Our ‘civil society’ has failed

Winona LaDuke speaks on indigenous people, environment and the seventh generation

Grete Oanes
Grete Oanes

On the morning of Monday, Oct. 17, Winona LaDuke stood alongside the hundreds who had gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to protest construction of the controversial 1,172-mile Dakota Access oil pipeline. That night, she stood before a full audience in the Concordia College Centrum to present a lecture titled “Justice and Sustainability: Economics, Food, and Energy for the Seventh Generation.”

LaDuke is an internationally acclaimed activist whose work has focused on the topics of climate change, renewable energy, and environmental justice with Indigenous communities. She was invited to campus by Concordia’s Forum on Faith and Life, the mission of which is to “foster a deeper, more compassionate understanding of one another and our life together, in defiance of traditional boundaries and stereotypes that often hinder authentic relationship.”

Dr. Michelle Lelwica, interim director of the Forum, said that LaDuke’s work reflects that mission.

“In her approach to the challenges of environmental and social justice, Ms. LaDuke is motivated by her spiritual commitment to the Earth as sacred—a perspective that can motivate us to pour our energy into protecting the health of the planet,” she said.

Lelwica offered a welcome to the crowd of students, faculty, and community members who had gathered for the event. She also offered a warning.

“I did not invite Ms. Laduke to campus to give a talk that will make us feel good or comfortable,” she said.

Lelwica then invited senior Sam Ferguson, co-president of Concordia’s Student Environmental Alliance and a passionate environmental activist herself, to the stage. Ferguson introduced LaDuke with a few words about her work, which has included founding the White Earth Land Recovery Project; running for vice president in two presidential elections, on a ticket headed by Ralph Nader; establishing Honor the Earth, a national advocacy group which encourages public support and funding for Native environmental groups; and being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

After screening a short video to provide the audience with context about Indigenous people’s battle against pipelines, LaDuke took the stage. Her lecture, which focused on the environmental, economic and ethical implications of America’s reliance on fossil fuels, opened with a vivid description of the North Dakota prairie.

“Many don’t travel past Fargo,” LaDuke said. “But if you do, you notice a lot.”

That land west of here was once home to 50 million buffalo and 250 different species of grass. The biodiversity was immense, and it was beautiful.

“That is a gift that the Creator gave us, but that was a long time ago,” she said.

That was before settlers brought their diseases and military force, before the assassination of Sitting Bull, and before the reservation era, when thousands of Native people were starved into submission. That was before fracking.

Today fields grow a single crop, with the help of lots of things that end in “-cide.” The buffalo have been replaced by 28 million cattle, which rely on a fossil fuel-based agricultural system for food.

According to LaDuke, we are living in a moral and ethical moment in North Dakota, and we must think critically– about what our food will look like 50 years from now, where our water will come from, and whether the rights of corporations subsume the rights of nature and of humans.

“We live in our air conditioned units, and go into our air conditioned cars,” she said. “The more urban you are, the more you can seem to be in denial of what’s going on.”

And what’s going on, LaDuke said, is climate change. She presented a barrage of statistics– temperatures are up, icecaps are disappearing, carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere are rising at relentless levels.

“This is your ocean on acid,” she said, as a picture of the near-dead Great Barrier Reef appeared on the screen. “This is what climate change looks like.”

LaDuke also discussed the way the fossil fuel era has reshaped our food economy, with pretty much everything being imported from somewhere else. She does not claim to be an innocent bystander to the fossil fuel era; she has “had a blast,” actually, enjoying a variety of fruits from all over the world.

“But I don’t want to be the person who eats the last goji berry,” she said.

America has enjoyed all that fossil fuels have to offer so much that we have entered a new era: extreme extraction. In this new era, LaDuke likened oil companies to drug addicts.

“When they can’t get their fix, they start doing stuff that’s not nice,” she said.

When the addicts in LaDuke’s life cannot get their fix, they lie, steal and become aggressive. When oil companies cannot get enough oil they drill 20,000 ft. under the ocean, blow the tops off of Appalachian mountains, and run pipelines through indigenous territory.

But perhaps the most immediate, and most shocking, effects of America’s desperate search for oil have been inflicted upon the people. LaDuke reflected on the scenes she has witnessed at Standing Rock, where a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle has accompanied more than 100 militarized police officers and roughly 140 protesters have been arrested.

She recounted the story of a female member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who was charged with disorderly conduct, subjected to a strip search in front of multiple male officers, and left naked in a cell for hours before the guards finally gave her clothes. The Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, Dave Archambault II, was also strip searched.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” LaDuke said. “I signed up for a first world country, where civil society is discussed as civil society and we don’t value corporations more than we value our people.”

LaDuke’s lecture was hard to swallow, as per Lelwica’s warning, but it also offered a bit of hope.

According to LaDuke, this remedy begins with decolonizing our diets. For the sake of our land and our local economy, we must plant and consume diverse varieties of food here, rather than relying on fossil fuels to bring us those foods from overseas. And the Red River Valley, she said, is the perfect place to do so.

“We live in a place where we can grow food,” she said. “It is not that we cannot do this, it is just an application of our intelligence into the correct and appropriate technologies.”

The next step is energy independence not in the form of 570,000 barrels of oil a day, but of solar and wind power. Finally, LaDuke urged the audience to remember that the fight against fossil fuel is not just a Native issue.

and we’re all gonna be breathing the same air. We’r all in this together.”

LaDuke’s lecture was met by a standing ovation and followed by a question and answer session. Fer guson, who considers LaDuke her role model as an activist, said that there is a lesson for all Concordi students to take away from the event.

“As Concordia students are mainly white, prob ably middle class to upper middle class to uppe class, I feel like we have a certain set of privilege in society where our voices are easily heard amon people who make the decisions,” she said. “Native in the area so often get their voice taken away… W can go into the world with that knowledge and check our privilege and say, ‘we stand in solidarity with these people.’”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Welcome to the discussion. Before posting, please read our discussion guidelines.