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.

It seems she has more pressing concerns, such as feeding her youngest child, seven-month-old Gwekaanimid. "I'm the only nursing candidate," she says, lifting the baby to her breast. LaDuke was seven months pregnant when Nader approached her about running, and Gwekaanimid has been a fixture of her campaign ever since. LaDuke often jokes that the tyke has so many frequent-flyer miles that he could probably get his own airplane. And she's not at all shy about nursing in front of reporters; if breastfeeding isn't technically a political act, she does employ it to demonstrate the difference between herself and her foes--"men of privilege who lack the ability to breastfeed their children," as Green Party campaign literature pointedly sound-bites her.

Gwekaanimid coos softly in the hollow of LaDuke's lap as the candidate sifts through another mound of paper with official-looking letterhead. "You know, being a mother has really changed my political philosophy," she says, lowering her voice to a whisper. "I'm a lot more concerned about how much they spend on bombers compared to public education.

"I've just been reading a book about the chances of America having a female president, and I'm seeing how hard it is for women in politics. If you're too ambitious and you have kids, you get accused of neglecting kids. If you're not hard, like Janet Reno, they think you can't do it. It's totally absurd. You can't match people's expectations, because they're totally unrealistic."

 

LaDuke's own drive stems from what she describes as a "family of arguers" who encouraged dissent and debate. Her mother concurs: "She's always been very feisty, in the sense that she was always directed."

Betty LaDuke says she and her husband were themselves congenitally politically active. Yet, she adds, life was not easy in the years before Winona's birth. Although Vincent LaDuke appeared in a number of films--he was known for falling off horses in ingenious ways--work was sporadic and low-paying for Indian actors in the 1960s. Betty, meanwhile, was working her way through school to become an art teacher (she is now a celebrated painter). "The goal was survival," she recalls.

Handsome and charismatic though by no stretch of the imagination a movie star, Vincent eventually began to attract recognition (and, according to some, attention from female groupies). In Winona LaDuke's autobiographical novel, Last Standing Woman, she recalls her father, fictionalized as an actor named Jim Nordstrom, as a larger-than-life, but markedly ambiguous, figure: "By and large, Indians were mostly action figures, evil characters, and backdrops to the drama of the white man. They were occupied with riding horses back and forth on the horizon, burning wagons or farmhouses, and making the all-important smoke signals. Resourceful and a survivor, Jim Nordstrom taught himself how to do all of these things and more. Caught up in the fever of the period, he, the Ojibwe hunter from northern Minnesota, began to live out a fantasy world of the Plains Indians."

In 1964, when Winona was five, her parents split up. Betty LaDuke took a job as an art instructor at the University of Southern Oregon in tiny Ashland, a logging town about ten miles from the California border. She was remarried, to a fellow academic, and established a comfortable middle-class home.

Friends from this period recall Winona as a polite and curious child. "My memory of Winona is that she was a quiet and deep girl who was not that fond of school," says longtime family friend Olive Streit. "She loved to sew and make things. She was very spirited and active with a good sense of humor--sort of sardonic."

Betty LaDuke says the transition to Ashland was not an easy one for her daughter. "It was very white then," she recalls. "Native people just didn't exist. They'd been 'disappeared.'"

Although Winona speaks of her childhood as a happy time, she cites the fact that she wasn't invited to her junior and senior proms as evidence of unspoken racism among her peers and says she was "across-the-board unpopular" throughout her school days. Being both Jewish and Indian in a small northwestern logging town in the 1960s taught a child either to be as inconspicuous as possible, or just the opposite: cagey, unabashed, and ready for a fight.

The turning point for LaDuke came in high school, when she joined the debate team. (She would go on to place third in a state competition during her senior year.) As a sophomore LaDuke was outgoing but not particularly confident, remembers John Tredway, her debate coach. "Debate saves a lot of kids from the routine of school," he says. "For Winona, I think it was her outlet for her competitiveness. She immediately took to world topics, and I think debate sparked her curiosity about the world, especially in the allocation of resources and how they ought to be distributed. She was getting very interested in politics. I knew then that she was going to make a contribution."

After high school LaDuke enrolled at Harvard, largely, she says, because no one thought she would. (LaDuke takes pleasure in confounding people's expectations; she often tells the story of two sociologists who came to interview her and found her gutting a beaver on the kitchen counter.) During her freshman year, she fell in with Harvard's small but committed contingent of Indian students. She also heard a speech by the Cherokee activist Jimmy Durham, which she says marked the beginning of her politicization: "It was like a curtain getting lifted. In white public schools, we were taught about 'Indian problems.' Then here was this guy saying that it wasn't an Indian problem, it had to do with U.S. policy. It was an historic problem, with an association to colonialism, that affected Asians, Indians, and Aboriginals."

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