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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

What People Are For

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

When I began my career in community development 25 years ago, there were no land acknowledgements. Even as recently as five years ago, most conferences and public occasions would start with a hearty welcome and thank you and away we went.

No longer.

Now when we gather for significant public events we recognize the indiginous peoples on whose land we conduct our business. Every time I hear one of these, my head swims a little. Not because I take issue with land acknowledgements -- even the most basic are worth doing -- but because there's a small obscenity in the gesture.

The acknowledgements are meant to honor the First Nations whose land we now use to our own ends -- land that became ours through colonial expansion, broken treaties and outright genocide.

When we acknowledge the land, we mean to pay respect to the tribes. But such an acknowledgement can't be separated from the crimes that removed these people from their homes and laid waste to their way of life. THAT acknowledgement is never made. It's this unacknowledgement that always throws me, for the dishonor it recalls, and for how somnambulistic it reveals us to be, even in moments of trying to do "right."

Land acknowledgements do represent real progress, however, and they make me wonder where we are on that famous, justice-driven, long arc of history.

Places like Toronto, where I've spent the last few days learning about the regions' growth and development, have progressed beyond land acknowledgements. Toronto has a Reconciliation Action Plan through which time and treasure are committed to local tribes to build a relationship "rooted in early engagement, co-development, equal partnership, and power shifting."

It was in Toronto that I first heard the question "do you know your treaties?" In my part of the world, we are still learning the names of the local tribes. But yes of course. We should also be studying what they were promised and what they are still owed.

I was also shown a full-block Indiginous Hub under construction in one of Toronto's smart new downtown neighborhoods. This is happening on two and a half acres of native-owned land, transferred to Anishnawabe Health Toronto by the province of Ontario for a mixed use building that will be a health center, community center and housing center. The Anishnawabe spokesperson said it will support the "reclamation of culture and identity for the Indiginous people across Turtle Island."

To me, uncomfortable with land acknowlegements, it was reassuring to see a community farther down the path of reconciliation. Perhaps in five years, my home region will be where greater Toronto is today. More than likely, Toronto is striving to emulate another community that has done even more. And if this is happening -- if land acknowledgements lead to the giving of actual land and meaningful power, and then perhaps to the integration of Indiginous wisdom into our land use and community care practices -- then maybe, against all odds, there is hope for where we're heading,

This thought was uplifting to me, and necessary, because the whole time in Canada I'd been struggling with a Wendell Berry question -- the one that titles the book and essay I recently read:

What are people for?

It's a troubling question because, I think, Wendell means to make trouble with it. He's not asking "what's the meaning of life?" -- a question you'd find echoing through the dorms of late-night college bull sessions or halls of solemn afternoon seminars. Rather, he's asking a question of utility -- not of meta-physics, but of physical embodiedness. What are people FOR? What are we supposed to be DOING? Not, why are we here, but what is our FUNCTION here?

He's doing that on purpose because the answer, for Wendell, is implied by framing the question this way.

Here's the spoiler: What are people for? People are for doing the work of caretaking. Caring for the land, caring for communities, and restoring both where damage has been done. Wendell puts this in a rural context, but I choose to think it's the answer for everyone, everywhere.

The essay, one of his shortest and most polemical, skims the tragedy of US policy that declared, after WW2, that there were too many farmers on too many too-small farms. That policy led to the corporatization of agriculture, the migration of millions from small places to cities, the unemployment and disenfranchisement of many of those millions, the erosion of untold acres of farmland and the declaration of success by economists and agribusiness interests everywhere.

This essay is like the kyosaku stick that zen teachers use to lightly smack their students into awareness. "Look," Wendell is saying. "Wake up!" Do you think we are better off because these "least efficient producers" got what they deserved for failing in the agriculture market? Is our food supply now more secure? (It is not). Is the land healthier? (It is not). Is our democracy stronger? (It is not). Are these former farm families thriving? (Many are not). Are their former farm communities thriving? (Most certainly they are not).

We accept these trade-offs because we harbor a fundamental confusion about what people are for, and that confusion is rapidly threatening to overwhelm us. If we buy into the logic that small farms were expendable because they were inefficient, the only end point is the out-and-out expendability of people. In yesteryears it was the farmers. Today, thanks to generative AI, it's coders. Tomorrow it will be all of us, unless we figure out an answer to Wendell's question that isn't strictly economic.

This is why I was so encouraged by what I saw happening in Toronto's reconciliation work with their First Nation partners. Very few people are going to know "what people are for" by reading Wendell Berry -- even fewer by reading this post. But many, many people will get there by listening to native people who understand caretaking in a way that we do not. Especially if white people in power continue to do the hard work of reconciliation to bring native voices and wisdom into our daily business affairs. That's happening in Canada in a way that I don't see in the US, but perhaps change is coming.

If we can facilitate this one shift in perception -- maybe starting with friends and family in low-key conversations -- from understanding people as producers to people as caretakers, we might do more good than by committing to a lifetime of recycling. Perhaps those conversations can be followed by discussions about whether we think generative artificial intelligence will be able to take care of anything at all, like people and places we love and need. And if not, then what?

Even though he doesn't speak on behalf of Indiginous people, Wendell Berry's polemic -- his big question and the answer to his big question -- is for all of us. Far too many, not just small US farmers, have been crushed under the boot of "efficiency" and "productivity." The only response, as the First Nations say, is to protect Turtle Island, which, interestingly, is not "tribal" land. It's just land -- there to be used, and used well, by all of us.


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