Can’t keep a good woman down
Environmental activist Winona LaDuke speaks at the Lensic, a Lannan Foundation event
Winona LaDuke was a woman of many words before losing her writer’s voice due to t he cumulative effects of personal grief and other catastrophic losses. The veteran indigenous rights and environmental activist and two-time Green Party vice-presidential candidate (in 1996 and 2000, with Ralph Nader) lost her home and many of her belongings in a 2008 fire on the White Earth Reservation of Minnesota. After the deaths of her father, a sister, and other close friends and associates, life was weighing heavily on the once-tireless woman. “I became a casualty of the PTSD of the modern Indian Wars,” she writes in the introduction to her forthcoming book The Winona LaDuke Chronicles: Stories From the Front Lines in the Battle for Environmental Justice (available from www.honortheearthmerchandise.com/winonaladukebooks). “And in my spin, I lost my love, my heart, and some of my closest friends. Sort of the rock-bottom thing.”
The author of the 1997 novel Last Standing Woman and many other books also found herself unable to write. “Writing became very important to survival,” she told Pasatiempo in a phone call from Minnesota. “I love writing more than anything. I love to hear a piece of this story and then hear another piece of that story somewhere else and go backward and forward in time.” LaDuke shares those stories on Wednesday, Feb. 24, as part of the Lannan Foundation’s Pursuit of Cultural Freedom series; Mililani Trask, a leader of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, joins her onstage at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
The daughter of an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) father and Jewish mother, LaDuke was raised in Ashland, Oregon, where her mother taught art at Southern Oregon University. After graduating from Harvard University, she got her master’s degree at Antioch College, where her graduate thesis focused on the rural subsistence economy then practiced by the Anishinaabe. LaDuke began making a name for herself in the late 1970s when she worked with Navajo activist John Redhouse for the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Indian Environmental Education Project. The next decade found her on the White Earth Reservation, following in her father’s footsteps as a treaty rights and tribal lands activist. In 1989, she founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting tribal lands and restoring land that had once belonged to the tribe or its members.
LaDuke has said she inherited her forceful stance on social issues from her mother, artist Betty LaDuke, whose paintings on global topics reflect her progressive politics. “All you have to do is look at my mother’s art, and it all makes perfect sense,” LaDuke said. “She spent time in Africa and Asia and South America. She speaks five languages. I was raised in a multicultural household, where I was taught that cultural expression is the beauty of life and what distinguishes us as humans. My grandmother was a working- class Jew who wasn’t interested in rich people. My family has always been interested in people who had courage, who persevered, who kept something valuable of their culture. That’s where I come from. Those are the glasses I’m looking through.”
That’s the perspective LaDuke brings to her new book, a collection of short stories, biographies, place descriptions, and reports on small-scale economies, sustainable agriculture, and oil pipeline controversies. “It’s a privilege to travel the way I do, to go to different communities and hear all these amazing stories,” she said. “The book isn’t a travel journal but contains a wide range of stories and experiences. I wrote some of the last pieces just this December and January. It’s fresh writing, mostly from the last five years.”
She dedicates the longest piece, “In Praise of the Leadership of Indigenous Women,” to India’s Vandana Shiva, a woman who shares LaDuke’s commitment to small farming and resisting corporate agriculture and its use of genetically modified seed crops. “In Praise” delves into diamond mining, tar-sands extraction, and pipelines. It criticizes the Canadian government for its treatment of First Nations people and profiles women who’ve made crucial differences in the struggles for environmental and economic justice. One is Theresa Spence, former chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario; Spence went on a hunger strike in 2012 to protest the government’s resource extraction policies
and its treatment of indigenous peoples. Indigenous women, LaDuke writes, “are also connected to the Earth in a way that the Fat Taker, the
Wasichu, and the corporate predator economy is not and will never be. That is because we understand our relationship and honor our Mother. We understand that what corporations would do to the Earth is what corporations and armies have done to our women, and we give no consent.”
As executive director of Honor the Earth, LaDuke works with her organization to establish small-scale, localized, sustainable Native economies. That requires protecting the environment at the global level while guaranteeing the availability of nutritious food that’s not controlled by outside corporations. On the White Earth Reservation, the group supports the selling of “pipeline-free” wild rice, local art, activist-themed apparel, and reservation-roasted coffee. “Twenty-five percent of the CO2 that we’re dealing with in climate change comes from the industrial agriculture system,” she said. “It’s oil intensive. I think we can relocalize on a national scale. It’s obvious I’m not a fan of Cargill, Monsanto, Kraft, or any of them. On a worldwide scale, 70 percent of the world’s food is produced by small, mostly indigenous farmers. Look at the farmers markets all over the country. You have a large small-farm presence at your market in Santa Fe. But 30 percent is brought to you by [corporations]. That equals trillions of dollars. They have all the money and they have all the control.”
The way LaDuke sees it, the growing of wild rice in the lakes of Minnesota might be threatened by existing and proposed pipelines. She was a visible presence in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. She continues to challenge another pipeline company, Enbridge Inc., which has both existing and proposed pipelines in Minnesota that carry crude from Canada, North Dakota, and Montana across Minnesota’s lake country to ports on Lake Superior. LaDuke told Pasatiempo about a meeting she’d had the previous day with Enbridge representatives. “I asked them, ‘ Why can’t you be a bridge to the next economy rather than trying to wring every cent from the old one and destroy the planet in the process? You need to just smarten up.’” She paused for a moment. “I think they took it well.”
Writing was part of LaDuke’s recovery, and she felt an obligation to tell the stories that inspired her. “People had been so generous with me that I realized I had to contribute — that I had to tell their stories. From there I was able to go on.” LaDuke’s writing incorporates Hawaiian and other indigenous tongues, and she uses specific examples of how a culture can have many different words to describe one thing. Native Hawaiians, for example, have a variety of words to describe taro, a staple of their diet. The different names distinguish its ceremonial uses from its culinary importance. “Certain words can hold so much,” she explained. “Language has a spiritual essence. If you’re a writer, language is so beautiful and you want it to be lyrical, to look and sound fresh. That’s what happens when you bring in all those languages. The words fascinate me, and I use a smattering of them here and there to make the writing sound beautiful and its message sound authentic.”
She also found the strength to build herself a new place to live. “I rebuilt the house mostly of salvaged stuff I got off Craigslist,” she said. “I was really into Craigslist for a while.”
I was taught that cultural expression is the beauty of life and what distinguishes us as humans. ... My family has always been interested in people who had courage, who persevered, who kept something valuable of their culture. That’s where I come from. Those are the glasses I’m looking through.