In 1982, after graduating from Harvard with a degree in native economic development, Winona LaDuke packed her bags and moved to White Earth, the ancestral lands of the Anishinabeg (Ojibwe) people, located in a poor rural county of northern Minnesota. “The thing about being an Indian person,” explains LaDuke, who grew up on the West Coast with her Anishinabekwe father and Jewish mother, “is that you feel most at home with your own people.”
LaDuke took a job as principal of the local reservation high school, but quickly found herself involved with a lawsuit to recover lands promised to the Anishinabeg people by an 1867 federal treaty. When the case was dismissed four years later, she founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project to continue efforts to regain lost lands. Over 90 percent of the original 837,000 acres are in the hands of non-Indians. Using grants and a $20,000 human rights prize from Reebok, the group so far has bought back 1,000 acres and hopes to acquire 30,000 more in the next 15 years.
Still, LaDuke, 36, has encountered local resistance. When people from the Land Recovery Project recently blockaded a lumber truck used in clear-cutting, the tribal council let the driver use reservation roads to get out.
Although the tribal chairman and two other tribal officials are now facing 44 separate federal indictments for election fraud, mail fraud, embezzlement, and bribery, LaDuke doesn’t ignore them. “I need to deal with them because it affects other people where I live.” It’s the same with the power structure in any community, she says. “You’ve got to take them on and change them. You’ve also got to build an alternative to show people.”
What keeps her going, in part, is the intergenerational nature of Native American organizing. “We tell our stories to the children. It’s incumbent on us to offer oral history because no one else will,” says LaDuke, the mother of two. “We make sure the kids are part of everything. In most of America, it seems you don’t matter if you’re not between 25 and 50.”
Traditional Anishinabekwe religion is LaDuke’s other source of power and sustenance. “Spirituality is the foundation of all my political work. In many of the progressive movements in this country, religion carries a lot of baggage. But I think that’s changing. You can’t dismiss the significance of Eastern religions, earth-based religions, and Western religions on political work today. What we all need to do is find the wellspring that keeps us going, that gives us the strength and patience to keep up this struggle for a long time.”