By Karim-Aly Kassam
In the twenty-first century we need a concept anchored in the reality, history, culture, and ecology of North America. It is time to expel the idea of ‘race’ from our thinking. It has no relevance in the third millennium. The idea of ‘personhood’ offers hope for a just and sustainable future.
Race is a construct propagated by European settlers to colonize the Americas. It is an imported artifice, created to diminish the ‘personhood’ of others, an invention intended to justify an ideology of oppression. This historical legacy of sociocultural and ecological erasure, often leading to genocide, not only caused profound devastation to the diverse Indigenous peoples in this continent and their food systems, like the bison upon which they depended, but it ultimately altered the humanity of the settler-colonizers themselves. This is the predicament in which we currently find ourselves.
The images of Mr. Floyd gasping for life as indifferent police officers looked on without a shred of concern, while one of them engaged in murder, is a direct outcome of the mentality of racial superiority. Like any form of colonization of the mind, it transcends ethnic and cultural boundaries. The perpetrating police officers were not solely of Euro-American descent. Resembling a virus, this outlook infects all structures of our society. For instance, the distortion of the settler-colonizers humanity is visible in the U.S. Supreme Court, the loftiest of American institutions. Many of its members, who ironically characterize their judgements as ‘originalism,’ extended the right of free speech reserved for human persons to corporations. The very same corporations whose overt aim is to maximize short-term gain for its shareholders at the expense of other humans and their habitat. Even the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, applying to the ‘legal personhood’ of African Americans, Indigenous peoples, and women, was not a great moral achievement but a delayed realization of what was already part of the fabric of the first people of these lands.
What if in their encounters with the diverse Indigenous peoples of the Americas, early settler-colonists had rooted their actions in already established notions of ‘difference’ and ‘personhood’; instead of transplanting the idea of ‘race’ brought from European lands they were escaping? Examination of the sociocultural and ethical foundations of Indigenous societies is hardly romanticization of the past, it is recognition of their contribution to human civilization. Investigating the existence of cultural concepts among Indigenous societies in North America prior to European contact is largely ignored in favor of narratives of ‘manifest destiny’ and violence. For generations, the minds of youth have been colonized by this myopic view of history as school textbooks remain willfully silent on the first peoples of this continent. Even the U.S. Naturalization Test for Citizenship administered to new Americans beyond superficial lip-service is intentionally quiet, compounding the ignorance in the immigrant population.
One of the most compelling instances recognizing the humanity of the ‘other’ is the encounter Vilhjamur Stefansson had with the Inuit of Victoria Island in the Canadian Western Arctic during his ‘expedition’ (1908–1912). He recounts how he and his companion from Alaska were received when approaching an Inuit village. Stefansson was an immigrant of Icelandic background whose appearance to the Inuit was strange because of their limited contact with Euro-Americans. As they approached a new settlement, Stefansson and his Inuk companion, Natkusiak (Billy Banksland), were asked to wait at the outskirts, while a villager would go and collect muktuk (blubber). Stefansson would, then, be offered pieces of muktuk to determine his human personhood. Having demonstrated that he could eat, as he was a ‘person’ like them, Stefansson was welcomed into the Inuit community. This was repeated throughout his travel in the region. Such cultural encounters are informative: what if the situation were reversed and the Inuit came upon a Euro-American settlement, how would their humanity have been perceived?
The notion of ‘person’ is rooted in the sociocultural and ecological consciousness of diverse Indigenous communities in North America. The names Indigenous societies use to self-identify also reveals their outlook towards other people not just themselves. The word Inuk simply means ‘person’ (plural Inuit meaning ‘people’), commonly used in Canada and Greenland. Similarly, in Alaska Iñupiaq (singular) means ‘real person’. Analogously, the culturally and linguistically different Dene, a word which also means ‘people’, is used by Athapaskan speaking cultural groups to self-identify. Their traditional lands span from the Mackenzie Delta in the northwest of the Canadian Arctic to several southwestern U.S. states. In the boreal forest, the Gwichʼin, the North and South Slavey, the Dogrib, and the Chipewyan call their homeland Denendeh meaning ‘land of the people’.
Recognition of the personhood of the ‘other’ was the foundational underpinning for cross-cultural engagement. Like many human societies, Indigenous peoples engaged in conflict and violence as well as competed for scarce resources such as food in order to survive. Yet how did cultural differences and the idea of personhood guide their actions? Ernest S. Burch, an Arctic anthropologist, spent a good part of his scholarship examining their responses to conflict. In northwestern Alaska, a region slightly larger than south Korea (40,500 miles2), ten different Iñupiat societies engaged in trade, warfare, and peace. They fundamentally depended on the biological diversity of the land and sea for their existence. Their ecological and cultural boundaries were intertwined. Despite suspicion and potential for conflict, these societies achieved an understanding that enabled mutual survival. One community would withdraw from its traditional lands, during the changing seasons to allow another to hunt, fish, and gather, not merely to survive, but to thrive.
Personhood is not only a powerful concept in rectifying the injustice perpetrated through the construct of racial supremacy by including human persons irrespective of their sexual or ethnic origins; it is also compelling for addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century. In the contemporary existential crisis of anthropogenic climate change, where crimes against the planet are widespread, this long-established concept opens up vistas of insights and pathways for action. It grows human consciousness and sensitivity to connect with non-human organisms. Again, among Indigenous societies, there are countless instances where personhood is extended to other beings, where the human is part of a complex connectivity of reciprocal relations and consequential actions. In such a world, trees have legal standing, rivers have rights, plants are our partners, and mountains are sacred landscapes. Even the English word ‘animal’ derived from animus means endowed with mind and spirit. These are not strange ideas; they are rooted in the ecology and sociocultural diversity of the land in which we exist. They reflect the awareness that we live in a vibrant world teeming with diversity of life and beauty. It is time to abandon the notion of race to recognize the persons among our diverse communities and environment.
Karim-Aly Kassam is an International Professor of Environmental and Indigenous Studies at Cornell University and a 2020–21 Global Public Voices Fellow at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell.
Frederick McDonald is an award-winning painter, photographer, and poet. He is a member of the Fort McKay First Nation, Alberta, Canada, and is a 2020–21 Global Public Voices Fellow at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University.