Winona LaDuke: The Voice of Ancestral Environmentalism

Written by Isabel Rummell, ESLLC 2015-2016

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Earlier this month I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Winona LaDuke speak about the interconnected nature of environmentalism. She is a speaker I will never forget in my lifetime. As soon as she reached the podium, she exhibited a charisma that overturned both lengthy introductions, deeming them inadequate and wholly off-point. Her tone and voice were quiet, and personable, yet utterly tough and convincing, as every word was well-placed and meaningful.

Winona is a Native American woman social and environmental rights activist and political force in the US. She ran as vice president on the Green Party ticket for two election cycles, all the while continuing her inspiring activism locally and nationally. She also writes many books and essays on the topics of native rights, environmental injustice, and strength of community.

Winona makes the point that environmentalism is a mindset. It is a mindset that needs to be included in many aspects of our society, as a remedy to overconsumption, fear of losing what we’ve built up so far, and the racial injustices that plague our policy decisions throughout history. She makes a connection to land that seems lacking in some environmentalists attitudes.

Environmental issues as racial issues are at the center of her debate. Even though climate change and some forms of environmental destruction see no color, it is usually people undervalued in society who feel the effects first and in the most unmitigated ways. We like to say that our country is not racist, but we cannot deny that there is a disproportionate amount of non-white Americans in prisons, in poverty, and denied resources that would otherwise be handed in good faith to a white person. In this same way, environmental hazards are unfairly doled out. And no group is more disenfranchised socially than the Native American population.

I will never forget a lecture my FSEM professor gave about social hierarchy. It ties in very well with LaDuke’s view of the environmental mindset, and I think it can help bridge the gaps I am making in my argument. In class we had just read a number of essays, notably ‘Apologia’ by Barry Lopez and ‘Big Boy Leaves Home’ by Richard Wright. The Lopez article was about the value we give to certain forms of animal life, and the Wright article was about the evil of slavery and society of oppression. After reading the latter, I just couldn’t understand how people could act so disgustingly to another person – how society could allow such horrible disregard for a human being – a CHILD – no matter his skin color. In response, my professor told us to indulge him in an experiment. He drew a line on the board from the bottom to the top and told us to imagine where we see ourselves and other animals/plants/objects on this line. Close to the top we put God, then man a little bit further down. Then big-ish animals like bears, dear, giraffes, followed by small rodents/birds, then bugs close to the bottom. Then there was some controversy about microbes vs plants as the bottom-most life-form, but eventually we worked it out. These were just based on assumptions made in daily life, whether or not to smash an annoying bug, move roadkill off the highway or leave it, or walk off the path onto living plants for example.

He then posed the question – since we can now see how easy it is to categorize and assign value to different forms of non-human life, can we see how easy it can be to categorize the different forms of human life? Isn’t all life worthwhile, isn’t it all somewhat equal? Is it, in actuality, hard to dismiss the beliefs of others as invalid if they don’t fit into our worldview? And – a step further – is it really that hard to imagine people assigned certain value to the life of a white man that was greater than that of a black man.

This is why environmental injustice is tied to social injustice. The way we devalue our biodiversity, devalue the quality of our land, and devalue the lessons we can learn from being stewards of our environmental history, is tied to the way we disregard people. LaDuke argues that, since we threw out the natives who lived in North America to create a more perfect wilderness for white people, can we really be surprised that we treat our stolen land with the same disregard? And can we be surprised that we continue to disregard Native Americans basic human rights as long as there is a gain for white society or economy. And, through all of this, that we still claim that the right to religious freedom in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is not just the right to religious freedom for Christians.

LaDuke draws all this in by taking us back to our ancestors. If they are looking down on us now, would they recognize us, and agree with – not our policy decisions – but the context in which we think. She asks us to make inferences when we choose, such as ‘how will this affect my 7th generation grandchild?’ She argues that the questions that have the most importance for the future are not whether the GDP will continue to rise, and money will be made, but whether our decisions are sustainable for life and place, and whether or not our decisions will be praised by our past and future relatives. Nowhere are our unsustainable choices more blatant than our mistreatment and purposeful neglect of the Native American community, our absolute bias against their sacred places, and the way we categorize and mistreat our precious –and stolen – lands.

But, at the root of her argument is sustainability. She says that our culture of fear is unsustainable over all else. We fear the loss of our man-made environments, and neglect the importance of natural areas both touched and untouched by humans. We do not treasure and respect the resources given to us and cannot justify our overconsumption and addiction to oil. We do not value over our society the diversity of life that makes life worth living. And lastly, we fear change that acknowledges our historical shortfalls that still dominate our society.

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LaDuke has obviously made a huge impression on me. As an environmental activist myself, I understand that anthropocentric views of the environment can also produce needed change – if we understand that we need healthy environments to be happy and healthy ourselves. But, her argument is more justified by its social sustainability outcomes. When people realize that it is not just the few that are racist in the U.S., that our society is still a society of oppression, and that imperialism is a value that, still held close to our hearts, permeates all aspects of our policies, the contexts of environmentalism and social sustainability become interconnected. Environmentalism becomes a mindset that is linked to our history, and our future. Where we go from here depends on our society’s mindset.

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