Native Struggles for Land and Life: An Interview with Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota and is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg. She is the project director of the Honor the Earth Fund and campaign director for the White Earth Land Recovery Project. In the 1996 presidential campaign, she served as Ralph Nader's running mate in the Green Party. In 1997, with the Indigo Girls, she was named a Ms. Woman of the Year. She is the author of the recently released All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (South End Press).

Multinational Monitor: How was the White Earth Reservation formed?

Winona LaDuke: The White Earth Reservation is the southwest portion of the Anishinaabeg nation. We have reservations in the northern part of five states in the United States and in the southern part of four Canadian provinces.

This reservation was created by a treaty in 1867. Each treaty that preceded the 1867 treaty had some economic reasoning behind it. The mining companies that started in the Great Lakes, including Kennecott Copper and 3M, all saw our vast natural resources and used treaties as a mechanism to get them.

White Earth does not have mineral resources, but what it had was vast pine forests. The 1867 treaty gained Frederick Weyerhaeuser, whose company started in Little Falls, Minnesota, access to the northern woods. Knute Nelson and some other state senators facilitated a process called allotment, which is a process where commonly held land is converted into individually held private parcels. Those parcels were allocated to individual Indians.

That concept of private land ownership was foreign to us. We have traditionally had collective land ownership, with individual and family use rights. You have your house and personal belongings, but the land is held collectively. Over the course of 20 years following the treaty adoption, our land was allotted. Then a good portion of it--250,000 of the 800,000 acres--was taken for taxes by the State of Minnesota. This was actually illegal and was subsequently held to be illegal in court.

The lands were taken primarily by lumber companies. So the foundations of some great fortunes were based on somebody else's wealth.

That is the story of wealth and the relationship of development and underdevelopment. Some get rich and some get poor. The miracle of America's prosperity was to the detriment of indigenous people.

I live here on the reservation. I was actually raised off the reservation, because by the late 1950s three-quarters of all tribal members lived or were born off-reservation.

We are largely a refugee population. We have one of the largest populations like that in Indian country, but our community is also one that has been politicized by the whole process and does continue to try to recover that which is ours.

We have fought for a long time to get back our land and have not had that much success in the legal system. To be honest with you, I think that's because we're kind of in the court of the thief. The U.S. Government was legally responsible for our state as Indian people. I am legally a ward of the federal government. The federal government is a trustee of my estate. They pretty much lost our whole estate on White Earth Reservation.

The federal courts find themselves in a quandary: should they give back that which they took? The largest landholders on the reservation today are the federal, state and county governments.

We haven't had success in getting them to return much land. They have returned 10,000 of the 250,000 acres which they have.

People do occasionally get success in court. For instance, the 1999 Mille Lacs Supreme Court decision based on the 1837 treaty recognized our right to hunt and fish and harvest in the northern third of the state.

But I think that the record is something like 29 to 4--29 decisions against Indian people in the last 15 years to 4 in favor.

MM: What efforts have you and others made to recover the land in the last couple of decades?

LaDuke: I founded and work for an organization called the White Earth Land Recovery Project. We were founded around addressing the issue of structural poverty, which is what ensues when you do not have control over the land or any of your assets.

In the late 1970s, the federal government came in as part of a national investigation into what had happened to the Indian estates and interests.

They came to White Earth and found that this is one of the worst cases of land alienation in the country. Simply put, the White Earth records were messed up. They had probated estates for about 60 years. They were trying to find descendants of people who died in 1923. I went to a hearing with my grandpa and they couldn't figure out who he was related to. They were calling in people to figure out who was related to who, because they didn't keep the records. They found that a good portion of the land titles on the reservation are bad.

Arland Stangeland who was then the congressional representative for this district, and one of the most right-wing Republicans in the country said, "You Indians will get your land back when hell freezes over." He and the Reagan Administration basically canceled the funding for any further research into what had happened on White Earth.

Instead of returning the land or trying to figure out what had happened, they proposed to pay 1910 market value for the land that they were clearing title to in 1986. We opposed it. We fought it unsuccessfully from 1983 to 1986.

But in 1986 the White Earth Land Settlement Act was passed, which paid us $17 million--the 1910 value without damages for loss of income, etc.--for 10,000 acres of our land. It didn't deal with issues like damages from timber extraction, or the cost to a family of being denied access to their land for 60 years while someone builds a multi-million dollar resort on it.

The government basically said, "This is the best deal you're going to get." At that time, we had a tribal government that was very corrupt, called the Wadina Administration. The chairman of the Wadina Administration took the settlement over the protests of the community. We had occupations of tribal council headquarters, and over 500 people were arrested.

The government told us that if we didn't like the settlement, we should take them to court. We filed suit in federal circuit court in Minnesota in 1986 and 1987. We eventually filed three suits, one in Washington, D.C. with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights. We lost them all.

The lawsuits sought return of land, but the courts ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on the return of land. They held that we should have filed within seven years of the original time of taking. People from this community--including my great, great grandmother, who could not read or write English, who was legally a ward of the federal government, who had not procured an attorney at that time--were basically out of luck.

We formed the White Earth Land Recovery Project in 1989, after exhausting all of our legal recourse, to look at other mechanisms for recovery of the land. We're talking about the return of public landholdings within Indian reservations that were unjustly taken. As I said, 250,000 acres of the reservation are held by government agencies. We're not talking about dispossession of a single non-Indian landholder.

This is a national question. It's a question also relevant to the Black Hills--80 to 90 percent of the Black Hills, which by treaty belongs to the Lakota, is held by the federal government. The Chippewa National Forest, inside the Leech Lake Reservation, is held by the federal government. If you go reservation by reservation across this country, you'll find that the federal government has vast landholdings which they have annexed. Those should be returned to our communities.

We are the poorest people in the country whereas we should be the richest.

It's not a question of material wealth, but about having conditions of human dignity within the reservation. We've got one dentist for every 6,000 people on this reservation. Half our population is living at or below the poverty level. The same people are living in overcrowded or substandard housing. We have arrest rates that are seven times that of non-Indians. We have every social problem associated with chronic poverty. We would like to live and we intend to live with some dignity. But you have to address that structural poverty. You can throw whatever social program you want at this, but until we are allowed to determine our own destiny, these are the problems we are going to face.

MM: In what ways have environmental groups caused problems for Native Americans, both at White Earth and across the country?

LaDuke: We all recognize that we must defend the environment. However, what happens is a power question. When you talk about our case, some of the major environmental groups have opposed return of our land. The Sierra Club opposed the return of land to our community. The Nature Conservancy donated land on our reservation to the State of Minnesota, rather than back to the tribe.

That's a kind of structural racism, a trading of assets among settler groups, rather than dealing with the underlying issue of justice. It's something that the environmental movement has to be challenged on.

Some of the groups that have worked on northern forest cutting issues have improved. No one is really working in partnership on our reservation, but we're working with groups like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy on forest and agricultural issues. They have a broader view of the relationship between international, national and multicultural issues.

MM: What do you mean when you talk about the "toxic invasion of Native America?"

LaDuke: Indian communities have certain jurisdictional authority and are remotely located. Although we have sovereignty which we recognize originates with the Creator, the federal government does recognize some aspects of our sovereignty. So people trying to get rid of toxic waste or build incinerators have come into Indian communities with the pitch that "this is a good money-making opportunity," and "it won't cause any environmental problems." There are over a hundred different proposals to dump toxic waste in our communities, including my own reservation.

There is also residual contamination from historical practices, especially major mining operations. The perfect example is the thousand abandoned uranium mines down on the Navajo Reservation. It will take a heck of an effort to get those cleaned up. In the Spokane Reservation in Washington state, the Newmont Mining Corporation, the largest mining company in the world, had a uranium mine which is now a radioactive mess. They want to move "low-level" radioactive waste into the mine site now, and use the mine as a dump.

There are a lot of Indian communities that have military bases on or adjacent to them, because historically the military forts were often situated right next to the Indian reservations to keep an eye on the Indians. The military is the largest polluter in the country, and so you have a lot of military waste contaminating reservations -- as, for example, on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation, where 5,000 sheep died in some kind of experimental military nerve gas test 10 years ago. Many of our communities are dealing with that kind of waste, and an absence of political will to clean them up.

MM: What is the link between the loss of biodiversity and the health of Native American communities?

LaDuke: In our case, we're a forced culture. The Creator gave the Anishinaabeg people an immensely biodiverse forest. And he said, "Within this forest you will find all of your medicines. All the things you need to make your houses. All the foods you will need to sustain your families. The materials for all the baskets and other objects of amazing beauty that you can make. You can fashion all of those things from this land, upon which I'm putting you. Your job, though, is to take care of that which I gave you. You have a good life. You have to take care of those responsibilities yourself, because I gave you the ability to think." That is in essence our teaching.

Within that, the White Earth reservation is known as the medicine chest of the Ojibwes. Every single medicine of the Ojibwes is pretty much here on the reservation--echinacea, different medicines for cancer, medicines for cataracts, all kinds of medicines.

Seventy-five percent of the plant-derived pharmaceuticals in the world come from indigenous people--including ephinedrine, aspirin and quinine. To have those things you have to have biodiversity.

This loss means that we are not able to take care of ourselves in the way that we are supposed to be able to. This loss means that we have ceremonies that include things that are absent. We have sturgeon songs on this reservation because sturgeon are a big part of our history, but we didn't have sturgeons for 40 years because of dams. We have them now because we put them back. You have some whose whole ways of life are based on buffalo, but we have no buffalo. This loss causes a kind of grieving in our community. For us, the rise of American agriculture and the demise of the Great Plains is not only about an economic and social transformation, it's also about a spiritual transformation. One that we would not choose.

This is not romanticizing our cultural practice. It's saying that at the core of our cultural practice are these teachings which are a centerpiece of our identity. They make us Anishinaabeg, or Lakota or Dine.

MM: How are Native American communities and nations responding to the continuing dispossession of their land and resources?

LaDuke: I wrote the book because I've done 20 years of work in these communities. I've seen people with an amazing amount of resilience.

You have people like Gail Small on the North Cheyenne Reservation, who for her entire life has been fighting one coal strip mine after another. She lives in the Powder River basin coal field, which is the single largest coal field in North America. The fact that there are not coal strip mines on Northern Cheyenne is because of Gail Small and her organization.

There are people like the Inuit and the Cree in Northern Quebec, Ontario and Newfoundland, who are out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Those people are sitting on river systems that are fine just the way they are. But because of the nature of American consumption, every time there's a river system, some utility wants to put a dam on it. So you have the James Bay I project that was put through and James Bay II, which was defeated by the political will of this community which basically said, "We have a right to live, and you don't have a right to take our rivers," and then organized opposition in the United States. Now you've got James Bay III being proposed.

Part of the reason I wrote the book is to call attention to these people, who have this integrity and who are asking that their way of life not be destroyed for someone someplace else. It's a simple request. They're not asking for other people's land. They're not asking for other people to do things. They're just asking people to limit their own behavior, which is what you and I would tell our children to do.

In many ways, the book addresses what Danny Billie of the Seminoles says the best. Asked by one reporter if he thinks he can survive, he said, "Actually that question is about you and whether you can survive. You and I both know it's not just about whether the Seminoles can survive, it's about whether or not we can all live sustainably." That's kind of the question I try to ask in the book.

MM: You talk in your book about some ideas for restraining corporate power and abuses. What are some of the things you think should be done to bring corporations under control?

LaDuke: From a policy end, one thing we need is an amendment to the U.S. constitution that protects the commons from the pilfering by private interests, an amendment that says you cannot have it all -- that some things are really everybody's.

You can't have multi-use of a sacred site, for example. It's totally impossible. McDonald's would not build at the Wailing Wall, but that's the kind of thing they do to us. Putting strip mines in the middle of a sacred site. There have to be limits on corporate behavior and corporate exploitation.

I think a lot of the issues have to do with values. Our teachings are that you take what you need and you leave the rest. I tell my kids all the time that, by and large, someone has to get poor for someone to get rich. There are a few people who didn't appropriate someone else's wealth. That broader valuation of ecosystem destruction and the recognition that these things belong to somebody is a really important part of considering how we curb our own behavior. The Lockean assumption that if we put our labor to it then it becomes our own is totally fallacious. We have to figure out how to leave things alone, and build an economic system that's not built on a linear model, but instead on a cyclical model, because that's the natural world--it's cyclical and not linear. That is going to take a lot of transformation.

In our case, the government is also part of the problem. But in its essence, the central questions are how we curb corporate behavior and how we look at their origins. A good portion of them got their wealth illegally.

MM: A key theme in the book is the importance of striving toward local self-reliance.

LaDuke: In my community, it's a cultural value that you are responsible for that which you take. I'm not going to tell the people in Washington, D.C. that they should pray before they go buy their lettuce. But I like to know where my food comes from. In the era of globalization, it is increasingly frightening that some people do not have a relationship to the chain of custody of these products. You're outlawing chemicals here that come in on the bananas from Central America, for instance.

Our local economy, like many rural economies, is very poor. We don't have a multiplier in our local economy. A dollar comes into the reservation and then goes off. But we still have an immense amount of biodiversity. We have wild rice. We have maple syrup. We have a lot of deer, other animals, and fish. Those kinds of things. What we work for is an increased consumption of our own local food so that we're able to feed ourselves in the best nutritional way possible. In addition, we offer these products to a broader community in a process of fair trade.

The more you can have some relationship to energy or food production, the better. It is the externalizing of production that makes us operate by remote control. Otherwise, we don't care if this or that project goes up, because we don't see the faces of the people affected. We don't care where the coal used by our power plant comes from because we don't see the consequences. The ethical consideration is to be responsible somehow for those things you take into your life.
© Multinational Monitor, December 1999, volume 20, number 21

 

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