American Indian activist Winona LaDuke says she didn’t bother voting until 1996—the year she first ran for vice president of the United States.
“I didn’t think it was worthwhile,” she says of her past absence from the polls. “There really wasn’t anybody to vote for in my assessment.”
LaDuke says her attitude changed when Ralph Nader tapped her as his Green Party running mate that year and she realized progressives were getting serious about high-level change. The pair topped the ticket again in the 2000 election, when Missoula County voters posted one of the party’s highest turnouts, percentage-wise, in the nation, and area school board trustee David Merrill became the Green Party’s first candidate elected in Montana.
Pamela Kingfisher, 49, who is speaking with LaDuke, recently returned from South Africa, where she attended the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance. Environmental activism, political organizing, and improving the economic standing of minorities will likely top the lecture list, they say.
Contacted by the Independent last week, LaDuke was dismissive of those who contend that she and Nader put Republican George W. Bush and big-oil icon Dick Cheney into the White House. Looking back at last fall’s political bloodbath, where Bush winnowed a narrow Electoral College conquest over Democrat Al Gore—even though Gore won the nation’s popular vote—LaDuke says she and Nader were anything but spoilers.
“Al Gore has his own set of problems,” she says. “Among other things, he didn’t come out and court the Native American community. He could have in a lot of ways. He could have had more courage. He didn’t even win his own state.”
LaDuke, a member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinabeg and a resident of Minnesota’s White Earth Indian Reservation, notes that she and Nader pulled in nearly 3 percent of the national vote in the 2000 presidential election, but were still two percentage points short of qualifying for federal campaign matching funds. In all, according to the group’s Web site, the Green Party ran 279 candidates in 33 states, the District of Columbia and American Samoa last year and scored 40 victories, mostly in local races throughout the West. LaDuke says the experience of being a two-time national contender has helped open her eyes further to the widespread disenfranchisement of women and minorities in America. She also notes there are about 2 million elected seats in the nation, from drain commissioners to the president, and approximately 30 percent of those elections go uncontested. That, she says, must change.
“There’s an immense opportunity for people to be engaged in the political process,” LaDuke explains. “You have to encourage people to have the courage to stand up.”
At 42, LaDuke has been standing up most of her life. When she was only 18, she briefed a UN panel on uranium-mining companies that were overrunning southwest reservations. She says she was appalled when she first learned how little money most tribes received from the multinational corporations conducting those operations. And then there’s the abandoned mines and tailings piles, which still plague some reservation communities with deadly radiation.
Such environmental calamities, among countless others throughout the world, are helping fuel Green Party expansion, as well as greater awareness about indigenous rights, LaDuke says. LaDuke is no newcomer to social complexities. Her mother is a Russian Jew from New York; her father is a native Ojibwe. She holds a degree in economic development from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in rural development from Ohio’s Antioch College. In 1997, Ms. magazine named her one of its women of the year. In 1994, Time magazine said she was one of the nation’s top 50 leaders under the age of 40.
While stunned by last week’s plane attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., LaDuke says that the catastrophic events should prompt Americans to open their eyes to our interactions with the rest of the globe.
“Look at our Middle East policy,” she says. “U.S. foreign policy needs to be addressed. We have a lot of enemies.”
LaDuke contends that America cannot have it both ways—spending inordinate amounts of taxpayer money to support cutthroat regimes and then lashing out economically and militarily when those same leaders turn against us. She adds that we must examine our relationships with some of our allies, such as Israel and Colombia, two of the largest beneficiaries of U.S. foreign aid, because both countries commit “tremendous human rights atrocities” that are implicitly condoned by our continuing support.
Closer to home, LaDuke juggles myriad tasks as program director of Honor the Earth, a spinoff from the Indigenous Women’s Network, and its sister, the Indigenous Environmental Network. The mother of three also is founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which helps buy back privately held land on her home reservation. She’s deeply immersed in Native Harvest, an Indian-owned firm that removed corporate middle-marketers and adds value to the reservation’s larder of wild rice and maple syrup. As respite from all the demands, LaDuke and her family, ironically planned to pick up litter along a Minnesota highway last weekend.
LaDuke, author of the novel, Last Standing Woman, and the nonfiction work, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life,” says that because of family and other community concerns, she may not run for national office again in 2004. But, she quickly adds, most everything in politics comes down to wild cards.
“Maybe not in 2004, but maybe in the future,” she says. Kingfisher, a prominent antinuclear activist whose father and brother toiled for decades at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Site in Washington state, contends that Native American women must take the lead when it comes to building back ecosystems and restoring human faith.
“We are the mothers of the nation,” Kingfisher says. “It’s up to us to do what we have to for the next generation.”