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.

On White Earth, reaction to LaDuke's campaign has been met with a similar mix of ambivalence and indifference; once again, no one knows quite what to make of her. She has not been endorsed by any tribal body, nor is she likely to be, given the DFL's historical dominance of the area. "Winona has her supporters," says Gary Frazer, executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. "Her biggest supporters are women. I think she's kind of a role model for women here. But she definitely doesn't have the support of the whole reservation."

Ojibwe writer Jim Northrup, a longtime LaDuke acquaintance who lives on the nearby Fond Du Lac Reservation, considers the problem to be a general lack of interest in national politics. "I can't remember one single conversation about her," he says. According to Northrup, national politics have meant the same thing in Indian country for so long--i.e., federal policy that alternates between arrogance and indifference--that residents can hardly be blamed for not caring who delivers the bad news.

"In Indian country we're always worrying about living day to day," says Audrey Thayer, whose family befriended LaDuke early on and who now serves as her chief aide. "There's always hope. You know: You hope that the car runs tomorrow."

Craig Lassig

In many ways, LaDuke's challenge is even more daunting than wooing disaffected voters: how to navigate between two vastly different, and often historically opposed cultures--the same shadowy path her father set out upon a half-century ago. "What Winona's doing is the most challenging step for any Indian person to take, because it's just not done," Thayer observes. "Indian women don't run for vice president. And she's out there doing it alone."

Ground zero of Winona LaDuke's campaign for the vice presidency of the United States is her kitchen table, located in the cozy, cluttered four-room cabin she owns on a winding dirt road 35 miles from the nearest town. There's a gaping hole in the back yard where she plans to build an addition when time permits. Both house and hole are guarded somewhat haphazardly by a small pack of friendly huskies, each with one brown eye and one of milky blue.

LaDuke operates her household with an open-door policy, which means that it's usually something like a motel inside, with kids and dogs and campaign workers wandering in and out throughout the day. (LaDuke cares for five children--three of her own, plus a niece and nephew.) The scene is one of a barely contained domestic explosion. A half-eaten birthday cake sits atop the stove. Books and videos--everything from Mortal Kombat to Erin Brockovich--spill off their shelves. Dishes wait in the sink. Scattered around the kitchen are an assortment of labels--"tasagwin: cupboard"; "onazaamide: it is overcooked"--which LaDuke uses to teach her children Ojibwe.

LaDuke is a devotee of coffee--another of her cottage industries, Muskrat Coffee, imports beans harvested by peasants in Mexico--and, perhaps as a result, she is nearly incapable of sitting still. She is constantly engaged on at least three fronts, doing the breakfast dishes, for instance, while making dentist appointments for two of her kids and explaining her position on the legalization of hemp. ("You'd have to smoke a bale of it to get high," she quips.)

On this afternoon LaDuke is dressed in her usual domestic uniform: black sandals and pants, and a well-worn brown T-shirt. Her dark hair is held back by a pin in the shape of a butterfly. Her partner, a quiet, dryly witty man named Kevin Gasco, is responsible for maintaining sanity in the house: As LaDuke works feverishly to put the final touches on an article in her writing alcove overlooking placid Round Lake, Gasco brushes off a caller who identifies himself as a "close friend."

"Would you describe Indigenous as a leading blues band?" LaDuke shouts over the bustle.

"Yeah," he replies. "I'd say so."

When LaDuke finishes at the computer, she tears into the mail, which has just arrived. She glances at most of the envelopes and lets them drop into a mound of paper accumulating on the kitchen table. She opens one, gives it a cursory look, and drops it as well. "Looks like we're on the ballot in Maryland," she says with no more excitement than if the envelope had had Ed McMahon's picture on the front.

In 1996, when Nader and LaDuke ran on the Green ticket for the first time, they raised only $5,000 and were on the ballot in 22 states. This year their goal is to raise $5 million and appear on the ballot in 45 states. (At the end of August, the Nader campaign reported that they'd raised half the money; they're currently on the ballot in 44 states.) If the pair manages to capture five percent of the vote in the general election, the Greens would secure $12 million in federal matching funds for the 2004 election cycle.

As usual, LaDuke isn't paying any attention to the polls; she hasn't looked at a newspaper in almost a week and maintains only sporadic contact with the Washington, D.C.-based Green Party. In fact, her attitude toward her own candidacy often seems one of benign neglect. She is unaware, for instance, that since late summer the Nader/LaDuke ticket has dropped from an astonishing six- to seven-percent share in Gallup polls to an underwhelming berth in the low single digits (other, post-debate polls show the ticket rebounding).

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