Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an important and often-referenced concept in trauma-informed care. It often stands alone—yet, to be trauma-informed, we need to look to the original thinkers behind the concepts associated with his name.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a groundbreaking theory introduced in 1943, often stands at the center of self-development content. It laid a foundation for various psychological theories and has significantly impacted many fields, including leadership and trauma-informed change.
Although Abraham Maslow was the person who coined the term hierarchy of needs and developed the theory that influenced the infamous pyramid, we—particularly professionals who are mindful of structural violence and strive to embody a trauma informed approach—must give credit where credit is due.
And, we need to acknowledge the impact of harmful colonial ideologies in the creation of the hierarchy of needs.
Maslow’s History with the Siksika Nation
In the summer of 1938, Abraham Maslow spent time communing with and learning from an indigenous group known as the Siksika Nation. In Siksika (the language), the name Siksika translates to Blackfoot.
Maslow never professionally credited the Siksika Nation when publishing his academic theories, although we do know that their beliefs and ways of life “upended some of his early hypotheses” as Teju Ravilochan, founder of Gatherfor, puts it in their article on this topic.
I encourage you to read Ravilochan’s article, which focuses on the community-centric perspectives of the Siksika Nation which contribute to the “astounding levels of cooperation, minimal inequality, restorative justice, full bellies, and high levels of life satisfaction” that Maslow was surprised to discover that summer.
I could go on and on about the wisdom in Ravilochan’s article—more specifically, the wisdom of the Siksika Nation, especially the exploration of how the Siksika’s fundamental perspective grants trust, expertise, and respect for being on the journey (and how their community members spend their lives on that journey). And community care. And generational considerations.
My point is that it’s a great resource to add to your reading list, especially if you’re looking for more concrete examples of what trauma-informed beliefs and practices look like in practice. In colonial cultures, there’s the added layer of unlearning our violent beliefs before we get to the kind of healing centered engagement that the Siksika Nation's way of being is built upon.
Change Isn’t Linear (or Pretty)
Another point from Ravilochan’s article I want to highlight is that the Siksika’s “strong belief systems and long standing traditions” can’t be “neatly codified in a paper.” This is so true of many trauma-informed concepts because the complex intricacies cannot be separated into clear one-to-one relationships or a linear progression.
Trauma-informed work is deeply personal change work that cannot be followed on an easily categorized journey. This is why we often disappoint people when we say that there is no “magic pill” or “secret recipe” for trauma-informed work. You can’t “check the box” of trauma-informed or DEI work because there is no box to check.
Final Thoughts: Understanding Maslow’s Hierarchy as a Theory and a Tool
It’s also important to remember that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory based on a person’s observations about the world. While it is arguably supported by some empirical evidence, it isn’t meant to be used as a fact that informs our worldview.
Rather, it is meant to be used as a tool for understanding ourselves and the world around us. And, like any tool, it has its limitations. If you read Ravilochan’s article, you can learn more about these limitations.
Understanding the history of how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs came to be—and the beliefs and practices of the culture that changed Maslow’s perspectives—is another trauma-informed tool that we can use to better understand ourselves, our communities, and what we need to move forward with powerful sustained change.
We can look to our trauma-informed tools for guidance, but they will not give us the answers to the difficult questions. To find those, we need to look inward, discover our truth, and connect with our communities.