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Winona LaDuke On Native American Activists Throughout History

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We hear a speech by longtime indigenous rights activist Winona LaDuke about past Native American activists, health, the environment and much more. LaDuke gained nationwide attention as vice presidential running mate to Ralph Nader on the 1996 and 2000 Green Party tickets. [includes rush transcript]

  • Winona LaDuke, speaking at the Boston Women’s Fund on April 30, 2004.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now, democracynow.org, I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Native American leader Winona LaDuke. She spoke this Friday night in Boston. We were together at the Mary Baker Eddy library, at an event sponsored by the Boston Women’s Fund. She spoke along with Congress member Barbara Lee. This is Winona LaDuke talking about the influence of Native women on her life.

WINONA LADUKE: [I came from a] small town in Northern Oregon, so coming here to Boston was like, really big, you know it was really big to me. And there were all these different kinds of people and I was kind of like from a little redneck town. So it was like a huge opening in my mind. I’ve probably worked for a lot of organizations out here that have been grantees. My first job was with the Boston Indian Council, which is one of those other groups that still hangs in there you know for a long time. And that was my first job and I got to hang out with Mel King for a long time. He’s a great guy.

Anyway, it is again an honor being here and it is also kind of different being on the other end, you know honoring a funding organization. I’m usually on the grantee end saying “Thank you so much. I love you, I love you, I love you”, so tonight I’m here to join with the Boston Woman’s Fund and honor all these great people and all the legacy of amazing work that is here that I am pleased to be a part of. So as I thought about this, it is an honor to be here but it is also really something that has to do with a lot of women with whom I work whose faces you do not see. That is one of the dilemmas in many ways of the native community is that we are geographically pretty dispersed let us say. So few people know much about the remarkable Native women with whom I’ve worked for most of my life. And so I think in many ways I feel honored that in some ways I’m here representing some of them and the work that they do and I was going to tell you a little bit about that. But in thinking about that I thought of asking you a question which always entertains me to get the answer to which is to name two Native women from history and see who you come up with. Come on, let me hear. (Voices from audience) Sacagawea, that’s one, and who’s the other (more voices), Thank you, Sacagawea and Pocahontas, that’s the two. I expect that, thank you. Thank you all. That’s a funny thing. My theory on why we all know them is because they helped white guys. (Laughter). That’s it, isn’t it? That’s pretty much how that works. Right, you know. I’m not sure that everything that was the best thinking, all along, you know. There were some good things that went with that, but you know, there’s a few things, but what I would say is that there’s probably a few more native women that we should know in history, I’m thinking that.

Then that might be part of the process of all of us it’s kind of that reconstructing of Native womanhood. That reconstructing and remembering who we are. And I think about some of those women who have influenced me in their history and their legacy as they danced today in the spirit world and that the teachings that they gave us are so significant. I flew this morning down from the Aquasni Mohawk reservation in upstate New York and that is a community which exemplifies much about what is talked about in Boston. Cause some of you may remember that the founding fathers all those guys hanging out at Fanueil Hall and other places when they were trying to figure out how to come up with a Democracy they didn’t have a lot of ideas you know, coming from feudalism and monarchy they had something that they wanted. They knew they wanted something but they didn’t have a lot of experience, you know. So they went up and they spent a lot of time with the Iroquois Confederacy which to this day is the oldest Democracy in the world, a thousand years or so, of a Democracy, a representational Democracy, comprised of Houses and Clans, and Clan Mothers and Chiefs. And that is what they, Ben Franklin and all those guys went and took notes from, but as it turns out their notes were not that good, because they missed some really essential points. One of those most important point I would note was that it was the Clan Mothers who appointed and removed the Chiefs. That would, in my estimation, have been a good one to keep.

But it is the descendents of those women today that I just spent the past couple of days with, some beautiful singers, stunning women, women who today who say things which many of us would say, which is there is a giant set of industrial plants there that have contaminated the St. Lawrence Seaway, and there is one plant there, a GM facility that put so much PCB’s in the environment that you have living things walking around that are legally considered toxic waste. And you have women who have their breast milk and their children who are contaminated with PCB’s. And these are women who say, that which I think all of us say, which is that you do not have the right to poison us. We have a right to live. And no matter if you are wealthy, no matter if you are above some laws and no matter if in under federal law you are considered to be a natural person under the law. We believe that we have a right to continue our existence and we ask you to change your practices.

So it is the descendents of those women before that I am honored to know today. It is some of those women who walk this land who stand up under amazing odds that have inspired me and have been a privilege to know over these years. I think of women who have inspired me and I think of a couple of Shoshone grandmas named Kyrie and Mary Graham. They’re in Nevada — you know Nevada’s really not like Boston or you know uh, New England, it’s not like white picket fences and lot’s of houses, and, what do you call those things you get dizzy on going around? (Audience) Rotaries, thank you. Oh, my God, I have the hardest time with those, I never know when to get off…you don’t want to hear about my driving issues. But, you know…so Nevada is kind of, you know…it’s just kind of like the opposite. Largest landholder out there would be pretty much the Department of Defense. The other people that live out there are largely some ranchers and some Shoshone people who believe, I think with some good reason, that that is their land, you know. They’ve lived there from time immemorial. And so for the past thirty years the federal government has been trying to take the land from these Western Shoshone women who are ranchers. And over the past few years I have seen the government come out through the Bureau of Land Management and seize their livestock, seize their horses, seize their cattle. And these women who are in their seventies stand up and say 'You can not take our livestock you can not take our cattle, you can not take our way of life, because we are still going to be here.' And I think of those women and I think of how ironic it is that here are some women who are totally self-supported, you know. And what would the government’s alternative proposal be for them, you know. Yeah, that’s right, you know, you take their way of life and then what are you going to give them, you know, in return? And how are they supposed to make some kind of existence? So I saw them this last year, I was out traveling around with them and uh, you know they are tough, and when I grow up, I’m going to be just like them. That’s what I figure. (Applause).

I think of my grandma who came from an area that was in the Ukraine so sometimes it was in Russia, and sometimes it was in Poland and sometimes it was in Russia, and sometimes it was in Poland, you know it was never really clear, according to who was running them over at the time and spent her whole life in New York City working making pocketbooks. That is what she did. And she was in the union, the pocketbook makers’ union. And I know that the reason that we have a 40 hour work week is because of women like my grandma.

I think of some of my friends who have passed to the spirit world but are who here with me when I go to events and when I walk in my own community. My sisters Ingred my sister Marsha and my sister Nielock. All cofounders of the Indigenous Women’s Network with me. All long time women activists in the native community. Dying from that which kills women in this society. One, not having health care, of ovarian cancer. One, murdered by her own son, who had schizophrenia and they didn’t have a treatment, or, you know. And one, murdered in Columbia when she went down on a cultural trip when she went down to see the Uua Indians, and she was kidnapped by the FARC, held for five days and then killed. And the problem that I continue to have with the Bush administration and each administration since is that if you give two billion dollars in military aid to a country like Columbia, people are going to get killed. And we have no idea of the impact of our money except that women and children will die. And that in the end, more guns does not mean peace.

And I think of the many privileges in my life. You know, I have wandered, not unlike Amy, she has wandered further than I, but I have wandered across this continent and interviewed hundreds of Native people in different communities as a journalist and walked in and out of our villages or driven in cars with one headlight quite often, or just done the best I can to keep above the law, in my means of transportation. And then I have traveled elsewhere and I remember being, just never forgetting the faces when I went to the UN Conference on the Status of Women in China, and some of you were probably there, but I remember asking women from really small islands, Igaraq women, why it was they went to the trouble to come to China to the UN Conference on the Status of Women, why they would go to that great expense, to leave their small villages to come there. And this one woman I interviewed, she said, “I spend my whole life fighting a World Bank dam project, and what I know is that those men at the World Bank they never saw my face and I think that people that make these decisions should see your face.” And so that is why she traveled far because she said the World Bank will never come to my village but they will come here to the UN. And so they will see my face here and I believe they should be held accountable.

I am inspired by one of my friends, who should probably remain nameless, we’ll call her Leslie. Who was battered for many years, and I asked her what caused her to leave her husband. And she said, “One day I was putting up my Indian coat hangers on the wall,” which would be nails, right. And she said, “I put them up really high so that when he slammed my head against the wall, I wouldn’t hit a nail.” And she left that man, and I must say that Leslie, a lovely woman in her 40’s, has certainly found her groove. In many ways, and she has taught me a lot in that process. Not only how to sing better, how to dance better, but how she lives and loves her life, and has, apparently, a great sex life as well. (Laughter) Which I have heard many stories about, and we should be happy because we are women in our forties who should talk about those things.

Which reminds me that I was also inspired most recently, in March, when we gathered together a group of us in, I don’t know if any of you have been to Northern Minnesota, but it is a kind of a little conservative. You know…we have, like, the people of color are the Native people and the other people are the Norwegians and the Swedes. You know, we’re all hanging out and were trying to do pretty good but we’re probably about 25 years behind time in terms of like what is going on. You know. And so a group of us gathered and decided that it would be time to have the Vagina Monologues. And so we gathered in a small redneck town in Northern Minnesota, to put these together, and I remember, the, how would I say it was pleasure in some ways, but it was the great entertainment, of me getting to announce to the Detroit Lakes Kiwanis club that they should join us in this momentous occasion. And by the time we had gone through the whole process I have to say we did have a sold out crowd. There was a lot of people, and in Northern Minnesota it’s a little different like people just don’t talk about things they just [go with it]. But in the end you know we had such a great time that we decided that we’re going to do it again. And it was these women, most of whom were, you know, Norwegian housewives and farmers and some worked at the battered women’s shelter and some were just naturally really dramatic, and they didn’t know it until they got on stage with those manuscripts, and they had a really great time. And so those women who inspire me, who are leaders, come in all kinds. And they are remarkable in their own right. There is the word for leader in our language, there are ways to describe it. Those who defend the people, those who care for the people. It is said that in our community, you know, it is a little bit different as I try to redefine myself or I see our community redefine ourselves. It is not a hierarchy — it is instead, I know you’re going to think I’m a little bit strange, but in our form of leadership it is most aptly described as a flock of geese moving across the sky. And that is because it is really hard to be the first one out there and that process has to undulate and different ones must take leadership at different times in order to get where you are going.

AMY GOODMAN: Winona LaDuke speaking in Boston on Friday night as we continue with our Exception to the Rulers tour.

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