An Interview With Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke first spoke before the United Nations when she was only eighteen years old. In the nearly two decades that have passed since, she hardly has paused for a breath. Today, LaDuke is one of the most prominent Native American environmental activists in North America. She brings a burning focus to her work, which is devoted to turning society "from the synthetic reality of consumption and expendability to the natural reality of conservation and harmony." LaDuke is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinabeg (also known as the Ojibwe or Chippewa), but she grew up with radical parents in East Los Angeles and Ashland, Oregon. She went to college at Harvard, then dove head-first into Indian politics while completing graduate school along the way. As a leader in the ultimately successful struggle against James Bay's hydroelectric development in the 1980s, she became an international voice for indigenous environmental concerns. These days, LaDuke prefers to balance broader campaigns with battles closer to home. She has returned to her father's White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, where she lives with her two children, Waseyabin, age six, and Ajuawak, age four. As campaign director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, LaDuke divides her time among an eclectic variety of local issues, from land restoration to organic agriculture. Even from the backwoods, however, LaDuke remains connected to international forums. She lectures regularly at universities, serves on the board of Greenpeace, and is the environmental program officer for the Seventh Generation Fund. Last spring, she organized a national benefit tour with the Indigo Girls, raising funds for a host of grassroots organizations and thrusting the growing Indigenous Women's Network (IWN) into the national spotlight. In September, she led an IWN delegation to the World Conference on Women in Beijing. LaDuke is also an accomplished writer, and is currently finishing a book on Native environmentalism for South End Press. Face to face, LaDuke has a commanding presence. She has an incredible drive to get things done, and some friends call her "the Duchess." But she also exudes great personal warmth. We spoke with her at her home on White Earth. It is an unassuming log house overlooking wild rice beds and beautiful Round Lake. Inside, the frenetic pace makes the dwelling a political office as much as a home. We sat on the deck in the sunshine, as the sounds of the children playing mingled with the calls of birds.Q: You were born in L.A. and educated at Harvard. How did you make your way back to White Earth?Winona LaDuke: Ever since I was little I wanted to come back and work in the Indian community. My father is from White Earth, and I never felt entirely accepted on the West Coast. As a kid, I was always the one passed over at dances and never picked for sports teams. At that age, it's easy to blame the victim-you're too dark or your hair is funny. But that's not what it's really about. It's about learned racism and classism. Eventually, I started to question what's wrong with America. My family also had a keen sense of social responsibility. I was never told to go out and make money, but to do the right thing. Before my parents split up, they were both active in Indian politics in Los Angeles. Later, I remember my mom taking me out of school for anti-war and civil-rights marches. Q: What led you to the Ivy League?LaDuke: I'm not sure. I certainly wanted to escape from my hometown. I also think I went to Harvard because they told me I couldn't. My guidance counselor basically said, "Don't bother. Go to vo-tech." But once I got there it turned out to be a transformative experience. A great bunch of Indian students came and found me, and I was politicized pretty quickly. I was also very fortunate to have excellent role models. One of the first events I attended was a speech by Jimmie Durham of the International Indian Treaty Council. He talked about how there was no such thing as the "Indian Problem." He said that it was a problem with America. As a college student, I was trying to understand the world, and all of a sudden I just got it. His message of decolonization resonated with me entirely. So I asked him if I could go to work for him. From that point forward, at the age of eighteen, I worked on Native environmental campaigns all over the West and learned from people on the front lines. They laid the foundation of my political thinking. School was different. There I learned how to utilize the resources of a major institution to benefit communities. For example, while doing environmental research on corporate practices in Indian Country, I found that more information was available to me in Cambridge, thousands of miles removed, than on the reservations themselves (which is part of the problem). Q: How does it feel to be back home after a whirlwind month on the road with the Indigo Girls?LaDuke: Oh my God, what a relief! We called it "the big party," but it was tremendously successful. We raised about $250,000 for local organizations and their projects. But the "Honor the Earth" tour also raised political awareness. With the Indigo Girls, the concerts drew the attention of an entirely new constituency. Their fans seemed to be mostly young women, and most of them probably had not thought much about indigenous issues. It was a great opportunity for us. We reached some 40,000 people with a message that may really challenge their thinking.Q: Are you worried that the support you received exists only on the surface?LaDuke: Well, I don't assume that anyone will automatically be moved toward political action, especially in an audience that largely doesn't know anything about Indian people. But before you can expect anyone to act, you have to talk to them about the issues. We tried to give the audience tangible ways to relate to the Indian community and its struggles. We had action cards, political speeches, local press conferences, and a lot of literature available. This provided an opportunity beyond buying sage or crystals or however else those folks might relate to Indians. So while only a few will start to actively support indigenous causes, I think everyone at least heard us. That's important.Q: When you mention the "sage and crystal" scene, it brings to mind the Indigo Girls' album, Rites of Passage. On the cover, their faces are painted with what look like Native American designs and a lot of their lyrics have Native American themes. Do you think they have been guilty of adopting indigenous symbols disrespectfully?LaDuke: No, in my experience they have been very respectful. Like a lot of people, they find some resonance in the Indian community, but they have their own spiritual practice. Both of them come from long Christian traditions, and they reflect that in their music. So, to me, Amy and Emily-the Indigo Girls-are not spiritual panhandlers. Also, when they played Indian communities on the tour, they brought something with them-their hearts. That is the essence of much indigenous thinking-balance. You only receive if you give. Those who appropriate aspects of Native cultures or merely purchase Indian products miss that essential reciprocity. As a consequence, they might read a book or own an artifact, but the meaning is lost.Q: Do you see the Indigenous Women's Network becoming a major player in Native American politics?LaDuke: I don't foresee it becoming a prominent national organization with its own agenda, separate from work Indian women are doing in their own communities. The women of IWN are very active and don't need a new institution. They need an interactive forum that leverages resources and empowers traditional, community-based women. In my view, national Indian organizations should not have a franchise on the "Native American perspective." Our communities have a diversity of views, and local women have a right to have their voices heard. Today they are not, and I want IWN to amplify their voices.Q: What are some examples of IWN's work?LaDuke: We work on a wide spectrum of concerns. In North America, we host international conferences, publish our magazine, Indigenous Woman, and support a growing list of local projects. Most of them are cultural and environmental, but they aren't always what you might think. For instance, when I lived at Moose Factory in James Bay, Canada, IWN supported a reservation diaper service. Moose Factory was a real Pampers community-handing money to disposable-diaper companies and creating sanitation problems in our dumps. Most babies today are in disposables. Since most women work and don't have automatic washers, a cloth diaper service made a tangible economic and environmental benefit. I'd like to start one on every reservation.Q: How do you see IWN's participation in the World Conference on Women in Beijing? Do you think these jet-set conferences can have tangible impacts on women's lives?LaDuke: I think you have to do political work on all levels. The United Nations is one arena, and we think there is real progress to be made. At the official governmental forum in Beijing, we're pressing on two major issues: first, we wanted the United Nations to legally acknowledge indigenous "peoples," as opposed to "populations" or "people." This would guarantee a new level of international recognition and legal rights. Secondly, we were urging governments to adopt the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a comprehensive legal document drafted by indigenous organizations in Geneva over the last several years. At the nongovernmental-organizations' forum, we wanted to begin making inroads for indigenous women. I believe grassroots women have an absolute right and need to participate on equal footing in these forums. Ours was an alternative voice to that of the central U.S. delegation. We share some common ground, but the issues of the mainstream women's movement are not always our issues. Indigenous women's concerns are more integrated with human-rights struggles. Take, for example, the feminist movement's focus on freedom of choice. It's an important issue and I am pro-choice, but I don't believe that abortion rights are the primary concern of Native women.Q: What should the women's movement take on?LaDuke: Issues of survival. As a woman, I think it makes sense for me to worry about whether my great-grandchildren can live here and whether indigenous communities can survive. I also think the mainstream women's movement should be more concerned about the environment. That's a women's issue. Take breast cancer, for example. Women should be rioting. Instead, the disease gets overly personalized and all of the toxic dumping and environmental destruction that cause it get ignored. The women's movement has immense resources at its disposal, but historically it has focused on an exceedingly narrow range of concerns. It has misused its power. Q: You mention the conflicts in Beijing between the perspectives of traditional, white feminists and indigenous women. How have you dealt with similar problems in your environmental work? You work extensively with Greenpeace, for example.LaDuke: I've been on the board of Greenpeace since 1991 and have seen it undergo major changes. Greenpeace has grown from its "guys-on-boats" reputation to being capable of working closely with communities. When I first started, Greenpeace was suing some Indians to stop their subsistence harvest. Today, we have a sovereignty policy that prevents that type of interference. Now there is a lot more collaboration and discussion with Native peoples. My work has been to support Native campaigns, leverage resources, and challenge Greenpeace's basic political agenda. We need to revisit who gets to decide what is an important and urgent issue. This is a fundamental question that needs to be asked of these white organizations, "Who has that right?" For certain, Greenpeace's work is light years ahead of other big environmental groups. Locally, for example, we've been battling the Nature Conservancy-a totally white organization here. They bought 400 acres of our land and gave it to the state of Minnesota. I want them to purchase land and give it to us.Q: How do you respond to those who criticize you, a Native American environmental activist, for working within these mostly white organizations?LaDuke: White organizations have to be pressed from within. They are not going to change on their own, and they need to be politicized and informed. Sometimes, non-Native people can spark that reorientation, but other times they need assistance from indigenous organizers. In any case, I have a lot of respect for Greenpeace. I believe in the principle of bearing witness and direct action. I may not always agree with them, but I don't always agree with Indian organizations, either. So I'm not ashamed of my work there. Greenpeace is a pro-active organization that has a significant presence in twenty-six countries. My work in Greenpeace is a battle, but it's a battle worth fighting.Q: In the environmental movement, the word "sustainability" has become almost a cliche'. How does your concept of sustainable economics and development differ from mainline understandings?LaDuke: Native communities have an inherent advantage in understanding and creating sustainability. They have cultural cohesion and a land base, and both of these foundations are essential for any sustainable community. These days, there are a lot of New Agers creating "intentional communities," collective farms, housing, and so on, and I think it's great. But those who build community from scratch have much less going for them than we do. They have to make a community; we already have one. Indigenous peoples collectively remember who they are, and that memory creates a cultural fabric that holds us together. That's why rural, Native organizing is so vital. It can be the watershed of sustainability.Q: How does this traditional understanding of sustainability shape your political work?LaDuke: Take White Earth. Here we have a sustainable-communities project. Its purpose is to sort out what is useful from our culture and from Euro-American cultures in order to move forward. On our organic raspberry farm, for example, we use tractors and other technologies. We also are investigating solar and wind power in the area. Innovations don't have to be indigenous, but they should at least make sense within our cultural practice and context. The question we ask ourselves is, "Does this technology fit?" As it turns out, it's a question of fundamental importance. It's natural to ask from the perspective of indigenous values, and it speaks to the entire framework of sustainability. But the question of whether a product should be invented at all almost never comes up in the United States. If it did, we would live in a very different world. Products that don't bio-degrade might never be produced, and our economy would have an inherent base of common sense. I believe that in order to build a sustainable society overall, indigenous peoples need to reinsert this criterion into the mainstream, "If the Creator didn't make it like that, should it be here?"Q: What doesn't fit?LaDuke: I don't have all the answers. There are a number of factors that a community can use to decide, "How big is its impact? How will it change the land? Does it make us lazy?" Sometimes you know something doesn't fit right away. For example, some people are using air boats to harvest wild rice now. But there is widespread opposition on the reservation because wild rice is a cultural wellspring. According to our traditions, the Creator gave us wild rice as a food, and the instructions on how to harvest it didn't include an air boat.Q: You mentioned working with this philosophy on White Earth. How has your work evolved here?LaDuke: We founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project in 1988 after exhausting nearly all legal means to reclaim our reservation. The land dispossession we suffered was catastrophic. White Earth constituted 837,000 acres of Indian land when it was reserved under an 1867 treaty, but almost all of it has been taken away. When I moved back to White Earth after college, 93 percent of the reservation was owned by non-Indians and three-quarters of the Indian population lived off-reservation. This shows what has happened to us. It is the American process of making refugees. Therefore, our project's goals are tied closely to this history. We want to recover the original reservation. We acquire land outright when we can, but we also negotiate transfers to the tribal council.Q: Who controls land once it is recovered, and has this created any tension between you and the tribal government?LaDuke: So far we have purchased about 1,000 acres, and that land is held by us. We hold it in trust like the Nature Conservancy. It's important to maintain this control because the White Earth Land Recovery Project has a specific cultural and environmental agenda. And it often runs counter to the tribal council's focus on economic development and gambling. They have been reluctant (and that's an understatement) to preserve traditional usage. When we wanted to build a ceremonial Round House on the reservation, for instance, it almost took an act of Congress to get them to agree. This is not to say we never cooperate with the council. When it comes to negotiating the transfer of government lands, we are pressing for council ownership or management. This is a practical matter, but a principled one as well. I support any form of Indian land ownership on the reservation.Q: What impact has gambling had on White Earth?LaDuke: I look at it somewhat pragmatically. This is the poorest county in the state. With the casino income, the council has built a housing project, renovated schools, and is building a health clinic. No one was going to do those things for us. They did it with their gambling money, and I think that's all right. On the other hand, the casino is a giant energy-sucking machine-lights flashing twenty-four hours a day. And fundamentally, it bases our economy on service. It creates jobs, but strips jobs from the land. That's not the kind of economy I want on my reservation. I don't want my community to be serving white people.Q: Do you think expanded gaming on Indian reservations has enhanced Native sovereignty overall?LaDuke: Not really. It seems to me that the government says a tribe is sovereign if it has a casino or a dump. But when a tribe wants to regulate pesticides or maintain water rights, its sovereignty suddenly disappears.Q: You say that the White Earth Land Recovery Project has a cultural agenda. What specific projects does that involve?LaDuke: It's difficult to separate "cultural" from other projects because they are so integrated. One of our most successful cultural efforts, for instance, was an economic-development initiative. In 1985, a women's marketing collective started a project to encourage the local processing and marketing of wild rice. In just a few years, it transformed an extractive industry with profits going off the reservation to an important, self-reliant base of the local economy. We also sponsor a cutting-edge Ojibwe language program. It is called Wadison, or "nest," and it enables a small group of children and their families to become fully literate. They form the nest of fluency to sustain the more general level of knowledge carried on by everyone. Eventually, we want Ojibwe to become more popular across the board, for words and phrases in everyday speech to become cool. We also want Minnesota to recognize Ojibwe and Dakota as official state languages.Q: A lot of nonprofits have scaled back in recent years just to survive. How do you account for the success of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and all of its programs?LaDuke: We started out very small and I don't want to misrepresent our impact, but we have tenacity, a great sense of urgency, and our people are committed. Here, there is a local intensity that national organizations lack. This community has been through a lot, but there's an enormous amount of brilliance here. Most of all, there is no alternative. If we don't attend to our own needs, no one will. The tribal council won't preserve our language. It's almost extinct, but the council wants to wait for a federal grant to study the problem. That's one of the reasons I always wanted to come back to the reservation and focus my political work here. Our politics emanate from cultural practice, and that helps keep me going. We hold ceremonies as well as political events. In this world it's easy to get distracted, but having spiritual and cultural cohesion helps us stay focused.Q: What about organizing outside of your community?LaDuke: The White Earth Land Recovery Project has been successful because we attack problems pragmatically. We know that America has to change. As a complement to rural, community-based organizing, we need to have smart, connected folks arguing on our behalf in urban areas. Our organization has hundreds of non-Indian members. A lot of them are yuppies. This helps us politically when we need to influence state leaders. We can get rich people in Minneapolis to be our advocates. They have a recognized voice that we don't. Working with non-reservation people also helps change the predator-prey relationship. We're forging ties across the divide of those who consume and those who produce.Q: Has the country's overall shift to the right made your work more difficult?LaDuke: My experience politically is that the further right those in power are, the more Americans wake up. In Greenpeace, for example, our revenues declined when Clinton and Gore were first elected. Everyone abdicated responsibility and thought, "good, our guys will take care of everything." That kind of thinking is totally unethical. It is an abdication of your responsibility as a human being. Today, the insane politics in this country are making our work more clear. When I was in Alaska recently, I read that its Congressional delegation wants to change the name of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Arctic National Oil Reserve. "That's really cool," I thought. When people hear that, it wakes them up. Of course, I'm very scared for our land and our people, but the primary danger of America is its complacency. If we can keep the predator off some critical places and simultaneously spark people to consciousness, then we have a chance. As far as White Earth is concerned, we can't get any favorable legislation in this climate. But then again, I haven't seen any type of just legislation in either Democratic or Republican eras. They say the most positive work for Indians came under the Nixon Administration. So for us, the rightward turn might not make much difference.Q: Has there been any improvement in Indian policy under Clinton? They certainly have held a lot of conferences.LaDuke: No, I think it's total lip service.Q: You say that people surrendered their power to the Clinton White House. Does this occur with tribal governments as well?LaDuke: Certainly. People think their leaders will take care of problems for them. On many reservations, it's like having the fox guard the chickens. It's dumb. This is why it's so important for a reservation-based, nonprofit sector to develop. Otherwise, tribal councils become the exclusive voice for Indian people. It is my belief that everyone has a right to determine the future equally. I should have as much responsibility for our future as my tribal chair. This type of democratization of responsibility is also more traditional. In traditional cultures everyone has responsibility. There is delegation of authority, but everyone has an important role.Q: What would a model of traditional governance and decentralization mean for the United States as a whole?LaDuke: It would undermine the entire structure of empire. If leadership and political power truly rested with local communities, then multinationals would find it impossible to poison their locales in the name of a "greater good." Absentee landowners would cease to exist, and small communities could preserve their distinct integrity. Cooperating on a smaller level could help everyone-Indian communities, Amish communities, urban enclaves, and so on. These can all be healthy, but they need to be nourished. As it is today, they are being technologically and culturally homogenized. The last 400 years have been about building empires. This is not sustainable. Empires are about taking what doesn't belong to you and consuming more than you need. In order to move forward, we need to acknowledge this ongoing history. This is the fundamental paradigm of appropriation that remains unquestioned in America. We need to ask, "What right does the United States really have to this place?"

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