The Party Crasher

No one's giving much thought to Ralph Nader's running mate. But it has never been a good idea to underestimate Winona LaDuke.

White Earth, the reserved territory of the Mississippi band of Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), is a place of understated contrast. Two hours northwest of the Twin Cities the landscape blurs from the oceanic prairies of the upper Midwest to the pine forests of the far North. The human settlements, sown across a labyrinth of one-lane rural roads, range from tidy farmsteads and summer cabins to sagging trailer homes with blocked-up pickups in the yard, their scattered guts lost in the tall grass. It's a serenely beautiful place, but at the same time, a drive through White Earth can be dislocating, like crossing the border into another country--which, broadly speaking, is what White Earth is.

In 1944 an idealistic 15-year-old White Earth native named Vincent LaDuke stood before the tribal council, the reservation's governing body, and decried its complacency in the face of the reservation's slide toward ruin. In 1867, when the treaty designating the reservation's boundaries was signed, White Earth spanned 837,000 acres. A century later, less than one-tenth of that land remained in the hands of Native Americans. As the Anishinaabeg's territory dwindled, so did economic opportunity on the reservation. Unemployment ran as high as 80 percent, and poverty and illiteracy soared well above national averages; as a consequence, young people often made their lives elsewhere.

A few years later, LaDuke, by then a nationally known treaty-rights activist, hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., with a sign that read "Have Blanket, Will Travel"--an oblique but poignant reference to the displacement of Indian nations by the U.S. government. On his journey he met Betty Bernstein, a free-spirited young Russian Jew from New York. The two married on White Earth in 1958 and moved to Los Angeles, where LaDuke worked as an extra in Hollywood westerns. The couple's only daughter, Winona, was born a year later.

By the mid-1980s, Vincent LaDuke had left show business and reinvented himself as a spiritual guru named Sun Bear. Playing on his Hollywood semi-celebrity and his reputation as an activist, he began to attract a large, largely white congregation (before he died, in 1992, he had grown especially popular in Germany). Although a minor countercultural icon, Sun Bear was viewed with some ambivalence among Native Americans. He was spreading respect for Native spirituality, but many felt he was also marketing that tradition piecemeal to less-than-committed whites.

From an early age, Winona LaDuke seemed destined to follow in her father's activist footsteps. When she was 18, she addressed the United Nations on Native American treaty issues. By 1995 she was being sandwiched between Naomi Wolf and Bill Gates as one of Time magazine's 50 young "leaders of the future." Two years later Ms. magazine named her "Woman of the Year." Like her father, she had become a conduit between mainstream America and dispossessed Indian nations.

Getting there wasn't easy. In 1982, when LaDuke moved to White Earth to take a job as principal of a reservation high school and to research her master's thesis on the reservation's subsistence economy, she was a virtual stranger in her father's homeland. Though she had been enrolled at birth as a member of the tribe, she had never lived on White Earth. She knew almost no one and spoke no Ojibwe. To the entrenched powers, LaDuke was an unknown quantity, an ambitious, aggressive outsider whose motives remained uncertain. But that didn't stop her from wading right into the same battle over the reservation's future that had divided White Earth since her father's time.

Today LaDuke is known among friends as "The Duchess," and the southeastern corner of the reservation is her domain. Under the aegis of the nonprofit White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), which she founded in 1989 with a $20,000 human-rights award from Reebok, she has quietly been buying back reservation land owned by non-Indians. The land--1,200 acres so far--is held in a conservation trust by the project, with the eventual goal of ceding the property to the tribal government.

From the nonprofit's headquarters--a long, drafty barn augmented by a trailer where, in the summer, at-risk Ojibwe youth learn native language and traditions--she also supervises maple-sugar and wild-rice processing operations, a stable of horses, an international network of indigenous women, an Ojibwe language program, a brand-new wind-energy project, and a herd of buffalo. All of this with a small volunteer staff and an annual budget of a half-million dollars. The WELRP's modus operandi is simple and ingenious: Develop a self-sustaining economy and local land ownership, and expatriate Anishinaabeg will return.

The success of the Land Recovery Project is LaDuke's passion; it provides the lion's share of her $42,000 income, and it occupies most of her attention. She is most widely known, though, for her current venture, a bid for vice president with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket. She may very well be the first person to run for the second-highest office in American politics in her spare time. "I'm not naturally inclined to politics," she says by way of explanation. "But as my running mate often says, sometimes circumstances force a private citizen to step forward and become a public citizen."

What LaDuke is inclined to is something harder to quantify than mere public life. To the Green Party she is a Native American woman, and carries with her the cachet of cultural sensitivity. To Naderites she is walking proof that their brand of progressive populism is sympathetic to issues of race and gender. To Nader himself--whom she knows only casually--she is a practical idealist, "a mother of three with both feet on the ground." To the national press, she is Sancho Panza in her running mate's ongoing tilt at late-stage capitalism. To late-night comedians, her relative obscurity is a punch line: "Winona LaDuke?" David Letterman said during a monologue after her candidacy was announced, puckering his face as if he'd just brushed his teeth with a lemon. "Wasn't she one of the Dixie Chicks?"

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