Winona Laduke

The Green activist takes on wild rice and the White House.

With a decades-long history nationally of activism and altruism, former Green Party vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke may seem very distant from the rest of us.

But the back story for the 47-year-old LaDuke—who's speaking Thursday, July 20, in Portland—has a strong Oregon link.

She was raised in Ashland by a mother who's a Jewish art professor at Southern Oregon University and a father who's an actor and activist for the Anishinaabe tribe. At age 18, LaDuke first spoke at the United Nations on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council. In 1989, she started the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which aims to restore land to the Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe, in Minnesota.

Five years later, LaDuke was named by Time magazine in 1994 as "one of the 50 most promising leaders under age 40," and she went on to run in 1996 and 2000 with Ralph Nader for the Green Party, siphoning votes from the Democratic ticket.

LaDuke now spends her time fighting genetically engineered wild rice, working to build alternative energy sources, and raising five children on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She's in Portland this week to lecture on the connection between indigenous knowledge and renewable energy. WW spoke recently with LaDuke while she was on the road to speak at the Oregon Country Fair in Eugene.

WW: How are energy and Native American knowledge linked?

Winona LaDuke: America is at an unsustainable place where we've consumed half of the world's known oil and combusted ourselves to the edge of oblivion in terms of global climate change. The challenge is how you transform that to an economy that is more sustainable. A lot of traditional teachings that are indigenous about land management—underburning growth, forestry—are philosophical teachings that have merit. My reservation is doing this renewable-energy program out of locally produced and renewable [sources], in terms of wind energy, biofuel, solar.

What would make more people care about alternative energy?

Fuel prices have helped. Kenny Lay and Enron probably helped a little bit. People's distrust for corporate energy is at a higher point. The question is if people are willing to look at the alternatives. We're looking into biodiesel—in my reservation in Minnesota, we're using grease from our casino operations. God only knows there's enough grease from fast food in this country. The state of Minnesota made $1.3 billion last year on ethanol. It's not the most efficient fuel, but that's $1.3 billion that didn't go to Exxon.

OK. Let's talk politics. If you knew Bush would win in 2000—and that you and Ralph Nader would be considered spoilers—would you still have run?

Yes. I refuse to take responsibility for the Bush administration being in office. We worked hard for our votes. The Americans who didn't vote should take some responsibility, being the largest percentage of the population. The disenfranchised voters, who were kicked off the roll by the Republicans in Florida, outnumber the number of people who voted for the Green [Party]. But the Democrats had far more money, and I refuse to take responsibility.

What have you done politically since the last election?

You've got a democracy that doesn't include everybody's voice, and you need to figure out how to make it [work]. I'm encouraging people to run for office at a local level and a state level. I considered running in this election for state senator, but I didn't.

Why not?

I'm busy. I'm working on wind [power], on keeping wild rice from getting genetically engineered—which is pretty much a full-time job. And I have five children. I was battling a local senator, who was a Democrat, who wasn't opposing the genetic engineering of wild rice. I told him I was going to run if he didn't change and oppose the genetic engineering of wild rice. And he changed his position.

Do you oppose all genetic engineering?

I'm not saying that—but I oppose the genetic engineering of wild rice, which is the only grain indigenous to North America. It grows on lakes and rivers in Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Manitoba and Ontario—that's the only place in the world it grows. If it is genetically engineered and brought back and raised in rice paddies where domesticated versions are, it will escape. And when it escapes, it will contaminate and genetically transform the lakes of Minnesota, which I don't think anybody has the right to do.

Winona LaDuke's lecture begins at 6:30 pm Thursday, July 20, at the Portland Art Museum's Kridel Grand Ballroom, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. $10.

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