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It’s time to rethink time. Specifically, we’re long overdue for a consideration of its hold on our reality. While we may all agree on some truth of a linear meter that marks the distance between the past, present, and future—the way we employ and internalize time has significant economic and cultural implications.

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Through an emphasis on industrial development and labor-centered markets, time has become the crux of economic growth. And, like most international norms, it’s largely determined by Western standards. In a study of Indigenous Lakota peoples and their resistance to clock-centered norms imposed by colonial powers, Kathleen Pickering examines the potential for challenging time as a power regime.

Dismantling the framework of time-oriented attitudes requires redefining a number of standard definitions. While a work-around-the-clock paradigm is canon for most Western lifestyles, it’s the meat-and-potatoes of capitalism. Rewiring our perspective on it requires changing our views on productivity and labor itself. In the capitalist regime, production is defined by the “work day,” a “decontextualized quantity of time,” notes Pickering. This 8-to-5 expectation is a learned bias.

Pickering interviewed members of 120 households on the Pine Ridge reservation, observing how residents and workers preserved a sub-economy of sorts shaped by workplace efficiency—on Lakota terms. The Lakota culture centers task-orientated production when measuring economic contributions, so attitudes around time look different. Indigenous communities operate through a reservation economy, shaped by task orientation, social relationships, and “observed necessity,” not a timeclock, which results in a “seamless relationship between work and life.”

Historically, the punch-in-punch-out status quo has been levied as an ideological weapon to suppress the Lakota way of life. US authorities—already dogmatically destroying communal and nomadic lifestyles—shattered the framework of task orientation, pushing for other institutions of governance such as “Indian boarding schools” or wage jobs. Not just a crude imposition of foreign preferences, these institutions were detrimental to kinship, family, and lifestyle. Seeking to assimilate Lakota tribes into Anglo-American standards meant eroding the existing working culture and blending it into the colonial paradigm.

Today, the Lakota culture still centers task orientation. By fusing today’s economic realities and their traditional values, they’ve created an internal economy that works and draws inspiration from its long-standing structure. The reservation economy today shows that no matter how ruinous the invisible hand may have been, economic countercultures can work against the clock.

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American Anthropologist, Vol. 106, No. 1 (March 2004), pp. 85–97
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association