Activist Winona LaDuke says democracy takes connection to the environment, each other 

A member of Ojibwe tribe who lives on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, LaDuke is the co-founder and program director for Honor the Earth, and spoke at Elon at the invitation of the Liberal Arts Forum.

Drawing examples from her Native American heritage, renowned activist Winona LaDuke said Tuesday night during a visit to Elon that the questions important to the country's democracy today are where is your water coming from, where is your food coming from and how are we treating each other. 

"As we look at what democracy looks like, and say we want to build a kind and loving country, say we want to build something great, I think we need to look to our roots and the lessons learned from indigenous people," said LaDuke, the co-founder and program director for Minnesota-based Honor the Earth. "A democracy is something you make with your hands and your heart, and when we make this, it is not just with words — it also takes your actions."

A member of Ojibwe tribe who lives on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, LaDuke has worked on issues of sustainable development renewable energy and food systems. Twice she has been the vice presidential candidate for the Green Party and more recently was active in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline protests on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. 

As program director for Honor the Earth, she has a domestic and international focus as she works on the issues of climate change, renewable energy and environmental justice with indigenous communities. She is the founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Minnesota which is one of the largest reservation-based nonprofit organizations in the country. 

LaDuke was speaking at Elon at the invitation of the Liberal Arts Forum, a student organization that brings guests to campus for conversations about current interdisciplinary topics. 

LaDuke was greeted in McKinnon Hall on Tuesday night by a Native American song sung by members of various tribes from the region, who pounded out a thunderous rhythm on a large drum. The opening song is an Ojibwe song that belongs to the Walter White family and comes from the Cass Lake community on the Leech Lake Ojibway Reservation in Minnesota. A closing song was an Eastern woodlands song with words that translate as “indigenous people, be at peace.”

Those performing included singers from three of the region’s most important and respected drum groups – War Paint, Stoney Creek, and Southern Sun – representing the Lumbee, Waccamaw-Siouan, Haliwa-Saponi, Coharie and Laguna Pueblo communities.

LaDuke opened her remarks with phrases from her native Ojibwe language, running through the different names for the moons throughout the year, with those names tied to the crops being harvested, the weather or the color of the leaves on the trees. 

Throughout her remarks, LaDuke argued for closer connections to the natural environment, noting that such an approach becomes more important as fossil fuel sources are increasingly depleted, climate change impacts the geography and agriculture, and local communities confront corporations over projects that can impact their well-being, such as fuel pipelines. 

"We are all in the same boat," LaDuke said, displaying a Native American art piece of the same name, "and we need to think about these things as a society, think about where we are going." 

Playing upon the campaign slogan of President Donald Trump — Make America Great Again— LaDuke argued that "when America was great, there were 8,000 varieties of corn, and those 8,000 varieties didn't come from Monsanto." She said America was great when 50 million buffalo roamed the plains living on 250 species of grass, some grass varieties with 8-foot roots that helped hold the soil in place, and could have helped prevent the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. 

"America is a country that has historical amnesia, that has ecological amnesia," LaDuke said. 

A graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities, LaDuke has written extensively on Native American and environmental issues. She is a former board member of Greenpeace USA and is presently an advisory board member for the Trust for Public Lands Native Lands Program as well as a board member of the Christiansen Fund. She is the author of five books including "Recovering the Sacred," "All Our Relations," and a novel, "Last Standing Woman."

LaDuke was heavily involved in the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, drawing from her own tribe's experiences in derailing a proposed pipeline project through their own reservation, with a path that would have run through a lake that's key to their wild rice farming. Arguing against the project based on its environmental impact, the effort was successful in blocking the pipeline project, LaDuke said to cheers. 

"Democracy is not a spectator sport, and you have to figure out what you're facing," she said. "It is possible to defeat a pipeline. I tell you that story because nobody would have bet on us to do anything, and we made a difference."

Looking ahead, at what the priorities of this country will be, and what democracy will look like for the generations to come, LaDuke looked back to the words of the 19th century Lakota leader Sitting Bull, who said, "Let us bring our minds together and see what life we can make for our children."

"For me, that is this moment in our democracy," LaDuke said.