Environmental activist Winona LaDuke addressed the UN at 18, graduated from Harvard, won human rights awards and even ran for vice-president on Ralph Nader’s Green Party ticket. While most of America still argues over problems of climate change, poverty and health care, LaDuke is grabbing her hoe and getting to work. And she has no time to be nice about it.
Electric-powered exercise equipment. She doesn’t get it. Well, she gets it, but she’s not amused. Machines that require energy to help you burn energy? Who’s coming up with this shit? We don’t really cook, either. We just eat. We don’t produce, we just consume. It’s a desk-job mentality, devoid of dignity and at odds with the natural world.
“I have to explain to my kids, ‘A hoe is a tool you use in the garden,’” she says slowly, emphatically, in cadence. “The reality is that working in the garden and chopping wood—I don’t need a shrink to have a woodpile. We spend all our time doing all these fancy things to work out, but if you just actually had a life, then you would probably be pretty healthy.”
And she’s on to the next question. The local TV station will later cut it from the lecture tape because the aging, white-haired beatnik who asked it just wasted her time.
“Did you say that the Ojibwe calendar is based on the cycles of the seasons?” he asks cautiously, as though slowly unraveling a complex logarithmic equation, as if he had never read an ounce of Native literature in his 64 years.
“Yes,” she says succinctly.
“That’s interesting,” he replies.
But it’s not what she came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to talk about. And it’s a question leading nowhere. And she doesn’t have time for this. She didn’t fly 500 miles from the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwest Minnesota to explain the fundamentals. She didn’t interrupt her work at Honor the Earth, the national initiative she founded to support grassroots Native environmental groups, to reaffirm the elementary. She didn’t freeze the White Earth Land Recovery Project to answer this question.
Today, she’s lecturing at UNL, condemning nuclear power and making wisecracks about the “smart guys from the university.” She’s defining environmental sustainability and promoting tribal re-localization, defaming multinational corporations and defending the Green Party’s role in the 2000 presidential election. She’s making you laugh and, she hopes, making you feel like a complete idiot.
“I think about white people every day,” she says. “But white people don’t think about us, because they don’t want to face reality.”
And suddenly those smart guys from the university are listening. And so are you, because you’re intimidated; you realize this woman isn’t the dull-witted, slow-talking cigar-box Indian the media primed you for. This is the contemporary Anishinaabeg environmental activist Winona LaDuke—and she is smarter than you.
Winona LaDuke is tired of waiting for smart people to help her, so she suggests training to take advantage of things like wind and solar power. She knows there is a wide range of work that needs to be done accomplish a long term sustainable plan.
* * *
Ralph Nader met LaDuke in a hotel bar. He needed a vice president, and she had a record, he said. She had a record for social justice and a “world-wide reach with indigenous peoples subjected to severe depravations.” It’s what the Green Party needed—a record. As the bartender approached with two cans of Coca-Cola, LaDuke clutched the cold aluminum and pushed them back towards the waiter, tersely stating, “Those won’t be needed.”
“That told me something about her,” Nader said. “She didn’t like the drink, she didn’t like the company, the corporation, and that wasn’t the way she wanted to be introduced to me.”
Activism runs in her blood, as native to her disposition as the wild rice to her reservation. Her father, Vincent LaDuke, an Anishinaabeg Indian and member of the White Earth Tribe, was peddling wild rice in Greenwich Village, NY, when he met Betty Bernstein, a first generation Jewish-American. Both political activists, they eloped and fled to Los Angeles, where Betty studied art in college and Vince helped organize the Indian movement while working as an extra in the Westerns.
In 1959, Winona was born, the product of two social and political activists in the termination era. Thirty-five years later, she found herself chained to the front gate of a phone book printing plant, protesting the clear-cutting process—logging both new and old growth—for paper production. Winona LaDuke never stood a chance.
When Betty and Vince’s marriage collapsed in 1964, Winona moved with her mother to Ashland, Oregon, a “redneck town” where she found neither Jews nor fellow Natives. Instead, LaDuke found herself in a sea of “white,” that “social construct that denies people identity.”
“I grew up thinking of myself as Indian,” she told People Magazine. “I was the darkest person in my school. You just know you don’t fit in.”
And, truth be told, she doesn’t really fit in now—not in Ashland (although she now wears cowboy boots) or Los Angeles, Nebraska or the White Earth Indian Reservation. When she speaks, her long brown hair—frayed at the tips and pulled back from her forehead—moves at her sides and the muscles in her angular jaw define themselves with every word. Her deep-set eyes, shadowed by the cavernous sockets around them, roll with every annoyance and lure you in with every squint and bulge. But it’s her obsession, her passion, palpable from the first word to the last, that sets her apart—a scarlet letter on a Native daughter.
Winona LaDuke wants people to clean up an old mess before making a new mess. She protested Nixon’s plan to build nuclear power plants in order to protect reservations from contaminated groundwater as a result of uranium mining.
“It’s her heart,” says adopted daughter Ashley Stevens, 21, who moved in with LaDuke on her 12th birthday. “It’s amazing that she took in two extra kids when she just had a baby and was running for vice president of America. The work that she’s doing is such good work and work that needs to be done. It’s hard, time-consuming work and she’s doing it every day, sun up to sun down.”
At 50, LaDuke has accomplished more than most people twice her age ever do. Like a small-town honor student’s high school resume, Winona’s accomplishments pile up in wild proportions, filled to the brim with activities and achievements that only acute boredom or sincere desperation can spawn. Except she did all this—and it sure as hell wasn’t about acceptance.
LaDuke ran on the Green Party ticket with Nader in both 1996 and 2000. She believed in him. He believed in her. She calls him her Lebanese uncle, “a cool dude, kind, pretty damn smart.” A hero. He calls her a frontierswoman. Resilient. So of course, in both 2004 and 2008, bearing no obligation to loyalty, she backed the other guy for president.
“That was her worst performance,” Nader says. “Because it wasn’t anything over policy. It wasn’t like I changed my view on this and that and she disagreed. It was just going along with the least worst of the two major candidates, which is what I thought she had gotten over when she became my vice presidential candidate in 2000 with the Green Party.”
She sure as hell isn’t looking for acceptance.
* * *
LaDuke stands behind another podium, just one of hundreds she’ll stand behind before the year expires. This time she’s in D.C., in a room filled with supposed business leaders and environmentalists gathered for the 2009 Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference. She admits she hates the city, but acknowledges that it’s better to visit when the “Great Black Father” is in office.
“I just want to welcome you to this green economy idea,” LaDuke says, prodding those in attendance. “I gotta say, we’re thinking we had about 30,000 years of it on the continent.”
And they’re laughing again—they always do. LaDuke has a way of shoving reality square in your face; it’s abrasive, yet civil, bitingly humorous and painfully serious.
“We did pretty darn good,” she continues. “We got those 8,000 varieties of corn, got that passive solar, developed most of the world’s pharmaceuticals, the natural kind before they turned into pills.”
There’s a phrase in Ojibwe, that Winona LaDuke translates for her audience.
It’s one hell of a gift. By lecture’s end, they’ve forgotten what they disagreed with. Facts irrefutable. Waste undeniable. A close-up view of a shortsighted American mentality. A moment of truth in a schedule of deceit. A simple solution for a complex problem.
You don’t need a shrink to have a woodpile.
Things changed during her freshman year at Harvard. She attended a lecture by Cherokee activist Jimmy Durham and no longer believed in “the Indian problem;” it was a government problem, and she would spend the next 32 years attempting to clean it up. She would write books and give lectures and run campaigns and petition major companies for cleanup on tribal lands. Durham sparked something in LaDuke that only LaDuke could handle.
“She knows who she is. She has a serious demeanor with intervals of humor, and that means that she can take pressure,” Nader says. “And she’s quite resilient. She’s up against a lot of opposition and apathy, so she has to have that kind of civic personality.”
* * *
Tonight, Winona is eating dinner. Her local posse has gathered at The Dish, a local restaurant just off campus, and the glasses are filled with red wine. They’re discussing lighter topics, like Ralph Nader’s germaphobia, her grandmother’s physical fitness—and Italians. She likes Italians.
“Italians are easy for Indians to get along with,” LaDuke jokes, her recessed brown eyes lighting up. “They’re spontaneous like Indians. And they eat and drink a lot, too, unlike the Germans and English.”
Winona LaDuke talks about the top 225 people in the world having the same wealth as the bottom 2.5 billion people. She poses the question “What is ethical about that?”
When the conversation dies, the chairs scoot back and the group begins to disperse. LaDuke eyes a small piece of grilled duck left on the table. Whether it will be saved is not considered. The waiter reaches for the plate, but LaDuke stops him.
“I can take this to the kitchen and put it in a to-go box,” he says warmly, innocently, already turning around.
For just a moment, the charisma drawing the party closer to her seat is no longer available. She’s annoyed by the suggestion. It’s imprudent, shortsighted, unsustainable.
“No. Don’t. That’d be excessive,” LaDuke says curtly, spontaneously.
She unrolls a paper napkin, wraps it around the leftover meat and places it in her pocket. She doesn’t hate the waiter. It’s the goddamn Styrofoam.