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.

At the time, some observers felt that Anishinaabeg Akeeng's stand against WELSA left too little room for compromise--that the tribe would end up effectively getting nothing. Nevertheless, LaDuke does not hold a grudge against the opposing faction, who, she feels, were conditioned to accept short-term compromise. "The council comes out of a conservative structure, a Western philosophy," she posits. "It's not the traditional way of governing. They pursue economic development without considering the long-term environmental impact. The difficulty in Indian country is to educate our people, but with respect and concern. How do we teach a family of seven who's barely making enough to live on not to cut their trees?"

As it turned out, the tribal government was teetering. Rumors of electoral fraud and corruption abounded. LaDuke was characteristically blunt about what she perceived as the council's irresponsibility. "If our sovereign rights are so important, why did/does the White Earth Tribal Council enter into 'acts' with the state relinquishing a sales tax exemption on the reservation, or the right/responsibility to regulate hunting and fishing licenses within our reservation?" she asked in a March 1996 article in the Minneapolis-based Native American newspaper The Circle, for which she has often written. "If sovereignty is important, why would the alleged election fraud occur? If our sovereign rights are so important, why did the White Earth chairman agree to the White Earth Land Settlement Act, despite the implications for Indian land title on this reservation?"

LaDuke's skepticism proved well-founded. In June of that same year, then-chairman Wadena and his lieutenants Jerry Rawley and Rick Clark were convicted in federal court of rigging construction bids on the tribe's Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen. When the dust had settled, the old guard had been ejected from office and LaDuke was, like one of her fictional female warrior-heroes, one of the last standing women. White Earth had undergone a sort of grassroots revolution, leaving LaDuke and her WELRP poised to lead the rebirth of the reservation. In the figure of his daughter, it seemed, the circle begun by Vincent LaDuke had been closed.

 

While LaDuke was fulfilling her father's legacy on White Earth, her own profile was rising nationally. In 1995 Time had printed its profile, and as a result of her celebrity and her well-received first book on Native American environmental activists, All Our Relations, she was in demand on the lecture circuit. During one conference, in Alexandria, Minnesota, she met Ralph Nader. "He was very quiet," she recalls. "He's actually a pretty shy guy."

LaDuke looked up to Nader as a cultural icon. One of his first articles, published in the Harvard Law Review, dealt with her passion, Native American land rights. But at the time she had no intention of entering politics. When the Green Party asked her to run for vice president in 1996, she declined. She had never thought of herself as a politician, after all: Before 1996 she'd never voted, and had said in interviews that she felt the U.S. government was "largely illegal." (A few additional non-mainstream political views from the candidate, who has been heard to call herself "pretty politically conservative": unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. forces stationed abroad; a slashing of the military budget; a moratorium on all corporate mergers; an end to the drug war; universal healthcare; the return to Native Americans of national parkland located on reservations; and a massive redistribution of wealth in American society.)

But then Nader himself called, and, according to LaDuke, offered to get down on his knees and beg. "My family wasn't a keen supporter [of the campaign]," she says in retrospect. "But my political analysis was that if Ralph thinks it's time to take on the electoral process, then it's probably time to take on the electoral process."

On a recent campaign stop in Minneapolis, Nader explained his vice-presidential pick: "Winona's very balanced. She's got her feet on the ground. And it's fitting that our candidate is a member of one of the first nations."

Still, LaDuke might seem a counterintuitive representative for a party often characterized as a coalition of angry white liberals. LaDuke herself has often expressed the view that the mainstream environmental movement comes "by and large out of a very white, middle-class preserve." And when environmentalism causes conflict with Native American treaty rights, LaDuke sides invariably with Indian interests--as in a recent dispute over whaling in the Pacific Northwest, which prompted a petition to have her removed from the Green ticket.

She is comfortable, however, with her position between the Green Party and her own largely silent constituency. It might be the natural place for a woman who has always walked between worlds. "The Greens are broad enough to embrace a diversity of issues," she says tactfully. "Some people do grassroots organizing, and some have a calling to run for office. I like something Cecilia Rodriguez said," she adds, in reference to the American spokeswoman for the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico. "'We must not become an island of political correctness unto ourselves.'"

Media reaction to the Greens' odd couple has been a mix of maternalistic coddling and paternalistic disapproval. LaDuke generally rates only a few words identifying her as a "Native American woman" or "Native American activist," which irks her to no end. Perhaps inevitably, she has been largely overshadowed by controversy over the potential effect of Nader's run. Especially popular among pundits is the argument that, by drawing votes from disaffected liberals in key states like California, he could deliver the White House to the enemy. "He is engaging in a self-indulgent exercise that will distract voters from the clear-cut choices represented by the major-party candidates," chastised a June 30 New York Times editorial. "Given the major differences between the prospective Democratic and Republican nominees, there is no driving logic for third-party candidacy this year, and the public deserves to see the major-party candidates compete on an uncluttered playing field."

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