By Michele Bourdieu
Winona LaDuke -- Native American activist, environmentalist and writer -- addresses participants in the Third Annual Protect the Earth Great Lakes Community Gathering on July 30, 2010, at the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College in Baraga. LaDuke also delivered the keynote speech for the event on July 31 at the college. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)
BARAGA -- The sacredness of Native people's lands, fighting the "bad guys," liberation from energy addiction, re-localizing the food economy and deconstructing colonialization were topics of two presentations by Winona LaDuke -- Native American activist, environmentalist and writer -- who spoke on Friday, July 30, and Saturday, July 31, at Ojibwa Community College in Baraga. She was the guest keynote speaker at the Third Annual Protect the Earth Great Lakes Community Gathering, hosted this year by New Warriors for the Earth. LaDuke's Friday presentation was a preview of the keynote speech she delivered on Saturday.
Jessica Koski and Cory Fountaine, co-founders of New Warriors for the Earth, who hosted the 2010 Gathering, present Protect the Earth keynote speaker Winona LaDuke with the gift of a blue shawl. The Women's Movement for the Water is encouraging Native women to make and wear blue shawls to symbolize protecting the world's water for future generations. Fountaine, an art student, also designed the logo for the Protect the Earth banner.
A graduate of Harvard University with advanced degrees in rural economic development, Laduke is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg (Ojibwa) of the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota.
LaDuke told the audience -- both Native and non-Native people gathered together from the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota and from as far away as California -- that she wanted to talk first about land and then about people.
"It's possible to liberate land from empire," LaDuke said, speaking on both occasions about the sacredness of Native lands.
"We know places from our migration story. We know places from all of our history. We know places because the spirits tell us what has happened there. We know places on our land because our people know this history. And that history -- we keep it and we affirm it through our ceremony," LaDuke said. "It is who we are."
She told the story of Thunder Mountain near Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Superior -- a mountain where the Anishinaabeg would stop and rest during migration from west to east. They would go there for vision questing, putting out offerings and talking to the "thunder beings."
"It is highly revered," LaDuke noted, "but today it is called Mt. McKay."
LaDuke said she had a problem with this naming and claiming of America -- "naming of large mountains after small men."
She said the fact that you can "name something as immortal as a mountain after something as mortal as a human" is a "paradigm that has to do with empire, and it has to do with a world view that is not durable or sustainable because it is based on this idea of this empire."
LaDuke then gave examples of how name changes can reflect liberation from empire: Ayres Rock in Australia is now known as Uluru since it was returned to the Anangu, the Aboriginal owners, in 1985. Mt. McKinley in Alaska is now called Denali (Athabaskan for "The High One"). Rhodesia, named for "that Rhodes Scholar guy," LaDuke said with tongue in cheek, is now Zimbabwe.
She referred also to Eagle Rock, the Ojibwa sacred site on the Yellow Dog Plains, which was recently fenced off by Rio Tinto-Kennecott for their "Eagle Project," a sulfide mine that may have its entrance under the Rock, where the Ojibwa believe spirits dwell.
Following her July 30 presentation, Winona LaDuke pauses for a photo with two of the original Eagle Rock campers, Georgenia Earring from the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe (Lakota) and E, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member.
"Eagle Rock," LaDuke said, "it's important not to let it go."
LaDuke noted Native American spiritual practices were illegal until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
"Our spiritual practices -- they don't fit into a box; they don't quite fit into a church," she said. "So now we find that this question of what is sacred becomes a legal question in the courts."
LaDuke, who is the Founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), and Executive Director of Honor the Earth, where she works on a national level to support frontline Native environmental groups, approached the subject of climate change and energy addiction with examples from her work in her own community, the White Earth reservation. It is a rural area in northern Minnesota where mercury and heavy metals from coal power plants have caused fish consumption advisories on almost all their lakes.
"We have combusted ourselves to the edge of oblivion," LaDuke said. "They're projecting that by 2020 twenty percent of the world's GDP will be spent on climate change related disasters."
LaDuke said her own Anishinaabeg people are, like most Americans, "entirely addicted to energy ... 'energy junkies.'" America, she noted, consumes one third of the world's resources. Meanwhile the rest of the oil is in places like Deepwater Horizon -- places where we shouldn't be sucking oil -- at the bottom of the ocean, under the polar ice caps or on the tar sands of Alberta.
LaDuke added, "80 percent of the oil coming into Minnesota is coming from the tar sands of Alberta, and that project destroys Native communities (in a large area)."
She described how this project requires hauling mining equipment shipped from Korea on secondary roads. The average piece of equipment is as large as the Statue of Liberty lying on its side.
"We're trying to stop them," LaDuke said.*
Winona LaDuke chats with members of the audience, including Lee Sprague (on her right) of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, who spoke on "Climate Change Adaptation Strategies" after LaDuke's presentation on Saturday, July 31, at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College.
Describing herself as a community organizer (for the past 30 years), with training as an economist, LaDuke offered advice to the Protect the Earth audience: "Don't give up fighting bad guys. You can't. They're working 24 hours a day doing bad ideas. ... If you don't pay attention they'll put a coal plant next to you ... or a mine. ... You've got to keep an eye on them and fight them," LaDuke said.
"It's a long haul fighting bad guys," she added. "They've got a lot of money, but we've got resistance. And the longer you fight the more expensive their projects become ... and you can wear them down. That's my experience."
LaDuke noted that if you don't see anything that often means somebody won (a battle against bad guys).
"Rio Tinto has been defeated. So has Kennecott," she said. "They don't tell you that, but we know that."
LaDuke related how she had told her tribal council they needed an energy plan.
"They looked at me like I was crazy," she said.
Eventually, though, they began looking at how to control their destiny (planning for the next 50 years).
"You can talk about tribal sovereignty, but if you have no control over your energy economy you are worse than everyone else," LaDuke explained.
She told her tribe: "Let's go wind. Let's quit fighting coal plants."
They bought a used wind turbine and refurbished it, thanks to a veteran with training in demolition and a masters in engineering.
"Now I'm battling the power company on the connection. We will wear them down," LaDuke said.
With the help of energy efficiency grants, her community has also been introducing solar panels on houses to save on heat.**
Another aspect of her strategy for liberation is LaDuke's work to encourage traditional food production -- not only improving the quality of people's diet but saving on the energy spent for transportation of industrial food.
She studied how much of the tribal budget for food was spent off the reservation and found it was 7 out of 8 million dollars, with one million spent on the reservation for junk food at the convenience store. In addition, one third of their population has diabetes.
LaDuke said the community formed a non-profit coalition of their own tribal people and their allies -- people who wanted to be liberated -- the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP). They started by buying land and forming a land trust. Now they make maple syrup and grow organic food. They also started to put sturgeon back into their lake.
"My tribe has one of the largest sturgeon restoration programs in the region," LaDuke said. "We (also) work to keep our wild rice from getting genetically engineered."
LaDuke and her tribe are restoring northern varieties of corn. She described the advantages of planting a variety such as Manitoba White Flint, which is the northernmost variety of corn. It is short, with big ears.
"It's wind-resistant (it can withstand 70-100 m.p.h. wind). That's why we grow it. It's also drought-resistant," she said. "It's not addicted to fertilizer. It's higher in nutritional content than anything you buy in the store."
LaDuke said she remembered her father saying, "I don't want to hear your philosophy if you can't grow corn."
She said her father was right because you can talk and talk but at some point you want to know how to grow your own food. Right now her goal is to achieve 40-50% local food and to re-localize jobs so people don't have to travel 70 miles for a casino job that's minimum wage (and often combined with the stress of scrambling for day care). Her community also bought a school so children wouldn't have to be bused for miles to another school.***
Because of climate change and peak oil production, LaDuke says a food plan is needed in order to save 1500 miles of industrial food transportation to this rural area.
LaDuke told the audience to keep working with allies and to be persistent in their efforts at liberation.
"You accept a certain amount of colonization, and you have to deconstruct it," she said. "I banned 'should' from my vocabulary...because I decided I didn't want to talk about what we should do or should have done. I wanted to just do it."
Audience reactions to LaDuke were very positive.
Kristi Mills of Save the Wild UP, one of the environmental organizations opposing Rio-Tinto - Kennecott's Eagle Project sulfide mine, found LaDuke's words inspiring and spiritual.
"I think (LaDuke is) the perfect person to inspire our efforts. Her strength comes through," Mills noted. "She said this is a spiritual opportunity."
Joanne Thomas of Allouez was enthusiastic about hearing LaDuke speak.
"Everything she said was just gripping!" Thomas said.
Corrie Hohly of Calumet added this about LaDuke: "She's fabulous! She has been so many places and seen so many things and has seen success. That's inspirational."
* Winona LaDuke is Executive Director of Honor the Earth, a Native-led organization that works to a) raise public awareness and b) raise and direct funds to grassroots Native environmental groups. Visit their Web site to learn about their work.
**Learn more about the White Earth Land Recovery Project's investment in wind and solar energy by visiting their Web site.
***Read also about the WELRP Farm to School Program that has introduced healthier food for school children and helped them learn about local traditional food through visits to growers and other activities in both classes and after-school programs.
Author/Editor's Note: Watch for "Protect the Earth 2010, part 2," coming soon.
Update: Setting it straight: We originally stated someone had come to Protect the Earth from Papua New Guinea. That visitor, one of the speakers, was Stuart Kirsch, an anthropologist from the University of Michigan who worked in Papua New Guinea but presently lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. Watch for more about him in Part 2. We also stated incorrectly that Georgenia Earring was a KBIC member, but she is from a Lakota tribe and is now a student at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. In addition, Cory Fountaine designed the New Warriors for the Earth logo used on the banner, but the banner was donated by Richard Sloat, whose friend in Iron River made it. Thanks to Jessica Koski, Teresa Bertossi and Stuart Kirsch for these corrections.