WRC honors Green Party's LaDuke

by Carl Burnett | 5/10/02 5:00am

Winona LaDuke, who ran with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket in the last two presidential elections, calls her job "political gardening."

"But I'm not really a proponent of the phrase 'You reap what you sow,' because some of those things you don't ever harvest," she said yesterday with a chuckle.

LaDuke, a Native American activist for environmental and social justice causes, is the Women's Resource Center's Visionary-in-Residence for three days. Her schedule includes visits with the WRC, Native Americans at Dartmouth and individual classes.

In an interview with The Dartmouth yesterday, LaDuke talked about the effects of her 1996 and 2000 vice-presidential candidacies. She wore her shiny black hair long and loose, and turquoise and silver rings on her fingers.

"I think we were able to break down a lot of barriers for third parties," she said. "We helped encourage a lot of people to vote. You know, the largest party in America is the non-voters."

Asked how the nation would be different if she were vice-president, she said, "I wouldn't be engaged in a major war in the Middle East."

"And I am not a proponent of the amount of weapons that is going to Israel," added LaDuke, who is half Jewish, glancing around the Roth Center for Jewish Life, where she had accepted the WRC's Visionary-in-Residency award.

Unlike Nader, who has often publicly stated he saw no difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore, LaDuke called Gore "the lesser of two evils."

"I think we would be better off under Al than we are under George W.," she said.

But LaDuke defended herself and Nader from the accusation leveled against her by many liberal voters that the Green vote in Florida tipped the scales from Gore to Bush in 2000.

"[Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush successfully disenfranchised far more potential voters than we actually got," she said, referring to barriers that allegedly prevented thousands of largely Democratic African-American voters from reaching the polls.

"I think we get blamed," LaDuke said. "But the main thing is that Al Gore actually won the election."

LaDuke accepted the WRC award in front of an audience of several dozen students and a handful of faculty and community members. Her husband and young daughters were in attendance.

"That's really cool!" LaDuke said when WRC director Giovanna Munafo presented her with the award, a framed print by local artist Barbara McDonald.

LaDuke then spoke to the audience in her native Ojibway language, thanking them for coming.

"Cultural diversity is as important as biological diversity," LaDuke continued in English. She illustrated that maxim with examples from her native community in northern Minnesota, which she said has been the victim of "cultural monocropping."

She then introduced a motto that provoked a few laughs: an Ojibway phrase she translated as "positive window shopping for your future." She stressed the need for progressive activists to plan ahead proactively, citing the long-term plans large corporations often have in place.

"Too much of our time is spent being reactive rather than proactive," she said.

For much of LaDuke's time on the podium, she spoke of the women who had served as her role models.

She noted women at the 1995 United Nations Convention on the Status of Women in Beijing who had travelled from around the world to tell the stories of their people's marginalization in the face of corrupt governments and corporations.

LaDuke then addressed her own experiences in combating injustice. She said she tries to ask herself and her supporters one question: "Who has a right to determine the future of our community?"

She talked at length about her efforts to battle logging companies and genetic-engineering companies, one of which recently sought and secured a patent on the variety of wild rice cultivated by the Ojibway. LaDuke called the practice "biopiracy."

She closed her talk by reminding the audience that issues of social justice are "a challenge for each of us, collectively."

In response to an audience question about how she became Nader's running mate, LaDuke revealed that her three childhood heroes were Batman, Spider-Man and Ralph Nader.

"The first time I said that in public in front of Ralph, he blushed," LaDuke said.

The two activists first met when Nader spoke at a Student Environmental Action Committee meeting in 1990.

It was later that the Green Party asked LaDuke to consider running for office, and she refused. But when they asked her if they could add her to a list of vice-presidential contenders during the 1996 campaign, she said yes, not knowing Nader would eventually choose her. The two met in LaDuke's northern Minnesota home on the White Earth Reservation to negotiate the terms of the campaign -- LaDuke would have to be able to spend lots of time with her family. Nader agreed to her demands.

Approached to run again in 2000, when she was seven months pregnant, LaDuke thought about it and again agreed.

LaDuke considered attending Dartmouth as an undergraduate in 1976, but chose Harvard instead, she said, for the change of pace Boston offered from her rural home. She has also attended Antioch University.

LaDuke currently works as program director of the Honor the Earth Fund, which raises money and awareness for native environmental groups. The Fund's efforts include a partnership with the Indigo Girls, who LaDuke has toured with four times to spread her messages.

In 1994, Time magazine named her one of America's fifty most promising leaders under 40. LaDuke is a former board member of Greenpeace USA and serves as co-chair of the Indigenous Women's Network. In 1997, her first novel, "Last Standing Woman," followed in 1999 by "All Our Relations," a non-fiction book on native environmental struggles. "The Winona LaDuke Reader" is due out this month.