Winona LaDuke: "What is left of our land is what somebody still wants, because it’s not exploited."

Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke Sheila Regan

In the war to save the Earth’s water and land, there’s perhaps no fiercer warrior than Winona LaDuke, the activist and writer from the White Earth Reservation who has been fighting for environmental and Indigenous causes for decades.

LaDuke’s most recent battle has been with Enbridge, a Canadian Oil company that planned to run the Sandpiper Pipeline through Minnesota. This would have impacted beautiful, Indigenous land and water in Northern Minnesota. A new documentary, First Daughter and the Black Snake, screening at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival this weekend, follows LaDuke as she works to stop Enbridge. Filmmaker Keri Pickett calls the work a prequel to the Standing Rock Battle, as Enbridge went on to fund the North Dakota Access Pipeline.

LaDuke also has a new book out, The Winona Laduke Chronicles: Stories from the Front Lines in the Battle for Environmental Justice, and will be speaking at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church tonight at an event hosted by Birchbark Books. We chatted with LaDuke about her work, making the film, and her recent writings.

City Pages: How do environmental issues and Native activism intersect?

Winona LaDuke: I’m an Anishinaabe person. I have an agreement with the creator that this is the life I get. And the life I get is the land where you can drink the water from a lake, you can get sugar from a tree, and you can get food from a lake.

Native people are land-based people. We are the bottom one percent, but we have four percent of the land. What is left of our land is what somebody still wants, because it’s not exploited. Some of the greatest biodiversity in the world is on Indigenous peoples’ territories... If you have what you have left of your land, that someone else wants to destroy, it becomes a battle for what you have left. They pick us, we don’t pick them.

CP: You ran with Ralph Nader for his presidency. How did that elevate some of the issues you are working toward? What are some of the things you learned?

WLD: Although I work in Minnesota, these are international issues. The future of the world’s food, who is going to control genetics, a lot of these energy issues -- they are international. Ralph is a national thinker. He understands those issues. As a little girl I always admired Ralph. As a little girl I wanted to grow up and be just like him. He was one of my role models; I’m still working on that. But he’s a guy and he lives in Washington, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stay in Minnesota.

CP: What was that experience like for you to have a filmmaker follow you around?

WLD: Because I love Kerri, it was like having your best friend with a camera. If it had been somebody else, I think it would have been more difficult. I don’t think anybody else could have told this story, because you have to be cool with my family.

It’s her film; it’s through her eye. When you’re in the middle of it, there are significant moments. There’s a moment when they come into your community, and your people summon up the courage to say, “No.” That’s a moment when you see something shift; a moment where you see this corporation sure of itself. They have so many police at these events, and you have so many people show up. There’s this social movement aspect that you have to be inside to get, so she captured some of those elements.

CP: What do you mean a social movement?

WLD: There’s the establishment of the political system in the state of Minnesota, which is pretty backwards and unenlightened about what’s coming our way... You should be really informed if you are going to be making decisions, and, in general, they have taken the company’s line. You should not take the line of the company. Your job is to look out for the people of Minnesota and the Anishinaabe people. That’s your job, it’s not to look out for the corporations.

CP: How do you choose what you are going to fight?

WLD: In this case, they wanted to put a pipeline in the middle of my rice territory. I didn’t have a choice. This came to me. What I really want to do is grow cool things and hemp. I want to redefine Minnesota’s hemp industry... I want to be part of the solution, not the problem, and I have to waste hours and hours of my time on another problem.

CP: You have a new book out, Stories from the Front Lines in the Battle for Environmental Justice. Can you say a little about that?

WLD: I wander around. I go to other Native communities and they tell me their stories and they ask me to tell their stories. So I told these stories about different communities facing David and Goliath struggles. It’s like a road trip and other pieces I’ve written about food systems. I write for the Fargo Forum. It’s 44 newspapers and they are all pretty conservative. I enjoy writing for a conservative audience. People are interested in what I say.

CP: When did you know that activism was something you needed to do with your life?

WLD: The first time I became a politically active person as an adult, I was at college. I was at Harvard during the South African divestment era. A man came to talk; his name was Jimmy Durham... I was taken with what he said, and I went to work for him as an intern... I ended up testifying at the U.N. when I was 18, then I ended up speaking at a lot of anti-Nuclear rallies. Nixon wanted a thousand nuclear power plants by the year 2000. People protested and I went with them.

CP: Do you think that the protests are what stopped that from happening?

WLD: Yes. They didn’t build them. We pushed really hard on the Uranium mining, which is what I worked really hard on in the Navajo community. And together we pushed to stop the expansion of nuclear in this country. Two weeks ago, Westing House went bankrupt -- that’s who put up a lot of the nuclear power plants in this country.


Winona LaDuke reading and talk
7 p.m.; free
Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church
2020 Lake of the Isles Pkwy. W., Minneapolis; 612-377-5095

First Daughter and the Black Snake at MSPIFF
St. Anthony Main Theatre
Sat., Apr. 22 4:25 p.m.

Rochester Galaxy 14 Cinema
Sun., Apr. 23 7 p.m.

Film Space, Founders Hall, Metro State University
Thu., Apr. 27 7 p.m.