Activist Winona LaDuke thinks a lot about our future: Where will our food and water come from? How will we treat each other? What will our quality of life be like? And she questions who will be in charge of that future.
“I don’t believe democracy is a spectator sport,” she said. “I don’t believe life is.”
LaDuke, a renowned environmentalist and political activist, addressed a packed Brandi Recital Hall on the evening of Sept. 19. Her visit was co-sponsored by Indigenous Nations at Kenyon (INK) and Environmental Campus Organization (ECO). She ran for vice president twice (with Ralph Nader for the Green Party) and is the Program Director for Honor the Earth (a Native American-led organization focusing on environmental movements), and spoke at Kenyon about her activism surrounding sustainability, renewable food and energy systems and the rights of Indigenous communities.
Teahelahn Keithrafferty ’19, one of the presidents of INK, expressed how valuable she felt LaDuke’s presence and wealth of knowledge was to have on campus. Keithrafferty said INK’s mission is to bring Native speakers like LaDuke to Kenyon’s predominantly non-Native campus.
“If we don’t have the presence, the Native presence, on our campus, we’re not hearing those perspectives,” she said.
LaDuke lives on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. White Earth is one of seven Anishinaabe — also known as Ojibwe — reservations in Minnesota and one of 19 in the U.S. On LaDuke’s reservation, the Anishinaabe grow wild rice, which she said helps define them as a people. But in recent years, their agricultural and sacred sites have been under constant threat.
Enbridge, Inc., an energy delivery company, attempted to construct a pipeline, called the Sandpiper, through LaDuke’s reservation from 2013 to 2016. Enbridge withdrew their requests related to that pipeline in 2016, after what she described as a relentless battle. The Anishinaabe at White Earth reservation were relieved — until they found out shortly after that Enbridge had invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
LaDuke and others from White Earth traveled to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (which straddles the border between North and South Dakota) to protest the construction of DAPL. She contacted Enbridge continuously during her time there, because she wanted the corporation to use their influence to call off the violence, which included use of tear gas, rubber bullets, Mace and dogs on those demonstrating on the site. In the end, they were unresponsive to her requests, which is why LaDuke said she holds them partly accountable for the injuries and arrests that occurred.
“Because you don’t get to do that and pretend you didn’t notice it,” she said.
On a projector, LaDuke shared images from Standing Rock, pointing out the MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicles and LRADs (long range acoustic devices) that law enforcement brought in to subdue protestors. She described this as a problem of civil society. “This is when the rights of corporations exceed the rights of humans,” she said.
LaDuke also took a moment to acknowledge the contribution Kenyon students made in the fight against DAPL through the material, financial and human support sent to Standing Rock in the fall of 2016.
“Thank you so much for your courage,” she said, then joked, “If you didn’t get arrested in North Dakota, there’s still time to get arrested in Minnesota.”
The crowd laughed, but her hypothetical remains a reality: Protesters in Minnesota have been arrested over the last week, according to LaDuke, as they fight the next proposed pipeline, Enbridge’s Line 3 Replacement Project. LaDuke’s strategy is to keep fighting them on the ground until their investors withdraw their support. Enbridge is seeking a permit to build the pipeline in Minnesota, which they hope to obtain by the spring, according to LaDuke. She believes that protesters have a decent shot at winning this battle due to DAPL’s halted construction.
Turning her attention toward Kenyon, LaDuke emphasized the importance of food sustainability in our rural location. She cited the distance an average meal travels from farmer to table — 1,400 miles — a journey enabled by fossil fuels.
“You guys have a very good growing season here, you have no reason to import food, frankly,” she said. “You need to re-localize your food. You need to rebuild a local food economy.”
LaDuke described our campus as a beautiful and privileged one, which prompted her to ask: What is the Kenyon community going to do? She challenged students to address the many problems in the world today.
“Don’t just say what’s wrong,” she said. “Envision what’s right.”