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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Native Struggles

Air Date: Week of

Winona LaDuke, author of “All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life,” talks with host Steve Curwood about the issues facing Native Americans in today’s society.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Winona LaDuke was Ralph Nader's running mate in the 1996 election, and she'll likely be on the Green Party ticket again this year as its vice presidential pick. Winona LaDuke is an Ojibwe Indian who ardently defends Native American rights. In her new book, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, she contends that too many governments fail to consider the continuing presence of Native Americans as active citizens.

LaDUKE: Many people by and large are treated in America as things that are historical, in the past, or romanticized, or kind of are far away and so obscure and so few. Or, you know, just our basic tragic stories that kind of pass you in the news, without any either analysis or context of the issues. Without allowing people to be full human beings with dignity, with ideas, with dreams, that are just like other folks.

CURWOOD: Now, you're a member of the Anishinaabeg in northern Minnesota.

LaDUKE: Yeah. Anishinaabeg or Ojibwe, as we're also known.

CURWOOD: What does it mean to you to be from this family? To be an Indian person in the United States in the year 2000?

LaDUKE: Oh, that's quite a question. You go to the schools up here today and you don't even get a good story. My kid was in public school up here in the town of Bemidji. I had to laugh because my daughter, pretty smart girl, she got a D on her fifth grade North American Indians test.

CURWOOD: Oh really.

LaDUKE: (Laughs) For someone like me that's, like, embarrassing, right? You know, your kid's supposed to know all things about all Indians. I said, "My girl, let me see that test." The first question on the test is, "Which Indians were hunters and gatherers?" Now, you know, I've got to ask you, how is an Indian kid going to answer that question? Problem with this test, I go talk to the teacher. I said, "The problem with this test is, the first thing is 'were.' I mean, you know, that's saying someone lived a long time ago, and that's not present verbs, you know? The second thing is that, you know, up here in this area we trap and we hunt and we harvest wild rice and berries and maple syrup. So, you know, for us I'd say that means we're hunters and gatherers, right?" The correct answer was, "The Plains Indians were hunters and gatherers." Now, who the heck are the Plains Indians, Steve? You know what I'm saying? Who are the Plains Indians? (Curwood laughs) I've got a lot of Indian people come to my house, and we don't have people come over and I say the Plains Indians are coming to dinner now. I mean, you say that the Lakotas are coming to dinner, or maybe the Pine Ridgers are coming to dinner. Some Blackfeets are heading in, you know? You don't say the Plains Indians. I tell you that story because that's kind of indicative of the problem we face today, in kind of these serious omissions that are replicated. You know, in the schools even to this day. And the consequence is that, you know, these kids grow up and they go and become politicians and make public policy and they know nothing about Indian people.

CURWOOD: In your book you chronicle a number of different struggles. Environmental struggles involving a number of tribes. Is there one of these that stands out among all of them for you? If so, which one, and why?

LaDUKE: You know, a really good example is that they put a bunch of dams in, in northern Manitoba in the 70s. The 1970s. And those dams by and large feed power down to the United States. They put those dams in an area that was full of permafrost. You know what permafrost is?

CURWOOD: By its name you know it tries to stay cold, right?

LaDUKE: Yeah, it's cold all the time, right? It's cold all the time. And so, then what they find out is that the temperature of the water behind the dam wall is higher than the temperature of the soil. And so, you're constantly melting the soil away, in this area in northern Manitoba. And they call it a shoreline retreat.


LaDUKE: And they were going at, like 80 feet a year. I was talking to these Crees that live up there, and they told me this story. And this image, I'm going to share with you, but I cannot get it out of my mind. They're hunting for moose, and they're going along the river in a big canoe. And they finally come upon a moose. That moose is stuck in the mud up to its shoulders. It is stuck in the mud.


LaDUKE: And that, you know, that is where we are playing God in these ecosystems. You know, these are the problems, is that we have public policy that is operating without common sense. It's operating with some kind of, you know, a hope, we're at some kind of a dream that somebody's going to fix it.

CURWOOD: What's the connection between the disappearance of many Native Americans and the change in the ecological landscape of America?

LaDUKE: In North America, one of the best ways to tell that story is to look at the history of the buffalo. Indinoway mugana tuk, indinoway mugana tuk, relatives is how they're called. All our teachings, you know, as indigenous people, are about respecting these older brothers and older sisters as those who were here before us, and teach us how to live. So, 150 years ago you had 50 million buffalo in the Great Plains. And it's said that the buffalo themselves is part of what helped keep the prairie so biologically diverse as it was. The American government could not, could not defeat the indigenous people of that region. So America built a military policy on killing buffalo. And in the 1880s, 1890 period, that was the end of the buffalo herds, as 50 million animals were totally decimated on the Great Plains. And from there, America built an agriculture policy on America's military policy. So today, you go out there on the prairie and you see, you know, all these ecological problems, and you see an equal amount, quite honestly, of social and demographic problems.

CURWOOD: So, when the U.S. government decided to kill the buffaloes, to kill the Indians, they killed the prairie. And within 50 years we had a dust bowl, and we still have an ecological desert. Is that the lesson?

LaDUKE: Yeah. That's it. That's the issue, I think, is, like, one of the most important issues in the Indian country right now. And I think it's symbolic, because it's a question that I would ask is, you know, in the new millennium, does America need to keep shooting buffalo? You know, haven't we learned? Isn't it time to quit shooting buffalo?

CURWOOD: Winona LaDuke's new book is called All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. Thanks for joining us.

LaDUKE: Migwich.



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