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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series #13: Winona LaDuke

Air Date: Week of

LaDuke is a native American activist who heads up the White Earth Recovery Project in Minnesota. The project buys back Indian land working to restore the environmental legacy of the area's original inhabitants. Milt and Jamie Lee provide this profile of Ms. LaDuke.


NUNLEY: The struggle to maintain and restore native lands is as old as the United States. Today, one of the centers of that struggle is Minnesota's White Earth Reservation, home of the Annishinabe Indians and Winona LaDuke. Through her White Earth land recovery project, LaDuke has become one of the leading figures in the movement to preserve the environmental heritage of the country's original inhabitants. As part of our ongoing series on 25 leading environmental figures, producers Milt and Jamie Lee have this profile of Winona LaDuke.

M. LEE: The first time I saw Winona LaDuke, an Annishinabe from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, she was at a forum telling Bobby Kennedy, Jr., about the true origins of Democracy:

LaDUKE: Democracy came from us. You know, all they had in Europe was the experience of monarchies and feudalists. When they came over here to this country, democracy was learned from people at 6 nations, was learned from our practices.


LEE: LaDuke's environmental activities go back to the 70s. She came home to White Earth as the high school principal, but soon turned to environmental issues such as halting the massive clear-cutting of timber on White Earth, and reviving the Annishinabe arts and culture. A graduate of Harvard, Winona has represented her people at the United Nations and in Congressional forums. But nestled into her lakeside cabin on the White Earth Reservation, the US and Congress seem far away.

(Birdcalls of a loon)

LaDUKE: Mong, that's how you call a loon in Ojibwe. Mong. Zeesheeb is a duck.

LEE: On White Earth, Winona seems as firmly planted as the maple trees that surround her. However, even though she is a member of the Missisippi band of Annishinabe at White Earth, Winona was born in east L.A. and grew up in Ashland, Oregon. During the Native American relocation programs of the 50s and 60s, Winona's father, like so many others, left the reservation to find work.

LaDUKE: I remember when I was 10 years old that I got a check for $94.60 from the Federal Government. I was a little girl in southern Oregon, and I didn't really know what it was. So I cashed it, put it in the bank, put it in our savings account. But I remember it. And that was a land check for White Earth.

LEE: Ninety-four dollars and sixty cents: Federal compensation for land taken from the Indians. To a ten-year-old girl, that was a lot of money. But as Winona discovered many years later, it was not enough.

LaDUKE: Okay, the native press lists, that's the next thing.

LEE: Today, Winona directs a tireless operation started in 1988, called the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Their goal is to restore both land and culture to the reservation. Essentially resources that have been seriously eroded. On White Earth, a reservation of 800,000 acres, only 80,000 are tribally owned.

LaDUKE: A lot of land was procured by Weyerhauser. And Pillsbury, Musser, timber barons. Pine forests, clear cut, there's a thousand stories I could tell you.

LEE: It must be the stories that drive Winona. Stories of injustice, both to the environment and to the people. She has talked, lobbied, bargained, and begged to obtain environmental justice.


LEE: Since 1988, the Land Recovery Project has regained a thousand acres of land and started language camps and cultural programs. Winona is a curious blend of the hot fire of politics and the softer, cooling elements of her Annishinabic traditions.

LaDUKE: If you don't do that, if you don't rice, or don't eat things that grow from your land, I firmly believe that you begin to get weak. That eating process, the honoring, the harvesting, the giving thanks, the prayer, the ceremony, the dance, and the eating itself, is a reaffirmation of your relationship to the Creator. And that you need to do that to be who you are.


LEE: For Winona and those around her, every day is Earth Day. In fact, every day is Mother's Day.

LaDUKE: I think that the Earth, Mother Earth, talks to people. And I don't think that Mother Earth just talks to indigenous people. I think Mother Earth talks to all people. And that a lot of people hear that. And that the environmental movement, a good portion of it is people who are resonating with that, feeling responsible, feeling responsibility to take care of their mother.

LEE: For Living on Earth, I'm Milt Lee with Winona LaDuke on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.



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