Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke, an American environmentalist, economist, and writer, spoke in Werth Tower Thursday afternoon about her experiences with a Native American background. She spoke about her people’s view of places as “sacred land” and how hard she has fought to keep pipelines from corrupting the reservations in North America. (Photo by Nicholas Hampton/The Daily Campus)

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, internationally renowned political and environmental activist Winona LaDuke gave the keynote address in the Werth Tower Forum Thursday night.

While completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees in economics at Harvard University and Antioch University, respectively, LaDuke began her work as an activist.

LaDuke works as program director for Honor the Earth, an organization which she established established with Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, in 1993. Honor the Earth focuses its efforts on raising public awareness for indigenous issues and to raise funds for grassroot Native environment organizations, according to their website.

Honor the Earth was established to “create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities,” according to their website.

The esteemed activist and two-time vice-presidential candidate for the Green Party spoke about the central themes of the importance of acknowledging indigenous land and leaving imperial keepsakes behind.

“That mountain today is not called the Mountain of the Thunder Beings. It’s called Mount McKay, which illustrates this kind of problem that I have with America which is the naming essentially of large mountains after small men,” LaDuke said. “My point is that at some point when you take something as sacred, as immortal as a mountain and you name it after something as mortal as a human, it gets kind of excessive.”

This “naming frenzy” as LaDuke phrased it, distances people from place and disrupts an appreciation and respect for the earth.

She also took issue with renaming mountains because she questioned who gets to define what’s sacred and what’s true. As it turns out, LaDuke explained, the people who get to decide are city council members with a Xerox copy of a long-dead white guy’s words. It’s a man telling people their history.

LaDuke continued and discussed her role as water protector opposing the Sandpiper Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline and currently the International Tar Sands Pipeline. All of these pipelines threaten local and indigenous communities and often, at some point in the development process, cross into sacred reservation land.

Lucas Brunt, a fifth-semester human development and family studies major, appreciated how LaDuke took what many see as a distant issue and brought it into a contemporary conversation.

“I definitely resonated a lot with what she said about sacred land and how we think of sacred land as a thing of the past but sacred land is here and now and I hadn’t really thought of it like that before and that was a wow moment there,” Brunt said.

LaDuke later recounted that while demonstrating as a water protector, she tried to get arrested as she stood in a crowd of thirty made up of five other native women and about 25 Christians. According to LaDuke, if you want to get arrested all you have to do is stand next to “the Christian people,” she said to the audience’s amusement.

“I tell you this story because I want you to know that I have advanced degrees, I’ve run for vice president twice and sometimes you just gotta get yourself arrested. Get yourself arrested for the right thing,” LaDuke said, “And in this case I’m also like I actually don’t want to spend my time getting arrested. I would just like the system to work, but I’m going to stand up because I’m not afraid and I’m going to do everything I can do make the system to work.”

Towards the end of her talk, LaDuke offered solutions to our global resource consumption problem. She advocated for localizing food production and reaffirming our relationship to place.

LaDuke lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, where she grows her own corn and hemp, among other goods. These locally grown products are naturally made to withstand frost and drought, unlike genetically modified crops. With climate change rapidly escalating, LaDuke suggested that the food of the future will need to be adaptable.

By growing your own food, you ground yourself in an appreciation and respect of place and the sacredness of that place, something that we’ve lost in search of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, according to LaDuke.

LaDuke concluded with an inspirational, genuine call to action.

“My views may be unpopular with some of the one percent. But if they’re the one percent, I feel like: we’re the 99 percent, let’s act like it,” LaDuke said. “In the end we are all together in this moment we can make a change.”


Alex Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexis.taylor@uconn.edu.