Winona LaDuke speaks her mind in Suquamish

SUQUAMISH — The grains of wild rice that grow on the plains of Minnesota are varied, diverse. Some are black, some are light, some are short and fat and others are long. Some catch blight while others remain healthy, but all are sacred to the Anishinaabe.

Many years ago, two Anishinaabeg people (called Ojibwe by the federal government) met while collecting manoomin, wild rice, in northern Minnesota in “the place where the Thunderbeings rest.” Their daughter, known today as Winona LaDuke, said she is a direct product of the manoomin, whose grains compose the sustenance of Anishinaabeg history and culture.

More than 170 people filled the Chief Kitsap Room at the Suquamish Casino Resort Sunday to hear LaDuke speak on indigenous food sovereignty and energy conservation in times of climate change.

LaDuke, an internationally respected Native American and environmental activist, started fighting for indigenous rights issues early on. She said she got tired of waiting for the federal and state government to put the concerns of the White Earth Reservation (where she still lives) on the priority list.

“Ask yourselves what is our future going to be like,” LaDuke said. “What will happen to our culture, our language, our ceremonies and what process is going to take us there?”

In 1981, she decided not to wait or ask these questions any more. LaDuke addressed the United Nations when she was 18 years old on topics of indigenous food sovereignty and energy conservation.

“If we had not taken action, we would still be waiting and I’d probably have a huge ulcer from complaining,” LaDuke said.

She said it used to be the way of the Anishinaabeg people to sit back and watch what was happening instead of taking action. There was a time when they could live like that — moving with the seasons and celebrating harvests with song and dance.

But once colonized thought and ideas of “progress” spread into northern Minnesota the time of sitting back and watching was over, she said.

It is important to look at the word colonialism and its close relation to “colon,” LaDuke said.

“It means to digest. The digestion of one people,” LaDuke said. “Colonization is the process of being consumed.”

LaDuke blames this colonization for the hardships of the Anishinaabe.

To this day, 90 percent of the land on the White Earth Reservation is non-Native interest.

“They took someone else’s land,” LaDuke said. “Then took someone else’s wealth.”

Anishinaabe wealth, she said, was in their wild rice harvests and their 10,000-year-old knowledge.

Rice is food for body and soul

The way the wild rice grows in northern Minnestota is product of bio-diversity, LaDuke said.

“That’s what we want,” she said. “A monoculture is dangerous.”

An anthropoligists once told the Anishinaabeg people that they would never become civilized because they enjoyed their rice harvest too much.

The anthropologist didn’t like the way they stopped working after winowing, or collecting the rice from the lake in baskets, to dance, sing and tell stories.

He refered to their harvest celebration as something comparable to a northern Minnesota martigras.

When industrialized agriculture took over Anishinaabe land “they drained the lake and picked up all the grains with a combine and called it progress,” LaDuke said. “Two indians in a canoe can’t compete with a combine.”

LaDuke said she inherited an attachment to wild rice because of family ties to the crop and now she has to fight to keep it sustainable and wild for generations to come.

LaDuke has fought rice battles for 20 years starting with the practices of cultivated, dyked rice paddies and now she is fighting the University of Minnesota and large corporations like Monsanto that want the right to genetically engineer Minnesota “wild” rice.

This, LaDuke said, is not right and we see the outcome of altering and engineering produce today.

The traditional variety of corn is higher in fiber, vitamins and amino acids, LaDuke said.

When corn was bred for preservation and high production most nutrients were bred out.

“We lost our food sovereignty,” LaDuke said. “We dont even cook anymore and we’re sick because of it.”

About one-third of the Native American population is diabetic, LaDuke said. “The best answer for diabetes is our traditional foods.”

Another program LaDuke is involved with back home is getting local food into schools including buffalo, locally raised turkey and produce from local gardens.

It is a process of reclaiming, taking back and recovering as a people, LaDuke said. “Today we live in a consumer sociey where people feel they need to buy their way of life and culture in a mall.”

All is not lost, LaDuke said. Indigenous people all over the world are reclaiming everything from traditional foods such as the Hawaiian tarot plant, to names such as the Aboriginal name Uluru for Ayers Rock in Australia and Mount Denali in Alaska. These were just a few examples.

“When we get these things back we start to recover as a people,” LaDuke said. “We may not be the smartest, the best-looking or the richest but we we’re the people who lived there.”

In addition to her Indigenous food efforts, LaDuke also brainstormed ways to combat our depleting oil resources and conserve energy.

LaDuke said she recently had to tell her 17-year-old son that although he was old enough to drive and was probably excited to cruise around town in his car, he probably wouldn’t be able to afford it much longer.

“I had to tell him half the world’s known oil resources were used up and gas prices were only going to continue to rise. He wasn’t happy with me,” she said. “I had to tell him he better get those horses running.”

But LaDuke has something else for her son in mind — a 1983 grease-powered Mercedes like the one she drives on the reservation.

“They call me the grease lady,” she said.

In effort toward energy independence on the reservation, LaDuke was instrumental in acquiring a wind turbine.

Reservations are always the windiest pieces of land, LaDuke said, as the Great Plains have often been called the Saudi Arabia of the United States. But now in northern Minnestota the people living on White Earth are utilizing the wind to go green.

In 2002, a 20-kilowatt wind turbine was erected; it supplies one-eighth of the reservation’s total energy.

The Harvard-educated LaDuke is a widely read author, the founder and director of White Earth Land Recovery Project and the co-chair of the Indigenous Woman’s Network. She also served as Ralph Nader’s vice presidential running mate for the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections. Her published books include: Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming, All Our Relations, Last Standing Woman and Into the Sugarbrush.

“People like her, they excite you and bring you hope,” said Ted George, the last general council chairman for Port Gamble S’klallam. “Someone like this fires you up. Our main message is that our tribal people are still here and we aren’t going anywhere.”

The presentation was sponsored by The Bainbridge Island Graduate Institute, the Suquamish tribe and the Kitsap extension of Washington State University.

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