Culture & Agriculture – A Response to Dr. Canku

Dr. Craig Hassell – Professor of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota

Thank you Dr. Canku for your teachings, wisdom and presence here with us today at the Faith, Food and Environment Symposium.  And I wish to thank Dr. Jim Ennis and his staff at Catholic Rural Life and all the Co-Sponsors for making this symposium possible and especially for having the foresight to invite Dr. Canku to join us here in this work together and share some of the Dakota teachings.

Before I offer some response to Dr. Canku’s message, I feel a responsibility to begin my remarks with what I call “Difficult Truths”.

Too often, the voices and presence of the First Nation Peoples of North America have been dismissed, ignored or cast aside.

The opening letter of welcome in our program states that “Just 150 years ago, this was farm country”, citing Irish immigrant settlers as land owners in 1854.  What is not mentioned, as is too often the case, is that 200 years ago, this land where we sit here today was inhabited by Dakota, and before that, for countless generations back into history.  Please understand that I am not faulting the letter itself, it is simply a small reminder of a larger dynamic that is culturally imbalanced and deserves our attention.

We must remind ourselves that the land we are on right here, for countless generations of human history was inhabited and cared for by the Dakota People.  This land was filled with sacred places and spaces, something like a Garden of Eden for the Dakota People living here.  For them, the idea of land ownership was every bit as strange and unthinkable as we would consider owning our sibling or our mother.  Their stories, their presence, their history is almost invisible today.

Difficult truths.

As we consider together the culture of agriculture, and our relationship to the land we are obligated to confront the difficult truths of the settlement and colonization of Minnesota, including our ancestors’ interactions with the Dakota, often termed the Dakota Conflict.  This history is one of which we are not so proud.

Yesterday we heard about the “Logic of Gift”.  The gift of this land received from the Dakota People through treaties that were first forced, then broken, along with the “Logic of Gift”, obligates us to first acknowledge difficult truths, and then to begin a process of healing and reconciliation.

This is an uncomfortable but necessary step toward the mutual respect, reciprocity and reconciliation that are so much needed as we gather here today to listen, dialogue and learn with and from one another.   Today, this Faith, Food and Environment Symposium represents a long overdue step toward much-needed healing.

As Clifford mentioned, The Dakota, like every people, created their own knowledge of the land, their relationship to land, and interaction with the land in ways that brought health not only to the people, but to all of God’s creation.  The knowledge of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas had sophisticated systems of agriculture that have given us beans, corn, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, peppers, tomatoes, sunflower, peanuts, cashews, chocolate and over twenty other foods, and more than 200 medicines that have been recorded in the Pharmacopeia of the United States of America since 1820 (Vogel, 1970, Keoke and Porterfield, 2002).  Daniel Moerman reports that of the 31,566 kinds of vascular plants found in North America, American Indians used 2874 of these species as medicines, 1886 as foods, 492 as fibers for weaving, baskets, building materials etc., and 230 as dyes (Moerman, 1998)[1].  All told, they found a useful purpose for 3923 kinds of plants.

These contributions are seldom acknowledged or recognized.  Why?

As I listened to Dr. Canku present us with a brief glimpse into Dakota teachings, I reflected back on Dr. Christopher Thompson invoking the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas about the natural order and beauty of creation, that nature and spirit are intimately bound together, about the natural world as reflecting God’s own nature.

Please forgive me, but I must confess, being born and raised Missouri Synod Lutheran, before yesterday, I had not heard these teachings before as part of the Christian tradition.  But they do resonate with some of what Dr. Canku presented.  As I reflected back, I remembered that St. Thomas Aquinas lived in the High Middle Ages, several centuries before the European Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Cartesian philosophy that would so profoundly define the modern self.

In 17th Century Europe, thanks to Descartes, thinking, subjective experience, spirit and consciousness, all that which the human perceives as within oneself, became understood as fundamentally different and separate from the objective world of matter, of plants, animals, the stones, the stars, the physical body, everything that one perceives as outside of mind.

Descartes’s dualism gave us a world of physical objects that lack subjective awareness.  It gave us pervasive subject-object dichotomies between mind and matter, between scientist and nature, between experience and reality, between mind and body.  The idea of an objective, mechanistic universe became born within the modern European mind.

It is interesting that this philosophical development carries so much inertia yet today, well into the 21st century, almost 400 hears hence.  Must we continue to be so heavily bound and influenced by a 17th Century political bargain?  Cannot science and spirituality co-exist once again in a mutually informative and reciprocal relationship?

Listening to Dr. Canku reminds us that virtually every older, non-Western culture did not find it necessary to embark upon the path of subject/object dualism.  I believe we can learn much from his example.

In closing, I want to offer some intellectual virtues that are vital to critical thinking in its deepest sense.

Shallow Sense Critical Thinking Deeper Sense Critical Thinking
Emphasizes “being right” Emphasizes “being open”
Furthers self-interest within familiar/narrow boundaries Furthers learning through expanding/challenging boundaries
“Win, don’t lose” Vulnerable in the face of uncertainty
Emphasizes authority Emphasizes authenticity
Creates boundaries, division and defense mechanisms Creates openness, relationship, honesty and risk


The intellectual virtues described below were first conceived by Richard Paul[2], a leader in the critical thinking community.  These virtues are inter-related and interdependent.  He reminds us that each of us falls prey to the powerful forces within society to conform to shallow sense critical thinking.

  1. Intellectual Humility: Being conscious of the limits of one’s knowledge, including sensitivity to the circumstances in which one’s egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows.  This virtue includes sensitivity to the bias, prejudice and limitations inherent in one’s point of view.  Intellectual humility is not to be mistaken for spinelessness or submissiveness.  Its disciplined practice can mitigate our natural tendencies toward intellectual pretentiousness, conceit and hubris.
  2. Intellectual Courage: Being conscious of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing. This courage is connected with the recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading.  To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically “accept” what we have “learned.”
  3. Intellectual Empathy: Being conscious of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them. This requires being consciously aware of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief.  This virtue assists us in the work of reconstructing the viewpoints and worldview of others, to inhabit and think within premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own.
  4. Intellectual Integrity: Recognition of the need to be true to one’s own thinking; to be consistent in the intellectual standards one applies; to hold one’s self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one’s antagonists; to practice what one advocates for others; and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one’s own thought and action.
  5. Intellectual Perseverance: Being conscious of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations. This includes holding to moral and ethical principles when pressured to conform to environments of shallow-sense critical thinking where unexamined prejudice, bias or injustices are prevalent.   It also includes a tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity and mystery; a sense of the need to hold and struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight.
  6. Faith In Human Intelligence: Confidence that, in the long run, one’s own higher interests and those of the greatest good will be best served by people having the agency to think, act and learn for themselves; by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own intelligence; faith that, with proper encouragement and cultivation people develop the capacity to think coherently and become reasonable persons, despite the deep-seated obstacles in the character of the human mind and in society as we know it.
  7. Fair-mindedness: Being conscious of the need to treat all viewpoints with equal respect, and the need to step outside of the influence of one’s own feelings or vested interests, or the feelings or vested interests of one’s friends, community or nation. Being fair-minded implies awareness of and willingness to critically examine the often un-discussed or invisible dynamics of power and privilege.  It implies maintaining one’s intellectual integrity, empathy and perseverance in the face of societal inequities that work to propagate injustices within the status quo.

These traits or dispositions collectively represent the spirit of critical thinking.  This spirit of critical thinking is developed over time, tempered by engaging with life’s challenging situations while maintaining a commitment to one’s awareness and learning.  Richard Paul reminds us that we each have a side of us unwilling to face unpleasant truth, willing to distort, cherry pick and rationalize, that these impulses are powerful and can dominate our minds, especially when we are rewarded for shallow sense critical thinking.

The seduction of certainty is a very powerful influence.  Everyone wants certainty in their lives.  But the more “certain” we are, the more fixed and rigid our thinking becomes.  When we are “locked in” to our position, our perspectives and our assumptions, our boundaries create blind spots.  We limit our capacity to discern and see clearly the depth of the complex realities and truths that are ever present in our lives, work, world, and relationships.     Thank you for your attention.

[1] Moerman D.  Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press; 1998.


[2] Paul, Richard. Critical Thinking. Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique. Rohnert Park, CA, 1993.