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Jenna e. Ziman
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Rob richie and steven Hill
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Slippin' & Slidin'
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Activism On and Off the Reservation
David Barsamian interviews Winona LaDuke
pretty much linked to the rest of it. I had the benefit of presenting the research I had done to the UN. Then I asked if I could go and work in these communities that were impacted. So I began by working down in the Navajo reservation in the Southwest on uranium mining, and then I moved up to South Dakota and worked there for some time. Mostly on uranium and mining issues, trying to stop mines from opening up, translating documents from academic government-ese into common English and then into the local languages, Navajo, Hopi, or Lakota.
This was in your late teens, while you were still a student at Harvard?
I took a lot of time off from school. I went back and forth to Harvard, wrote research papers, mostly on this. I have a degree in native economic development and a masters in rural development. Pretty much all I know about is reservation economies and reservation development issues.
The term a person of color was not being used at that time. How was it for you at school?
I grew up in Ashland, Oregon. It was a small town. I come from a bicultural family. My Mom is a Russian Jew from New York and my father is an Ojibwe. So it was a no-win situation. My parents were both very political. I was raised in the middle of the Vietnam War. My parents were antiwar activists. My stepfather was in the picture at that point in time. I was pretty much across-the-board unpopular in my school. I was the only Indian in my school at the time. When I went to Harvard I found that there were a lot of people who were more like me. I became politicized over a period of time. I realized that the fact that I was unpopular in my school didnt have to do with being a bad person as much as it had to do with issues of race and prejudice.
What about gender bias?
Gender bias, I would say, too, but all of these things. I had the benefit of being with a lot of people of color at Harvard. I enjoyed that. It expanded my horizons. It was also during the middle of the divestment campaign for South Africa.
Did you get involved with that?
I sure did. I was with the American Indians at Harvard, which was a small group. We were right there with the African American students. We worked on that. It was a really good politicization process. At the same time I was working on these issues of multinationals on the reservations, the same multinationals that are in Namibia and South Africa.
That divestment campaign in the 1980s, primarily on U.S. college campuses, was quite successful and a good model.
It was a very good model. It was, I believe, the foundation for some of our work on James Bay in northern Canada. A lot of the campaign we waged trying to stop the big megadams up there on James Baythat would flood an area the size of Connecticut or impact an area the size of New Englandwas based on this same model: You pay your tuition, you should have some say that your tuition shouldnt go for violating other peoples human rights.
To go to recent events, Iraq is denounced by many U.S. political leaders and the media. They say it cannot be trusted to honor its agreements. What is the U.S. record on agreements and treaties with native peoples?
Pretty dismal. Indian people find it so ironic that the U.S. is all about Iraq keeping their agreements or bargains. The U.S. has no record of keeping agreements with native people. I always find it ironic today, because Indian people are saying, Our treaty rights need to be recognized. Were in court and well have a court decision like in Minnesota that recognizes we have the right to harvest in the northern third of the state outside our reservation borders. The non-Indian people will say, Those are ancient rights. Thats how the press refers to it. I think to myself, Well, that Constitutions pretty ancient, too, isnt it? There are certain things that are the law, and those treaties between nations are the law. According to the Constitution thats the law of the land.
That might connect with the invisibility of Native Americans in U.S. culture. When you hear discussions, if people of color are mentioned at all, it will be African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, but Native Americans dont seem to register on that Richter scale.
My theory is that the mythology of America is about denial of the native. Thats the foundation of America, this whole idea of Manifest Destiny, the great emptiness that is out there. You cannot discover something if somebody lives there. You create a mythology that its this vast, untamed wilderness and that nobody was there. The mythology of America says that there were a few Indians, and those Indians died mysteriously. We had some mistakes, like Sand Creek in Colorado or Wounded Knee, but most of the mythology of the great expansion of America is based on the denial of the existence of native people. America has been, for 500 years, in the process of denial of holocaust. I dont say somebodys holocaust is worse than somebody elses, but I will say that we have to acknowledge that holocaust occurred. But America has been in denial about that having occurred. So today, over that period of time, native people have been totally removed from the American psyche. We permeate America. A third of the country is named in indigenous names, states, river systems. We are the food that people eat, the technology, in all of these things, but at the same time we get no intellectual property rights credit for that. I ask people all the time, How many of you can name ten different kinds of native people? They cant. Most people cant name four different kinds of Indian people. Why is that? Because schools dont teach about native people. Its a totally systematic process which denies our existence. Ask people what kind of Indians they know, most people can name Indians from Westerns. Whats happened over time is that the image of the native person has become a caricature.
Like the Lone Rangers faithful and obedient servant Tonto, which incidentally in Spanish means stupid. Other Indians were like Cochise, Geronimo, and Crazy Horsemenacing, threatening warriors.
You look now and the only two Indian women that we even know are Sacajawea and Pocahontas. Why did they permeate Americas consciousness and get in there with Disney? Because they helped the white guys. Those are really not the imagery of native people, native women. That is some of the issues we need to confront in terms of de-mythologizing.
One of the topics that you write and talk about is environmental racism.
Environmental racism links native people to other poor people of color. The problem is that in the case of native people, this is a systemic issue. This is the relationship between the settler and the native. This is the relationship between an industrial society and an indigenous society. The issues that occur in the native community today are not new. We have a couple hundred years of environmental destruction which has occurred in the Americas. The best example is the destruction of the buffalo. You cant remove 50 million buffalo from the Great Plains, remove the single largest herd of migratory animals that ever existed, and not have a huge environmental impact. Thats part of the relationship between the native people, because that was a military policy. So environmental racism is a term used to talk about a disproportionate share of environmental problems in communities of color. Few benefits, more impacts. And native people are part of that as communities of color.
You had a rather stinging criticism of some portions of the establishment environmental movement.
You felt that parts of it were racist?
Of course they are. The environmental movement by and large, comes out of a very white, middle-class preserve. In my gut, I want all American people to engage with nature, to reestablish relationship with earth. Environmentalism is a strange term. I think it is really about rediscovering your humanity and how your humanity relates to life. What we have is a colonial society in America which is trying to come to terms with the fact that its run out of frontiers. The depth of environmentalism, the relationship of humans to the natural world, is what we need to recover. Unfortunately, mainstream environmental groups are still very much preoccupied in this centerpiece. My experience with the big ten groups is first of all, you cant have boards and the majority of your staff be all white, privileged, middle-class people and expect that that group of people can make a set of decisions for the rest of the world, or make a set of decisions that are reflective of native communities. Native communities today face environmental threats on most of our reservations. Two-thirds of the uranium resources in the country are on Indian lands. One-third of all Western low-sulfur coal. We have the single largest hydroelectric project on our lands, the James Bay project. We have nuclear waste dump proposals on reservations. Most of the mainstream environmental groups do not deal with those issues. They want to save this parcel or that parcel or fix this greenway. These issues are convenient to those groups. By and large they do not engage in building partnership with native communities or other communities of color.
You went to Chiapas and wrote an article for Indigenous Woman, the journal of the Indigenous Womens Network, which you founded. You comment that Chiapas is a wealthy region in theory. This resonates with a lot of the geography of North American native peoples as well: wealthy regions in theory, but not in reality.
Thats right. Its just like the question of why Indian people are poor. They have the poorest socioeconomic statistics, the worst health statistics.
Who asks that question?
Why Indians are poor? People dont usually ask that question. I dont preach to the choir. Most of the time, Im trying to engage with the Chamber of Commerce in Detroit Lakes or businesses in border towns to my reservation. I talked to the Rotary Club in the town of Park Rapids one day. They said, You Indians are all up there on welfare and youre lazy. If youd just go get yourselves a job, youd be okay. Youd have a lot more self-respect and you wouldnt be so poor. I believe that that is a statement that is not isolated to that little border town. Some people say, Why dont you Indians just get a job? Get with the program. Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps. Im talking to a room entirely of men, 50 middle-aged men. I said, The problem is that you guys got our boots. We cant find our bootstraps because you have our boots. You control all the land on my reservation. Ninety percent of it is held by non-Indian landowners.
@GUIDE BODY = Indian people are poor because of structural poverty. Structural poverty means you dont actually control your land, your economy. We dont have a multiplier. That is to say that a town like Boulder has a multiplier of seven. A dollar comes in and its spent over and over, unless you get a Wal-Mart, then youre kind of screwed. Up in our reservation, a dollar comes onto the reservation, its spent the next day in the border town, because we dont have a retail sector. Thats structural poverty. You cant fix that until you restructure your economy. You control your land and you control your economy.
You make a direct connection between land and political power.
Land is the basis of political power. Why do you think the U.S. government is the largest landholder? If land wasnt power they would have turned it all over, wouldnt they?
What did you find on your trip to Chiapas?
I interviewed four women about my age. They were all Zapatista comandantes. They wore ski masks. There were armored personnel carriers and tanks around. I asked, Why is it that you stand up and fight? Why do you take up arms against the Mexican government? Look at all the force they have on their side. One woman said to me, Because were tired of being animals. Were treated like animals. We have no health care. Our children are dying of diseases. Things you could prevent. They take our corn. They take our land. We cant live like this. Were tired of living like animals. We want our dignity. We demand our dignity. This is how you get your dignity. You have to stand up. They dont give it to you. You have to fight for it.
The Indigenous Womens Network, which was founded in 1985, says that it works in rural and urban communities applying indigenous values to resolve contemporary problems. What are those values?
Each of our communities has our own instructions, our cultures. Our cultures, like minobimaatisiiwin, a term in Ojibwe, talks about whats called the good life. An alternative translation is continuous rebirth. It talks about how youre supposed to live to respect all thats around you. Honor your elders. Listen to your teachings. Care for your family. Women are the center of our nations, the mothers of our nations. These are some of our teachings. Those are not teachings from the dominant society. Those are teachings from our cultures. In our cultures we have prophecies. Each community has its own prophecies. The Indigenous Womens Network believes that you have the wellspring for healing your community within the cultural framework and spiritual practice of your community. The instructions are not about going back. Its about taking and learning from your traditions, carefully reflecting on them as you make your decisions for now, for your life way. Thats what they call it in our community, the life way. Its our path. Theres so much pressure on us to assimilate, to become commodified, to buy your life at The Gap. The challenge we face in this most confusing of times is to take that which is ours and use that as the framework from which we make our decisions for the future. Thats what the Indigenous Womens Network is about.
You travel around the U.S. and the globe. Do you feel a connection over the chasms of culture and language?
I feel a connection with indigenous women from a small village in the Philippines. I feel a connection with indigenous women from Rwanda. The closer they are to experiences which resonate with mine, that in their heart they struggle on the same issues, I understand that. They can be all colors. I believe that the Creator made all colors of people, and theyre all beautiful. There is an immense amount of beauty in each of us. What compels me, and what I find most beautiful, is when people struggle to regain their humanity, do not take what was handed to them by the society, do not just accept blindly. I want to be a feminist and I want to be better than a white man. Why would you want to do that? Thats my question. Why would you want to compete? Why would you want to be in the military? Thats the question Ive got to ask. Those are value questions. I embrace and am inspired by all kinds of people. Father Roy Bourgeois, who fights the School of the Americas, is a great inspiration to me. I met him 20 years ago. He said something I will never forget. He and I were at an Exxon stockholders meeting in Chicago. It was an interesting place to be. I had a resolution there trying to get Exxon out of the Navajo reservation. They all looked at me like I was from outer space. I sat down, and Father Roy Bourgeois stood up and went to the microphone. He said, Im a Maryknoll priest. I dont have a resolution. Ive been living in Latin America for the past ten years, in El Salvador. He said, I dont have a resolution, but Ive got a question. The people in El Salvador gave me this question to ask you. They want to know if theres a direct relationship between their poverty and your wealth. Thats all he said. Thats what its about. That relationship between their poverty and their wealth.
In your new novel, Last Standing Woman, published by Voyager Press, you trace the life and times of seven generations of Anishinabe. Why is seven such a key number?
Seven is an important number in a lot of our spiritual practices. In this case, it happened to be the same time that I was writing about. The book commences around 1862, with the Sioux uprising in Minnesota and the impact of that on our community and the relationship between these two women and ends in 2018, which is about seven generations later.
Tell me what goes on in the Honor the Earth tours you do with the Indigo Girls. You just did 21 concerts.
Our tours are to raise money and political support for Native American issues. We try to reach out to a section of people who probably wouldnt hear about these things. We launched the most recent tour in upstate New York at the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation. Then we moved across the East Coast. We raised about $200,000, which we gave away to grassroots native organizations. Its also about trying to change consciousness, because, as you can imagine, people who go to an Indigo Girls concert are probably not familiar with native environmental issues. For example, we were interested in talking about this law they are trying to pass. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act proposes to move nuclear waste from 108 nuclear reactors in the U.S. to Yucca Mountain in Western Shoshone territory. The young people who go to these concerts, and everybody else, are going to face a huge public health hazard. They are going to move that nuclear waste from those nuclear reactors and transport it on highways. Theyre talking between 80,000 and 90,000 shipments of nuclear waste on Americas highways.
Is this from Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Rocky Flats?
All of those, but its much more. Its from places like Seabrook, Millstone Three, Maine Yankee, and Indian Point. Most of these nuclear reactors have only so much storage space. They want to continue to operate as long as they can, although theyre pretty much economically a disaster. They want to move that nuclear waste. They billed it in America as one nuclear dump. They said, We dont want to have 100 nuclear dumps like we have now. Rocky Flats is a nuclear dump, as is Oak Ridge, as is any place that government and industry have made a nuclear mess. They said, We want to just have one. That will make it easier. Its a total misrepresentation, because what were going to have is 109 nuclear dumps. They want to move it across the country within half a mile of 50 million Americans. Were going to move between 30,000 and 90,000 shipments of nuclear waste. Each cask is well over the capacity of a Hiroshima bomb. On the highway.
@GUIDE BODY = The nuclear industry is lobbying for this bill. I believe that decision-making in this country is not a democracy. Corporations make most decisions, whether its evidenced through financing of campaigns and elections and special interest money, or whether its just how public policy is shaped and formed. How do these guys all get to be special interest groups, to have little hearings? Right now in northern Minnesota youve got the deer hunters special interest groups. Theyre trying to get the wolf off the Endangered Species List in northern Minnesota. Somehow deer hunters have equal standing with the wolf. Equal standing with native people who have lived all these years with the wolf. They get to be in the policy-making arena, as stakeholders. Fifty of the largest economies in the world today are not nations but corporations.
That intersects with Ralph Naders analysis. What did you learn from running with Nader in the 1996 campaign?
What you learn from Ralph is tenacity. That guy fights for all these years. A lot of people say, Oh, I think Im tired of this campaign. Im going to bag it for a while. A lot of people are like, Its so big. Look at that man. The fact is that most laws in this country today that are consumer laws, airline safety laws, workers rights laws, are because of Ralph and people like him. Not Ralph alone. Workers are the ones who got workers rights. What you have to remember is that any rights weve got in this country today is because someone fought for them. No one ever handed us anything. Thats what Ralph reminds you of, that youve got to go out there and have your voice heard. He stood up in the last election.
@GUIDE BODY = The Europeans that came to this country had no framework for democracy. They came out of monarchy and feudalism. They fled looking for religious freedom. So where did Ben Franklin go? Up to the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy to get the idea of representational government. Those guys were all up there, following around the Iroquois Nation. So they founded their ideas on that Iroquois Confederacy. Missed major, essential points, though. For instance, one-man-one-vote. That had to do with only white men who owned land. That was a big missing point. Actually, in the Iroquois Confederacy the interesting point is that it is women who appoint the chiefs. It is women who have the last word. Interesting point. Missed essential point.
What are your views on casinos on Indian land?
Its a difficult issue. I support the right of Indian people to have casinos. I think its a huge problem, though. The problem that Indian people have is that I dont think as an economist I would hang my development policy on a casino. The problem is the federal government says to Indian people, Im going to recognize your sovereignty if you either want to have a nuclear or toxic waste dump or a casino. Thats pretty much the only way you get your sovereignty recognized as Indian people. Let me be clear about this: we are sovereign. I dont care if the federal government recognizes me, my nation, and my people. Thats of little consequence to me in the long-term picture. The federal government, as far as Im concerned, is by and large illegal. Most transactions are illegal. Its like being recognized by a bunch of hoodlums. But under the law, they recognize your sovereignty in those two things, a dump or a casino. So Indian people are in this ironic situation that our choices for economic development are so limited. In Minnesota I see two examples. I see a reservation like Mille Lacs. They have two casinos. They built schools, houses, roads, clinics, and community buildings. They bought land. Nobody was going to do that for them. No federal appropriation was going to be given to those Indian people to do that, although their land was mostly taken from them. The federal government is supposed to provide those things for them. Thats not going to happen, so they did that with their casino, and thats right. Theyre making some long-term investments that are smart. They dont think those casinos are going to last forever, but theyre doing the right thing. My reservations a bad example. Were poor. My last tribal government was so corrupt they spent all their time skimming the top of the casino money. It never got down to our community. So its a mixed bag. I support that we have the right to have them, but I think its an unfortunate situation. As long as we have structural poverty in our community, were always going to have these problems. You cannot change that situation unless you address the issue of land economy.
Perhaps a program of decolonization?
Im big on that decolonization program. Thats the way to go. Its not only for native people. I think the challenge for American people is decolonizing your mind. Letting go of the imagery you have of how you relate to native people, of how to relate to the land, the idea of a frontier mentality. The Great Plains is a perfect example. We have this whole mythology of the Great Plains based on the yeoman farmer out there tilling the soil that should never have been tilled. You had 50 million buffalo out there and you had 250 species of plants and a totally different biodiversity. Today youve got 45 million cattle out there and the single largest loss of life of any biome in North America. You have loss of topsoil. The Oglala Aquifer, the great freshwater area that underlies the Great Plains is drying up. Thats going to be gone in 30 years. Then what are they going to do with all that agriculture theyve got on the Great Plains? That Great Plains, that farmer facing the wind, that is the mythology on which America is based. The idea that the rights of cattlemen are sacred. Jeremy Rifkin talks about that in his book Beyond Beef. Beyond sacred is what it is. The rights of cattlepeople and the rights of the beef industry and the rights of corporations to federal rangeland in the West. The challenge in America is decolonizing. Not just native people, but decolonizing federal policy, decolonizing the assumptions of what is America. Deconstructing America from patriotism to a flag to patriotism to a land.
When you said the Great Plains was the site of the greatest single loss of life, you meant the buffalo herds?
I meant the whole thing. You have no biodiversity left on the Great Plains. You go from 250 different species of grass in the natural Great Plains that existed in the indigenous prairie grass patch, not to mention all those other critters that were out there. You go down to a Nebraska wheat field and youve got one variety. One seed on there, mono-cropped. That is what the problem is. If the winter of 1996 didnt teach Americans that you lose, I think they lost over 400,000 cattle. In October 1997 they lost 15,000 cattle right outside of Denver. Why is that? Because cattle do not belong in this ecosystem. Frank and Debra Popper, demographers from Rutgers University, have a proposal called the Buffalo Commons Proposal. They talk about the fact that what occurred in the Great Plains in terms of the whole rise and fall of the farming culture in the Great Plains is the result of the largest economic and ecological miscalculation in American history. Interesting phrase, but its true. The fact is that the Dust Bowl was only about the fourth decade of that problem. You had a continuing crisis on the Great Plains that is not going to get solved until you deal with the fact that what America has done to the Great Plains is what America has done to the continent. That is not ecologically sustainable and is never going to sustain American agriculture.
Poverty amidst isolated islands of great wealth. Youve talked about this disparity and paradox.
Coming from the poorest community in the country, we observe the wealth on the other end. Our one percent observes the other one percent with great interest.
So you dont quite live in a gated community on White Earth.
Is that like the suburb with the little gate? I dont want to misrepresent my situation. I like my community. I like my reservation. I like the land I live on. I do a lot of harvesting. Its a good quality of life. I choose my life there. I dont choose material life. I have cultural wealth that far surpasses any material wealth that I could ever buy. But also, my community suffers great hardship. The crime rate is probably on the scale of Detroit about 20 years ago. Theyre talking about epidemic suicide rates on Indian reservations these days. You have a decrease in crime rates in the major cities, but you have a 50 to 70 percent increase in crime over the past 3 or 4 years on the reservations.
Are you visited by sociologists and anthropologists who describe the social pathologies of native peoples?
I had some anthropologists show up about a year ago because they were working on this land issue. They happened to walk into my house just as I was butchering a beaver on my kitchen table. It was like an anthropologists heaven. They could not believe their good fortune. I had to laugh. It just happened someone had dropped this beaver off at my house. Im a carnivore, I eat all those things. Beaver tastes really good to me. So I was butchering this beaver in the middle of my kitchen table. But of course I had to draft them, because thats a big job. One of them was kind of squeamish, but I got one of them right up there to his elbows in that process, kind of a participatory anthropological study.
Is a member of society someone who goes to the mall and consumes things?
That is becoming what it is to be a member of American society. Its a consumer culture. But thats the difference maybe between society and community. As a member of my community, I am responsible for my community. Society is so much more amorphous. But you are responsible for your community. I could sit and bellyache about my tribal government, who did what to me, but ultimately I am responsible for my community, for my children.
How are your children doing?
My children are doing quite well. My child is in a tribal school. My fourth-grader came home from school one day with the Bering Strait theory to discuss.
And the Bering Strait theory is ...?
This is the American mythology about how Indian people got here. We refer to it as the BS theory.
They took a Greyhound bus from Asia?
We took a Greyhound bus from Asia and partied all the way. In our community in a tribal school all full of Ojibwe people, we have a whole story of how we got here. We followed a shell from the eastern seaboard. We stopped at these different places. We have a map. A shell that appeared in the sky. Is that interesting, or what?
A creation myth.
We all have our stories. I believe that our children should know that before they know that BS theory.
Youre recovering the land on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota parcel by parcel, acre by acre. How can people find out more about your work?
They can write to us, the White Earth Land Recovery Project, Route 1, Box 291, Ponsford, MN 56575; Tel.: (218) 573-3448; Fax: (218) 573-3444; E-mail: WELRPeot.com. Its a small, community-based effort to recover our land, culture and environment. I believe that everyone should try to do something in their own community. Youve always got to keep your eye on the big picture, though. People make bad decisions sometimes that affect you, but also you make your own community a good place to live, because thats who youll be related to for the rest of your days.
Youre writing a book for South End Press.
Its on grassroots native environmental work on the continent and a little bit into the Pacific. I have seven or eight chapters done. The title is Voices from the Front. Its about different people who do really valiant work, and how theyve changed their communities and what they struggle with. Ive really enjoyed writing it. Its different than writing a novel. Its been great getting to know these communities. <S>Z
David Barsamian is the founder of Alternative Radio. For information about obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of this or other programs, contact: Alternative Radio, PO Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.