himself use a pyramid. Readers shared with me that there is no evidence that Abraham Maslow himself ever represented his Hierarchy of Needs as a pyramid. In this 2019 Scientific American article, Scott Barry Kaufman interviews Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings, and John Ballard about the origins of Maslow’s pyramid. They indicate that the pyramid was a visual shortcut for Maslow’s Hierarchy created by Douglas McGregor, Keith Davis, and Charles McDermid in the 1950s to introduce the Hierarchy of Needs in management training and textbooks. The simplicity of the diagram is perhaps one reason this formulation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is so well known. They indicate that “most criticisms of Maslow’s theory are critiques of McGregor’s interpretation of Maslow” and it was also this interpretation of Maslow’s theory that I critiqued.
While Maslow did believe there was a Hierarchy of Needs, he didn’t argue that we had to meet one need completely before meeting other needs. I indicated the contrary in my prior post. In his original 1943 paper describing the Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow says:
We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied. It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a number of exceptions.
Maslow eventually added “transcendence” to the top of his hierarchy, above self-actualization. I shared that the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of self-actualization, when he later believed transcendence was the pinnacle of his hierarchy (Kaufman, 2020).
Maslow did indeed value the role of community in meeting our basic needs. In my original article, I postulated that, according to the Blackfoot worldview, community is the means through which we meet our needs, while the worldview that emerges from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs focuses on pursuing our needs individually. But Maslow did care about collective flourishing. As Scott Barry Kaufman (2020) describes in his book Transcend, Maslow wrote in an unpublished essay from 1966 called “Critique of Self Actualization Theory”,
self actualization is not enough. Personal salvation and what is good for the person alone cannot be really understood in isolation. The good of other people must be invoked as well as the good for oneself. It is quite clear that purely inter-psychic individualist psychology without reference to other people and social conditions is not adequate.
And, in alignment with the Blackfoot way of life, Maslow advocated for the role of community role in creating the conditions that would allow each person to flourish. Here’s Kaufman again:
It was [Maslow’s] belief that if society can create the conditions to satisfy one basic’s needs, including the freedom to speak honestly and openly, to grow and develop one’s unique capacities and passions, and to live in societies with fairness and justice, what naturally and organically emerges tends to be the characteristics that resemble the best in humanity.
Considering the whole of his writings, it’s clear that Maslow had a much more sophisticated and nuanced way of seeing the world than I gave him credit for in my post. I especially want to thank Scott Barry Kaufman for shedding light on the subject.
This May Not Be a Story of Appropriation
Maslow did not flip the Blackfoot Model upside down. In my first post, I indicated that Maslow flipped the Blackfoot model, originally drawn on a tipi, upside down. Blackfoot Scholar Ryan Heavy Head, a member of the Siksika Tribe who was given funding by the government of Canada along with his colleague Narcisse Blood, conducted extensive research on the Blackfoot influence on Maslow (more on them in my revised post). He told me in a phone call that this interpretation is “goofy.” First, he explained to me, there is no “Blackfoot model.” While there is and has been a Blackfoot way of life, enshrined in longstanding rituals and practices, the Blackfoot did not frame it as a model or draw it on a tipi.
Some Blackfoot see Maslow as having appropriated his theories from them, but Blood & Heavy Head, considered the foremost Blackfoot researchers on the topic, do not. Ryan Heavy Head told me that there are many Blackfoot who do see Maslow’s actions as exploitative and as an act of theft. But he and Narcisse Blood did not arrive at that conclusion. They saw Maslow as encountering a culture vastly different from his own, which completely shifted the trajectory of his inquiry. His time at Siksika was an inspiration for the learning journey he went on, conducting his own experiments and research, that eventually led to the creation of his Hierarchy of Needs.
Wikipedia doesn’t mention the Blackfoot’s Influence on Maslow. Some readers pointed out that my original article cites the following text from Wikipedia’s article on the Hierarchy of Needs, which cannot be found there:
Maslow’s idea emerged and was informed by his work with the Blackfeet Nation through conversations with elders and inspiration from the shape and meaning of the Blackfoot tipi. Maslow’s idea has been criticized for misrepresenting the Blackfoot worldview, which instead places self-actualization as a basis for community-actualization and community-actualization as a basis for cultural perpetuity, the latter of which exists at the top of the tipi in Blackfoot philosophy.
This text did appear on the Wikipedia page, but was removed, possible in response to my original post. I would like to attempt to include on the Wikipedia page some mention of the inspiration the Blackfoot had on Maslow.
Beyond Ideas of Rightdoing and Wrongdoing
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. — Rumi
Writing this post taught me a great deal, including that arriving at historical truth is a complex process. Multiple narratives, often stemming from vested interests, simultaneously exist. I was reminded that the word history comes from the French histoire, meaning story. While I first approached this project as a matter of arriving at the facts, I discovered that that may not be possible (at least for someone like me, removed from the main actors of this story). What instead became useful was to see each story in its context and understand the motivations behind the characters telling the versions of their stories. For me, the gems from this inquiry came from diving more deeply into the Blackfoot way of life, especially through dialogue with Ryan Heavy Head. I hope this is primarily where we direct our attention in service of understanding where we hope to take our civilization from here. And I hope you’ll read the my revised post, Could the Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow Guide Us Now?
Blood, N., & Heavyhead, R. (2007). Blackfoot influence on Abraham Maslow (Lecture delivered at University of Montana). Blackfoot Digital Library. Accessed 25 April 2021.
Kaufman, S.B. (2019). Who Created Maslow’s Iconic Pyramid? Scientific American. Accessed on 24 April 2021.
Kaufman, S.B. (2020). Transcend. TarcherPerigee.
Lokensgard K.H. (2014). Blackfoot Nation. In: Leeming D.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Springer, Boston, MA.
Maslow, A.H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396. Accessed on 27 April 2021.