The Party Crasher
White Earth, the reserved territory of the Mississippi band of Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), is a place of understated contrast. Two hours northwest of the Twin Cities the landscape blurs from the oceanic prairies of the upper Midwest to the pine forests of the far North. The human settlements, sown across a labyrinth of one-lane rural roads, range from tidy farmsteads and summer cabins to sagging trailer homes with blocked-up pickups in the yard, their scattered guts lost in the tall grass. It's a serenely beautiful place, but at the same time, a drive through White Earth can be dislocating, like crossing the border into another country--which, broadly speaking, is what White Earth is.
In 1944 an idealistic 15-year-old White Earth native named Vincent LaDuke stood before the tribal council, the reservation's governing body, and decried its complacency in the face of the reservation's slide toward ruin. In 1867, when the treaty designating the reservation's boundaries was signed, White Earth spanned 837,000 acres. A century later, less than one-tenth of that land remained in the hands of Native Americans. As the Anishinaabeg's territory dwindled, so did economic opportunity on the reservation. Unemployment ran as high as 80 percent, and poverty and illiteracy soared well above national averages; as a consequence, young people often made their lives elsewhere.
A few years later, LaDuke, by then a nationally known treaty-rights activist, hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., with a sign that read "Have Blanket, Will Travel"--an oblique but poignant reference to the displacement of Indian nations by the U.S. government. On his journey he met Betty Bernstein, a free-spirited young Russian Jew from New York. The two married on White Earth in 1958 and moved to Los Angeles, where LaDuke worked as an extra in Hollywood westerns. The couple's only daughter, Winona, was born a year later.
By the mid-1980s, Vincent LaDuke had left show business and reinvented himself as a spiritual guru named Sun Bear. Playing on his Hollywood semi-celebrity and his reputation as an activist, he began to attract a large, largely white congregation (before he died, in 1992, he had grown especially popular in Germany). Although a minor countercultural icon, Sun Bear was viewed with some ambivalence among Native Americans. He was spreading respect for Native spirituality, but many felt he was also marketing that tradition piecemeal to less-than-committed whites.
From an early age, Winona LaDuke seemed destined to follow in her father's activist footsteps. When she was 18, she addressed the United Nations on Native American treaty issues. By 1995 she was being sandwiched between Naomi Wolf and Bill Gates as one of Time magazine's 50 young "leaders of the future." Two years later Ms. magazine named her "Woman of the Year." Like her father, she had become a conduit between mainstream America and dispossessed Indian nations.
Getting there wasn't easy. In 1982, when LaDuke moved to White Earth to take a job as principal of a reservation high school and to research her master's thesis on the reservation's subsistence economy, she was a virtual stranger in her father's homeland. Though she had been enrolled at birth as a member of the tribe, she had never lived on White Earth. She knew almost no one and spoke no Ojibwe. To the entrenched powers, LaDuke was an unknown quantity, an ambitious, aggressive outsider whose motives remained uncertain. But that didn't stop her from wading right into the same battle over the reservation's future that had divided White Earth since her father's time.
Today LaDuke is known among friends as "The Duchess," and the southeastern corner of the reservation is her domain. Under the aegis of the nonprofit White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), which she founded in 1989 with a $20,000 human-rights award from Reebok, she has quietly been buying back reservation land owned by non-Indians. The land--1,200 acres so far--is held in a conservation trust by the project, with the eventual goal of ceding the property to the tribal government.
From the nonprofit's headquarters--a long, drafty barn augmented by a trailer where, in the summer, at-risk Ojibwe youth learn native language and traditions--she also supervises maple-sugar and wild-rice processing operations, a stable of horses, an international network of indigenous women, an Ojibwe language program, a brand-new wind-energy project, and a herd of buffalo. All of this with a small volunteer staff and an annual budget of a half-million dollars. The WELRP's modus operandi is simple and ingenious: Develop a self-sustaining economy and local land ownership, and expatriate Anishinaabeg will return.
The success of the Land Recovery Project is LaDuke's passion; it provides the lion's share of her $42,000 income, and it occupies most of her attention. She is most widely known, though, for her current venture, a bid for vice president with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket. She may very well be the first person to run for the second-highest office in American politics in her spare time. "I'm not naturally inclined to politics," she says by way of explanation. "But as my running mate often says, sometimes circumstances force a private citizen to step forward and become a public citizen."
What LaDuke is inclined to is something harder to quantify than mere public life. To the Green Party she is a Native American woman, and carries with her the cachet of cultural sensitivity. To Naderites she is walking proof that their brand of progressive populism is sympathetic to issues of race and gender. To Nader himself--whom she knows only casually--she is a practical idealist, "a mother of three with both feet on the ground." To the national press, she is Sancho Panza in her running mate's ongoing tilt at late-stage capitalism. To late-night comedians, her relative obscurity is a punch line: "Winona LaDuke?" David Letterman said during a monologue after her candidacy was announced, puckering his face as if he'd just brushed his teeth with a lemon. "Wasn't she one of the Dixie Chicks?"
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."
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).
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."
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.
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.
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."
Neither Green candidate has much patience with the spoiler myth. If Gore loses, Nader often says, it will be because he has betrayed too many of the ideals of the left--compromised so often that he himself has become compromised. "Gore knows better," Nader recently opined on the campaign trail. "He's sold the government to the highest bidder."
LaDuke bristles visibly at the suggestion that, by advancing their own agendas, she and Nader might incidentally help elect a Republican president. "We're breaking a barrier," she maintains. "Common people can and should run for office. That's a good thing for democracy. If only the privileged few can run for office, then how is that a democracy?"
Though she has campaigned with Nader in both the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, LaDuke is making a concentrated effort to spread her message in her own back yard. A recent evening found her running late for a "town-hall meeting" at Bemidji State University (none of the Greens in her entourage was wearing a watch). The crowd of about 200 gathered in the school's cavernous main auditorium, a mix of graying hippies and students with note pads poised on knees, was growing restless.
LaDuke appeared, looking exhausted and wan under the unforgiving lights. Her eyes, set deeply in her face by high, sharp cheekbones, looked sunken. Then something remarkable happened. As she launched into her opening salvo, her posture straightened, and her soft voice rose and tightened. "We are a society with solutions," she told the crowd. "That's what's amazing about this country. There's no absence of resources. We are a rich country, the richest in the world. We have the resources to do the right thing. What we have is an absence of political will. We lack the will to do the right thing."
LaDuke had already delivered the same speech three times that day, yet she settled into a conversational manner that made her seem both vulnerable and resolute, and the phrases spilled out as though she was discovering them for the first time.
The speech wound down and the question-and-answer period began. A student asked what she would do to patch up Social Security, a question that would have Gore or Bush salivating. Unlike the major-party candidates, however, LaDuke had no answer. She wriggled around the question, and for a few moments the fatigue crept back into her face. She seemed to shrink onstage. A camera flash popped. "Maybe I didn't answer your question," she grimaced.
Another audience member took the next logical step: What does she hope to gain from this? Is she actually running for political office, or are she and Nader using the election as a national soapbox from which to preach? This time LaDuke was ready with an answer. She looked up into the sea of white faces. "I'm planning the inaugural powwow right now," she said. "I've already got my bags packed."
As LaDuke likes to point out, winning is not the end of this race. In many respects, her current gambit is no different from her father's cross-country trek a half-century ago. When she takes the stage at rallies, she does so not as the representative of a political party but as the ambassador from a shadow nation. And as she has learned through her tumultuous years on White Earth, this generation's lost causes are often the next one's crusades.
On a wet and unseasonably chilly evening in Minneapolis, LaDuke is holed up in the tangle of hallways beneath the Target Center, preparing for the largest event of the Green Party presidential campaign--and, aside from the major-party conventions, of the political season thus far. LaDuke and Thayer drove from White Earth earlier in the day, and because they stopped to admire the changing leaves, they're running late again.
Everything is running late. And everyone is running. Men in blue suits--the uniform that everyone who works with Ralph Nader seems to adopt--rush through the halls with conspicuously displayed badges marked VIG, as in "Very Important Green." At Nader's insistence, the press is also much in evidence. A large contingent of standoffish folks from MTV News seems to be everywhere at once.
In a plushly arrayed lounge on the stadium's upper level, a gaggle of supporters awaits LaDuke's appearance, sipping Diet Pepsi and listening to show tunes on an electronic keyboard. When LaDuke finally arrives for a rushed meet-and-greet flanked by two bodyguards, she's wearing the same outfit she wore a few weeks earlier in Bemidji, a long dark skirt and a vest with beadwork flourishes.
"Thanks for coming," she tells the group.
"Thanks for running!" a man yells.
LaDuke positions herself near the center of the room while her guards, two imposing Green activists from Bemidji, take up positions around her and glance nervously at the crowd. "My kids asked me where I was going this morning," LaDuke says. "I said, 'I'm going to recover democracy.'
"They asked me how long I would
There's a titter from the crowd, and then LaDuke begins to work the room, shaking hands and leaning over to listen to congratulations. A few minutes later someone gives the sign to move on, and the entourage swishes down a long winding hall to a room where Bill Hillsman, the Minneapolis advertising guru behind Nader's TV ad campaign, is shooting a commercial. (Unlike the 1996 campaign, this time out the Greens have already spent $1 million on TV advertising.) A makeup artist offers her services. The last thing we see before the door closes is LaDuke, framed by blinding white lights, having her cheeks powdered with what looks like a paintbrush.
In the hallway Thayer and Paul Demaine, LaDuke's press secretary, speculate on the whereabouts of Gwekaanimid, who is nearly due for a feeding. "This is the first time on the campaign trail I've lost the baby," Demaine wails. Moments later the misplaced infant appears, sleeping cherubically on the shoulder of another campaign worker.
LaDuke emerges from the shoot looking dazed and pale. With the baby tucked in the curve of her arm, she steps into an unlocked skybox and onto its balcony. The arena is nearly full, and from above, the swaying mass is hypnotic. Two campaign workers in fluffy yellow chicken costumes meant to mock the major-party candidates are wobbling around on stilts in front of a stage arrayed like the set of Hee Haw. LaDuke turns and without comment heads down toward the stage.
Her party runs into a group of grim, besuited young men: the new generation of Nader's Raiders. "Look," she whispers to Thayer. "These guys are the heavies." A contingent of pierced and dyed teens passes by carrying a "Nader/LaDuke" banner. They don't even glance at LaDuke. They don't recognize her.
As LaDuke sails down the hall toward the podium, she's accosted by a man on a cell phone who has a question about his child's teething. She stops and looks at him, somewhat amazed, then mumbles, "Yeah, good luck," and walks on down the wide, white corridor toward the waiting crowd. The audience is chanting now--"Let Ralph debate!"--and stomping on the bleachers. The sound rolls down from the rafters like thunder, along with a few trilling war cries. The candidate smiles faintly. Then she ascends and is swallowed in the glow of klieg lights and a rush of applause.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Black Lives Matter marches on the Fair with heavy police escort, few hecklers
Sat., Sep. 19, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 19, 7:00pm
Sun., Sep. 20, 12:00pm
Sat., Sep. 26, 2:30pm
- Vester Lee Flanagan could have just as easily bought a gun in Minnesota
- A terrible Minneapolis park deal just got $2 million worse