Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Conversation: Winona LaDuke

By Ariel Gordon
Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION

Winona LaDuke is an author, environmental and Indigenous rights activist, and former U.S. Green Party vice-presidential candidate, as well as a member of Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.

A graduate of Harvard, she was once noted as one of Time magazine's top 50 most promising leaders under 40. LaDuke is the executive director of Honor the Earth, which she co-founded with the Indigo Girls, which seeks awareness of indigenous environmental issues, and financial and economic resources for the creation of sustainable indigenous communities.

On Saturday at Knox United Church, LaDuke will appear as part of the Spur Winnipeg festival. The event features Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair in conversation with LaDuke, as well as a performance by Winnipeg poet Katherena Vermette.

Winnipeg Free Press: Have you ever been to Winnipeg, which sits on Treaty 1 territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe people, and the homeland of the Métis Nation? What have you heard?

Winona LaDuke: I have been to Winnipeg a number of times. I live about five hours south. On our last visit there we went to the Louis Riel museum in St. Boniface. I love to roam Anishinaabe Akiing (the land to which our people belong)—the border is irrelevant to me. Last week I was in Thunder Bay and Manitou Rapids. Our territory as Anishinaabeg people is beautiful.

WFP: What advice would you have for the people of Winnipeg, which has a large urban indigenous populations and was recently dubbed Canada’s Most Racist City by Maclean’s magazine?

WL: Canadians, like Americans, have an incredible case of denial about indigenous people and how the process of continued theft of our land, water and way of life — Cross Lake and Attawapiskat are two recent examples and maybe we can add the fires in Alberta. There's this amazing disbelief that the urbanization of native people is directly related to the destruction of our land and our wealth and then we are treated as second- or third-class citizens. Our humanity is linked.

WFP: This week, Canada became a full supporter of the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What does this change in status mean to you? What could it mean?

WL: It's about time. It is time to actually respect the rights of indigenous people, including the right to say no. Prior and informed consent also means the right to say no. The destruction and genocide in Canada which continues with Canada's ability to pretend there is no connection between mega-projects that destroy a people's territory, food and lifeblood, and the suicide epidemics in Pimicikamak and Attawapiskat, the sexual abuse and missing and murdered women, is astounding. Time to wake up and uphold international law.

WFP: Tell me about Honor the Earth, the organization you co-founded with the Indigo Girls. What are some of your current projects?

WL: We're a 23-year-old organization that works on environmental and economic issues in indigenous communities and nations. Our primary program work now is focused on the three Enbridge pipelines proposed through northern Minnesota — the Clipper expansion which we sued to oppose, the proposed abandonment of Line 3, with all the risks being assumed by the Anishinaabeg and the people of northern Minnesota, with the profits to benefit a Canadian corporation, and the proposal for the Sandpiper pipeline to transport Bakken crude oil.

We are also working on a set of solar thermal installations in Minnesota’s Pine Point village — and also plan on a solar school project there.

WFP: I got a Gete Okosomin squash this past fall from Canadian Mennonite University’s CSA farm. As I understand it, you and the White Earth Land Recovery Project had a hand in recovering the 800-year-old seed from a clay ball on the Menomonee reservation in Wisconsin. Can you tell me why that project was important for you? And what’s your favourite way to eat "Cool Old Squash?"

WL: My father, who passed away 20 years ago, used to come see me at Harvard when I was an undergraduate. He once said to me, "You're a smart young woman, but I don’t want to hear your philosophy unless you can grow corn." That's what I do; I am involved in the restoration of traditional varieties of northern hominy and flour corn. I do this because I love the plants and I love that they are pre- and post-petroleum. They are the seeds of the future, including Manitoba White Flint. Most of them have twice the protein of sweet corn and are amazing.

I like the squash with sausage and maple syrup and wild rice: roast it in the oven with the sausage and wild rice and maple syrup inside it.

WFP: I saw you give a talk titled Keystone XL: We Are Not Protesters, We Are Protectors in Calgary in 2014. You had hundreds of people hanging on your every word. What do you get out of doing lectures and speeches, as opposed to writing books or one-on-one community organizing?

WL: I love both. To write a book and write articles gives you the time to hear the words in your head and then look at them on paper. When you say them, you are naked in the front of all.

WFP: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

WL: My latest book is coming to the Spur Festival with me — The LaDuke Chronicles.

It’s collection of current, pressing and inspirational stories of indigenous communities, from the Canadian subarctic to the heart of Dine Bii Kaya, Navajo Nation. Chronicles is a book literally risen from the ashes — beginning in 2008 after my home burned to the ground — and collectively is an accounting of my personal path of recovery, finding strength and resilience in the writing itself as well as in my work. Long awaited, Chronicles is a labour of love, a tribute to those who have passed on and those yet to arrive. (You can find it at

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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