Reclaim the Sacred to Survive, LaDuke Says
BOSTON – Winona LaDuke has a crucial message: American Indians need to reclaim the sacred not only to recover from history’s devastations, but to survive as spiritual, social and physical communities.
LaDuke delivered her message with grace and biting humor at a symposium on Indigenous Rights in North America at the University of Massachusetts in Boston on April 24.
She is one of the most highly regarded and internationally known members of the American Indian community, a two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate, an environmental activist, scholar and writer.
In her talk, LaDuke reiterated the themes in her latest book, “Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming.”
“We have a problem of two separate spiritual paradigms and one dominant culture – make that a dominant culture with an immense appetite for natural resources. The animals, the trees and other plants, even the minerals under the ground and the water from the lakes and streams, all have been expropriated from Native American territories,” LaDuke said.
“The challenge of attempting to maintain your spiritual practice in a new millennium is complicated by the destruction of that which you need for your ceremonial practice,” LaDuke said.
LaDuke is an Anishinaabeg, Ojibway, enrolled member
of the Mississippi Band
A graduate of Harvard and Antioch universities, she has won numerous awards. She has three children and lives at the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.
About 120 people attended the symposium. Special invited guests included members of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, the Harvard University Native American Program, leaders of local tribal offices and organizations such as the North American Indian Center of Boston and a large contingency from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.
The symposium was scheduled months ago, but happily coincided with and became a celebration of a recent BIA proposed finding to grant federal acknowledgement to the Mashpee Wampanoags, the tribe whose ancestors were the first people to come into contact with English colonists 400 years ago.
LaDuke spent time at Mashpee during her student days.
Mashpee Wampanoag Chief Vernon Lopez opened the event with a prayer of thanks to the Creator.
LaDuke’s overarching theme was the question of how to build a society based on “the dignity of human beings and the dignity of the natural world.”
For American Indians that question involves challenging the assumptions of the dominant American culture, which continues in its frenzy of “development” to expropriate, destroy, and mutate what is most sacred to indigenous people – the land.
In urging the Indian community to challenge the Eurocentric paradigm, LaDuke emphasized the relevance of Native values and traditions for “where we are going as a society collectively.”
Her lecture unfolded in stories.
She talked about the Anishinaabegs’ decision to take control of their future and the projects her tribe has undertaken at White Earth Reservation, including a wind power project that will eventually produce surplus electricity to be sold, the development of an on-
reservation school, protection of the local wild rice from genetic modification and an agricultural project the tribe hopes will produce 70 percent of its food.
“It turns out those traditional foods are the things for your diabetes and that anything grown from those heritage seeds, whether they’re Potawatomi lima beans or whatever, all those old variety have higher levels [than the genetically engineered plants] of amino acids and antioxidants and all those other things I can’t pronounce,” LaDuke said.
Of primary importance is the White Earth Land Recovery project that LaDuke founded and heads. The tribe has purchased from willing sellers 17,000 acres. Much of the Anishinaabegs’ land was taken by lumber companies and a large section is held as uninhabited “public lands,” LaDuke said.
For the land that was
taken illegally, LaDuke has a simple proposition.
“You stole it, you should return it,” LaDuke said, to a great spontaneous burst of applause from the audience, and shouts of, “That’s right!”
Hand-shaking ceremonies and apologies, if indeed they are given, do not further the cause of reconciliation, La Duke said.
“So I bring this up because this country is good at lip service, but it’s pretty meaningless. Reconciliation involves a long-term process, and in an indigenous community’s perspective the only compensation for land is land,” La Duke said, to another round of applause.
Her tribe has won a battle against a developer’s attempt to build a golf course on a sacred site in Duluth, Minn.
“One of the first questions the developer asked was, ‘How sacred is it?’” LaDuke said.
LaDuke talked of the Zunis’ struggles to protect the place of the Salt Mother, a sacred lake near Phoenix, Ariz., from coal development, and of “the great sucking sound” of water being diverted from the western territories’ aquifers for developments in desert areas where such developments should not happen.
She recounted the Lakotas’ successful battle to protect Bear Butte from the development of a recreational center with a “world-class shooting range.”
Bear Butte is a sacred place where indigenous people pray and seek visions. It is 40 miles from Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
“Let us say there is this place that is the Heart of Everything That Is, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the most sacred place to the Lakota people and to many other indigenous people of the region. And in the middle of it an American government, after having treatied and stolen from the Lakota people and forced them into some of the most difficult challenges of any indigenous people, goes and carves four presidents in the Heart of Everything That Is. And what does that mean? To me, that means, ‘We’re here and we’re shoving this down your throats,’” LaDuke said.
The Lakotas won the battle after years of struggle, but questions remain, LaDuke said. Among the questions: Does the principle of religious freedom on which America was founded apply to non-Christians who have a different understanding of the land?
“I think the reality is if you want to practice your [religion] and they want to put up a mine or a golf course or a shooting range there, you are going to have to fight them,” LaDuke said.
The symposium was organized by Amy Den Ouden, assistant professor in the University of Massachusetts’ anthropology department, and co-sponsored by university groups and the state’s two Indian agencies.
Den Ouden has organized several such events since coming to UM four years ago. She has worked for Native nations in Connecticut on federal acknowledgement projects since 1991.
“[I’m] overwhelmed by the most gracious and generous support the event received from the Native American nations and organizations of the region, by the beauty and insight of Chief Lopez’s opening prayer, and of course by the brilliance and power of Winona’s lecture,” Den Ouden said.
Den Ouden said her intent in organizing such events is to create a forum where Native people’s voices can be heard.
“[People] desperately need to hear and learn from those voices – particularly since, throughout the history of the United States, there have been so many forces at work to silence indigenous voices and experiences, and to obscure Native peoples’ critiques of and challenges to prevailing Euro-American accounts of United States history and United States government policies toward Native American peoples,” Den Ouden said.