Winona LaDuke has used nearly every form of writing to tell the story of Native Americans through their eyes. Via essays, speeches, poetry and fiction, she’s been telling the tale of a wounded culture trying to restore ancient patterns of life, and how 19th and 20th century consumerism and militarism undermine those efforts. An overview of her oeuvre, The Winona LaDuke Reader, was published by Voyageur Press this year and will be discussed by the author at Black Oak Books on Sunday evening.
While coming to the fore of national consciousness as Ralph Nader’s running mate in the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns, 42-year-old LaDuke has been in the political arena her entire adult life. As a spokesperson for Native Americans – she is half Anishinaabe, and lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota – LaDuke has connected causes such as environmentalism, women’s rights and cultural restoration.
“She has so much good writing, we wanted to collect it,” said Margret Aldrich, the editor who worked with LaDuke on the compilation. Voyageur Press also published LaDuke’s novel Last Standing Woman in 1997. “She writes on lots of different subjects, so we thought it would be a worthy project.”
The book includes a preface by Ralph Nader, and is divided into five sections: native environmentalism, native traditions, women’s issues, politics and the presidency, and fiction and poetry. But no matter what genre or topic, to LaDuke it’s all about the long-term preservation of a native heritage.
“One of her philosophies is that we should be thinking about the next seven generations,” said Aldrich. In the speech announcing her Green Party candidacy with Nader in 2000 LaDuke said, “Until we have an environmental, economic and social policy that is based on the consideration of the impact on the seventh generation from now, we will still be living in a society that is based on conquest, not on survival.”
In an essay on restoration of the sturgeon, a fish sacred to the Ojibwe, she writes, “I thought about how most of them (the fish) were twenty years my senior… and that this whole effort was not about my generation.”
LaDuke also writes about what Native Americans consider a blood kinship with other living things. She begins the essay on sturgeon with the Ojibwe traditional tale of a grandmother becoming a fish, and concludes “[We] will come to know the fish again, the fish who are our relatives.”
In an address to architects called “Building With Reservations” she quotes a Northwest native who said: “Our people hang the umbilical cords of our children from those trees. They are our relatives.”
The pun in the title “Building With Reservations” displays a wry sense of humor often evident in LaDuke’s work, no matter the seriousness of the subject matter. Her essay entitled “The Diaper Problem” is full of humor, while still making the point that plastic, disposable diapers pose a myriad of health and environmental risks. Similarly, in the address to architects, she said, “The Creator did not say ‘Go forth Ojibwes and go to Safeway.’ ”
One element of cultural pride is the maintenance of language, and LaDuke’s writing is sprinkled with Native American words and phrases. In fact, the final chapter of her novel “Last Standing Woman” is written in the Ojibwe language. She talked about the effect of language in a speech called “Honor the Earth: Our Native American Legacy.”
“We are a language of eight thousand verbs,” she said. “That’s a lot of verbs. That’s what I always say, though. We’re a people of action.”
The commitment to action led LaDuke into the U.S. elections of 1996 and 2000, and her glimpse into the most recent presidential race is enlightening. “We started working on this book right after election when it was at the forefront of her mind,” said editor Aldrich. LaDuke wrote several new election-themed pieces for this collection. She laments the Bush election in “Reflections on the Republic of Dubya,” an essay that skewered the 43rd president even before scandals like Enron hit.
The fiction and poetry section includes an excerpt from “Last Standing Woman” entitled “Coming Home.” It is the story of an Ojibwe man named Moose who is charged with moving Native remains from the Smithsonian Institute to their original burial grounds in Minnesota. Here LaDuke is on familiar ground; the driver’s destination is White Earth reservation, where she now lives. The author’s inclusion of a somewhat patronizing DeadHead and a surprisingly cooperative state trooper add levity and poignancy to the tale.
The Winona LaDuke Reader concludes with poetry. In “Song for Moab, Utah” she decries the use of native lands for both World War II internment camps and subsequent nuclear bomb test sites:
And the earth screamed
And the wind screamed
And the people of the creation
Lived with those radiation poisons
And screamed in the night.
She continues to expose historic truths like this, employing a variety of writing, as this collection demonstrates. As the poem concludes:
And the earth never moved,
She was still in need of company and prayers.