PERCHED HIGH ON A LAKE BANK among Minnesota’s pines and hardwoods, Winona LaDuke’s three-bedroom cabin seems almost like a treehouse in the slanting light of mid-autumn. It is a modest home here on the Anishinabe tribe’s White Earth Reservation 220 miles northwest of Minneapolis, but it is a cut above the rusting trailers and prefab houses that serve many of the reservation’s 5,000 tribal inhabitants. LaDuke, 35, who was born in East L.A. and raised in Oregon, is a more recent arrival than many. But “who knows what determines where. we feel at home, where our roots are?” she says. “This land is where I feel most comfortable in the world.”
It is here, from a small office in her home where she starts work at 6 a.m. every day, that the Harvard-educated activist has been waging a two-front fight: to reclaim the vanishing lands and culture of her Anishinabe people and to guard the greater environment that lies at that culture’s spiritual core. Last month, LaDuke turned up at a Los Angeles phone-book printing plant and chained herself to the front gate to protest the use of clear-cut—that is, both old-and new-growth—timber in making paper. “I just don’t believe that something that has been standing for 1,000 years should be cut down and made into a phone book,” says LaDuke, who spent 4 hours in jail for her effort.
This month she was back home in Fergus Falls, Minn., to testify at a trial in Otter Tail County district court: she was suing a local developer to force him to remove a trailer park from the site of Native American burial mounds. Earlier the judge asked if LaDuke could negotiate a settlement with the developer. “There’s nothing to negotiate,” she says. “My grandfather and other elders had always talked about how significant these Otter Tail mounds were. It is an insult to our people to have a trailer court there.”
That the burial mounds long ago slipped out of tribal hands is a source of indignation to LaDuke. An 1867 treaty had granted her people, one of seven Anishinabe tribes in northern Minnesota, 837,000 acres for their reservation. But over the decades, questionable sales and foreclosures due to unpaid government land taxes had reduced the reservation to less than one-tenth of its original size.
To get back some of those lands, LaDuke took a $20,000 prize she had won from the Reebok company for her human-rights work and founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Using money raised from foundations and individual gifts, she has bought back nearly 1,000 acres of lost tribal lands so far and hopes to add another 30,000 over the next 15 years through direct purchases, bequests and legislation. Mindful that her people had traditionally left the reservation to find work, she also helped set up processing facilities for their rice crops “so now that money is staying here on the reservation,” she says, “instead of going to some outsider.”
Not surprisingly, LaDuke’s assertiveness has won her critics, even on the White Earth Reservation, where some regard the outspoken LaDuke suspiciously because she works outside the tribe’s traditional all-male council. Hunters and vacation homeowners in the area also fear that her efforts will force them off reservation land. Some even think she is on a star trip. Tim Thornton, a Minneapolis attorney who is representing LaDuke’s opponent in the trailer-park controversy, questions her motives: “She has an agenda not necessarily consistent with the governance of the White Earth tribe. It might have to do with the promotion of Winona LaDuke.”
LaDuke, however, has longstanding roots on the reservation. Her late father, Vincent LaDuke, was an Anishinabe spiritual thinker and writer known as Sun Bear. “I am my father’s daughter in terms of identity and culture,” she says. “This was his land, and now it is mine. I’ve always wanted to come home to my dad’s reservation. But I also have a lot of my mother in me, too—her values, her spirit.” Betty LaDuke, 61, an art professor, painter and activist, is a nonpracticing Jew who encouraged her daughter to identify with her Native American heritage. “She was very political and very determined,” says Winona. “She’s very supportive of what I do.”
That parental odd couple—Betty Bernstein and Vincent LaDuke—met in New York City in the 1950s. He was selling rice on behalf of White Earth; she was struggling with her art. They married in 1958 and moved to a Native American neighborhood in East L.A., where LaDuke began working as an extra in Hollywood westerns. When Winona was born in 1959, her father enrolled her, according to custom, as a member of his White Earth tribe and, while she was still a toddler, began taking her to local powwows. But in 1964, when her parents’ marriage failed, Winona moved with her mother to Ashland, Ore., where she felt like an outsider. “I grew up thinking of myself as Indian,” she explains. “I was the darkest person in my school. You just know you don’t fit in.”
Intellectually she also stood out. Harvard, impressed with her high test scores and school grades, recruited her in 1976. Back then, says LaDuke: “All the good schools were looking for Indians. It was kind of the thing.” When she joined a small Native American group on campus, LaDuke found that she belonged—”and that felt good,” she says simply.
Her radicalization came quickly, during her freshman year, when she heard the Cherokee activist and artist Jimmy Durham speak at a lecture. “Basically, he said, ‘There’s no such thing as an Indian problem—it’s a government problem,’ ” LaDuke recalls. “When I heard that, it shook something loose in me. It changed my life.” Immediately she began working for Durham, researching the health impact of uranium mining on Navajo reservations and later spending a semester doing field work in Nevada. After graduating in 1982, LaDuke accepted a job as the high school principal at White Earth and came home, she felt, for the first time.
Four years later, while attending a Native American conference in Toronto, she met Randy Kapashesit, a political representative of the Cree tribe from Moose Factory, Ont. They married in 1988 and had two children—daughter Waseyabin “Wasey,” now 6, and son Ajuawak, now 4. But their commuter relationship eventually foundered. “I couldn’t give up my life, because in a little while I’d be angry,” LaDuke says. “I couldn’t give up who I am and what I believe for my husband.” The pair separated in 1992 but have no plans to divorce.
She still shares child-rearing with Kapashesit, sending the children to Moose Factory—a 26-hour trip by car and train—at Christmas and during the summer. “It’s tough being a single parent,” she admits. “I take my kids with me whenever I can. I stay home as much as I can. But at the same time, I want to keep things moving out there. I am trying to make changes that will help my children and their children and their children.”
Hoping to provide those younger generations with some cultural handholds, LaDuke—no longer the reservation’s high school principal—launched an immersion program in Ojibwe, the Anishinabe language, for preschoolers and for adults attending night classes last month. Her Ojibwe vocabulary is still at the second-grade level, so “I’m right where my kids are now,” she says, with a laugh. “I can carry on a very boring conversation and say things like ‘Don’t hit your sister,’ but I’m learning more. I want to become fluent if I can.” Another innovation instigated by LaDuke is the use of Ojibwe on reservation road signs. “That’s real important to us, to see our language used on our land,” she says. “It may seem like a little thing but not to us.”
Through land acquisition, LaDuke plans to keep adding to the reservation. This month the tribe will get another economic boost when it gains control of 200 acres of syrup-producing maples that LaDuke acquired with contributions to the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Such acquisitions promise “radical change,” says tribe member Audrey Thayer, 43, a health specialist with the Indian Health Service. “Getting our land back, getting our homes back, bringing back all the well-educated, wonderful White Earth enrollees who had to leave the reservation in order to make a living. Thanks to Winona, we’re going to be able to go home.”
MARGARET NELSON on the White Earth Reservation