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.

LaDuke majored in Native Economic Development (she later received her master's degree from Antioch College). Through Jimmy Durham and the Indian Treaty Council, one of the first nongovernmental organizations to address Native American issues, she began her career as an activist. She had also begun to apply her interest: She took a semester off to work with Indian communities in the Southwestern United States who were opposing a uranium-mining operation on reservation land. On a recent campaign swing through the Southwest, LaDuke learned, much to her chagrin, that the same tribe was still fighting the same mine--proof, in her mind, that history moves slowly.

 

What LaDuke found when she moved to White Earth in 1982 was a hornet's nest: a community mired in poverty, a tribal government in shambles, and a tangled legal dispute with the federal government that threatened to tear the reservation apart.

Craig Lassig

It was, in many respects, an extension of the same conflict that had polarized White Earth nearly a half-century before, when Vincent LaDuke struck out into the wider world. The conflict dates from the early 1800s, when, in the name of land reform, the federal government decreed that reservations be subdivided into individual parcels. A decade later, contrary to the treaties establishing reservations as sovereign territory, the government declared that those parcels could be sold by Indians of "mixed heritage." Many impoverished Ojibwe of "mixed blood" sold their land to speculators, and many who refused were simply reclassified as "mixed blood" so they could be kicked out via tax foreclosure. Inexorably, the land that had been reserved for the Anishinaabeg passed into the hands of logging companies.

It was not until 1980 that the U.S. government reconsidered the legality of the land grab. In 1977 a Minnesota Supreme Court case involving the foreclosure of a tribal member's property had reopened the ownership question. The following year federal investigators began interviewing tribal elders in an effort to untangle White Earth's situation. When the results of the investigation were published, the status of property belonging to many White Earth residents, Ojibwe and white farmers alike, was thrown into limbo.

In an attempt to strike a compromise and sidestep potentially endless litigation, state Rep. Arlan Stangeland proposed the 1983 White Earth Reservation Land Settlement Act (WELSA). It was overwhelmingly decried by tribal members as a token payoff; in a now-infamous interview, Stangeland said, "The Indians will get the land back when hell freezes over."

When the tribe rejected the initial proposal, the federal government upped the ante; in 1985 the offer for compensation stood at $17 million. Now the tribe was divided. One faction, led by longtime tribal chairman Darrell "Chip" Wadena, contended that the settlement was better than nothing. The opposing faction, a citizens' group organized under the banner of Anishinaabeg Akeeng (The People's Land), argued that the federal government was again brushing the treaty rights of the tribe under the rug.

When LaDuke entered the fray, tensions over land ownership were at their highest. As a member of Anishinaabeg Akeeng, she pushed for a pragmatic third way: The tribe, using interest from land-settlement agreements, could buy back reservation land piecemeal. Although her plan was initially endorsed by many, she did not win the favor of the entrenched leadership, who saw her as a usurper.

Gary Frazer, executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, says a clash between LaDuke and the pro-settlement, male-dominated tribal establishment seemed almost inevitable. "During Chip's tenure they looked at her as though she was competition," Frazer remembers. "Her concern was that she felt like she was stepping on their feet. She was very ambitious and aggressive, though I guess you can't knock someone for that."

Audrey Thayer says it was a "very difficult" period. "Everyone's related to everyone else here," explains LaDuke's aide and close friend. "And most people have lived here their whole lives. So coming into the community from the outside is very hard. But Winona stepped right in. She's very outspoken, and we have a tradition of strong women."

LaDuke was fighting on other fronts, as well. In the late 1980s she became involved in an effort to stop a gargantuan hydroelectric development near Moose Factory, Ontario. During one visit there, she met Randy Kapashesit, a Cree leader who was also working against the project. They married and had two children, a daughter, Waseyabin, now 12, and a son, Ajuawak, now 9. Their work against the dam was successful; the long-distance marriage was not. They split amicably a few years later.

Back on White Earth, despite the contentious passage of the WELSA settlement--critics railed that Wadena had flown to Washington and inked the deal without tribal approval--land rights remained a source of simmering dissent. LaDuke was deeply involved in the fledgling White Earth Land Recovery Project, which was becoming an extension of Anishinaabeg Akeeng's efforts. When she founded the organization in 1989, she hadn't intended it as a political vehicle. Nevertheless, her organization did clash with members of Wadena's government, who, she says now, were less concerned with environmental issues than with economic development (often their own). In one now-famous episode, LaDuke and her WELRP volunteers blocked a logging operation that the tribal government had okayed, barricading a road over WELRP land with pickup trucks. The resultant standoff, which lasted three weeks, was broken when the tribal government devised a way for the logging trucks to bypass the blockade.

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