Last night, indigenous activist, environmentalist, and writer Winona LaDuke delivered two lectures at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). LaDuke, who is an anishnaabeg, has become well-known through her writings and two campaigns for vice president on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000. In both lectures, LaDuke drew on her experience with political activism and shared a variety of insights into what that activism means in the current global reality as well as what it means to be a native person living in the United States.
In discussing her activism, LaDuke repeatedly stressed that it was borne out of necessity more than choice once she realized that nobody was going to come in and change her community in the ways that she desired. She also described how as a mother she has frequently wondered where the line between activism and being a responsible parent and what the difference is between the two. LaDuke used the aforementioned line of thought as a way to guide her lecture and looked at the ways in which common lessons of parenting could be applied in to the world. For example, LaDuke discussed how in her house she has always told her children not to steal but questioned what that really means when 85% of her reservation’s land is owned by non-natives and that she tells her children not to be greedy but American culture and society aggrandizes wealth that comes at the expense of those in the third world. She also explained that while she teaches her children to clean up their old messes before they create new ones, the United States has failed to do this and continues to pursue nuclear power while simply moving the waste onto native reservations.
LaDuke explained that if the United States considered land to be sacred that it would act in a profoundly different way. LaDuke talked at length about how if land was viewed as sacred there would not be the notion that mountains and rivers could be named after lackluster at best politicians, and in the case of the numerous places named Jeffery Amherst, named after murderers. The way in which people in the United States view land is rooted in conquest with citizens generally viewing the natural world from an anthropocentric view that places it at the disposal of humans. An alternative to this anthropocentric view would be to view land as sacred and to respect and understand the ecosystems in which humans are only a small part. LaDuke explained how such an approach would lead to a rethinking of energy and food policy, and ultimately, the whole way in which society is structured.
In LaDuke’s community, this has translated directly into activism with her tribe developing an energy plan for the next 50 years that will help the tribe to take advantage of the fact that their reservation has the potential to generate some 300 gigawatts of wind power. Her reservation is also working to attain a high level of self-sufficiency with regard to energy and food and is planning to reach a level of 70% self-sufficiency in the next 30 years by developing wind power and planting crops using traditional native seeds that are more healthy than the genetically modified foods sold in stores. LaDuke noted that Michigan has a significant potential for the generation of wind power due to the wind off Lake Michigan and while she admitted that many people have been opposed to such a plan currently because they “don’t like the way it looks,” she argued that eventually they will need to consider such a plan for survival. The prospect of using E85 gasoline was also raised as a way to reduce energy consumption, and for LaDuke’s home state of Minnesota, such a switch could also help keep jobs in the state by giving corn producers another avenue for selling their corn (the ethanol in E85 is produced from corn and other grains). Similarly, LaDuke said that the so-called “rustbelt” in the United States that has been caused due to the outsourcing of automobile production could be revived by shifting production at factories to the production of wind turbines for wind power that are currently not manufactured in the United States.
Given that her two lectures took place at a university, LaDuke also drew connections between the university system and the need for increased environmental awareness. LaDuke argued that traditional liberal arts universities have largely ignored the environment and have traditionally viewed themselves as separate or above nature. While such an anthropocentric view is nearly omnipresent in the university system, it ignores the reality that humans are inexorably connected to the natural world and that their human dignity is dependent on the dignity of the Earth. She suggested that universities could help overcome this problem by becoming more sustainability. She urged students to students participate in the Energy Action campaign to urge universities to start operating in a sustainable and energy efficient manner. Already the campaign is active on 150 campuses and has won numerous victories with a variety of universities adopting various measures to increase energy efficiency. Currently, Grand Valley State University has a sustainability initiative that has resulted in the construction of three LEED certified buildings and other projects, but student pressure could quicken the pace and increase the scope of GVSU’s Sustainability Initiative as well as ways to move beyond sustainability as simply a “cleaner” form of capitalism and extending the notion of sustainability to include animal, human, and labor rights (it should be noted that LaDuke’s discussion of sustainability came from a more holistic and inclusive perspective that questioned underlying institutional structures of society far more than most rhetoric on “sustainability”).
LaDuke also discussed what it is like to be a native person in the United States and explained how it largely means to be forgotten or purposely excluded by the institutions that govern daily life. LaDuke discussed how native peoples were formally denied their right to religious expression until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act and how their oral history is always questioned by white “experts” who purport to know more about native people due to their academic studies, which as LaDuke pointed out, in the past included the horrific field of physical anthropology. Native people are also frequently excluded from the political processes that decide what is going to be done with native land by a variety institutional barriers. Such exclusion has not been limited simply to the dominant institutions but has also spread to various “left” political groups and publications, as LaDuke cited an example of activism early in her life in which the prominent left-leaning publication In These Times told her that they did not want to run an article on land and environmental policy on reservations because they had “already published the Native American perspective last month” and that she was a “biased” source on the subject. Even today, “leftist” political movements such as the anti-globalization movement exclude people of color and despite frequently being a subject of discussion, has largely failed to be addressed and has surfaced in the white-dominated antiwar movement.
Throughout her two talks, LaDuke discussed the need for systemic change in the United States and argued that out of necessity people need to become public citizens and work towards changing the world around them. For LaDuke, it is best to start in locally and act to change things at the grassroots level while always keeping in mind what is going on nationally and internationally and finding ways to connect local issues to global ones. She also explained how people living in the United States have a particular responsibility to seek change because a failure to do so results in the rest of the world being “hammered” by the United States.