Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Talks Justice, Civic Engagement at Radcliffe Day


Church Says It Did Not Authorize ‘People’s Commencement’ Protest After Harvard Graduation Walkout


‘Welcome to the Battlefield’: Maria Ressa Talks Tech, Fascism in Harvard Commencement Address


In Photos: Harvard’s 373rd Commencement Exercises


Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

Winona LaDuke

Education of a Fighter

By Jennifer H. Arlen

The energy shortage of the last decade has catapulted American Indian tribes, under whose lands lie vast domestic energy resources, into a politically influential but tenuous position. American Indian tribes own more than 50 per cent of this country's known reserves of uranium--deposits that account for more than 4 per cent of the total world uranium output. More than one-third of the nation's surface coal lies on Indian lands, areas that have also been proposed as sites for future synthetic fuel plants. But in recent years, legislation has been proposed in Congress to limit the control of Indians over their own land and natural resources. In April next year, ostensibly to settle a Navajo-Hopi land dispute, hundreds of Arizona Navajos will be forced to move--the largest Indian relocation since the 1800s--to make way for a massive strip-mine. In South Dakota, where the Sioux are fighting to prevent uranium mining in the Black Hills, Indian activists have been harassed, jailed, and, sometimes, killed.

Winona LaDuke '80-3, a Chippewa by birth, is a leading Indian expert on uranium mining on reservations. A political organizer and journalist, LaDuke spent the past year and a half on leave from Harvard, working with Indian tribes to fight uranium and coal mining on their reservations. She has spoken as well at anti-nuclear rallies across the country in an attempt to make people aware of the dangers of uranium mining to the Indian people.

Though born and raised on the West Coast, LaDuke's family is from the White Earth Chippewa reservation in Minnesota. Her father moved to Los Angeles during the Bureau of Indian Affairs assimilation and relocation program of the 1950s and 1960s, where he played Indians in Hollywood westerns and helped organize the early Indian rights movement. Her uncle, Vernon Bellecourt, co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) and was instrumental in the 1973 Indian occupation of South Dakota's Wounded Knee Hill.

"When I first came to Harvard I thought to myself, 'what kind of an Indian am I' because I did not grow up on a reservation," LaDuke says, leaning back on the couch in her apartment. "But being an Indian is a combination of things. It's your blood. It's your spirituality. And it's fighting for the Indian people.

"I remember when I was little and we used to go trucking around the Hopi reservation [in Arizona]," she says, slowing rolling a cigarette between her fingers as she speaks. "We were really poor then. Sounds funny to say it. We didn't know it then. But sitting at Harvard, surrounded by all this affluence, you realize no one here thinks of eating road kills. But that is what we ate. And my dad would go out and shoot squirrels. Now I walk around and see also those fat squirrels scampering about and I think hmmm," she says, cocking her head and peering at an imaginary squirrel.

When LaDuke was five, she and her mother and her younger brother moved to Ashland, Ore., where she stayed until she left for college at age 17. "MIT had been sending me all this information on opportunities open to Indian engineers and I thought if MIT wants me maybe somebody else does. Also I had just seen Love Story, and that had made an impression on me," she says. "I wanted to get out of Ashland and I thought it would be pretty cool to go to school in the East. So I asked my guidance counselor what Ivy League schools were. And I applied to Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth, that was it. My guidance counselor told me I wouldn't get in to an Ivy League school. So as my act of resistance, that's all I applied to."

LaDuke's introduction to Indian activism was gradual. Her first two years at Harvard, she managed the men's ice hockey team. Then, in 1977, she attended the American Indian conference at Harvard and met one of the members of the Native American Treaty Council, a non-governmental body in the United Nations. Shortly thereafter, the treaty council hired her to write a report on multinational corporations on Indian reservations, and within the year the council asked her to go to Geneva to speak at the Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. And then, in 1978, at age 18, LaDuke made her first public speech on behalf of the treaty council--in front of 5000 people at an anti-nuclear rally at the Rocky Flats weapons plant near Denver, Colo.

"That was my first exposure to the anti-nuke movement," she says, with a laugh. "Since then I have probably spent more time at anti-nuke rallies than I have in the Harvard classrooms. But the problem with the anti-nuke movement is they are just looking at a small segment of the problem. They are fighting one symptom of the problem, nuclear plants and arms. These urban activists, they can afford to focus in on one single issue," she continues. "But when you are out on the Indian reservations and you are sitting on top of all that coal and uranium, you don't care whether they are mining it for nuclear plants fuels, nuclear weapons, or anything else. All you care about is that they are mining it. And that they are going to move you to do it."

LaDuke gets up and wanders into her study, one wall of which is lined with books on energy development, Indians and Third World countries. Information for articles she is writing lies piled on the desk.

She picks up a stack of mail, accumulated during the past week while she was in Los Angeles speaking at an anti-nuclear rally and lets it slip back down through her fingers. "Harvard is only incidental to what I want to do," she says. "But my work is my life. Uranium and coal mining are the two most crucial issues Indians have to deal with. Because when you talk about repression, you talk about genocide, you talk about sterilization of Indian women, it all ties back to these resources. They wouldn't be doing this to us otherwise.

"One of the reasons I am at Harvard is for protection, it's that simple," she says, looking up. "When you are living in the Southwest and your mail arrives opened 40 or 50 per cent of the time it's a little bit unnerving. And when your phone's tapped, it's a little more unnerving. And when your files are rifled, your cars are followed, and your friends are arrested, then you begin to get real scared. When you see that happen all around you, you realize that Harvard is a bastion, an ivory tower, a place where you can be safe and get some work done. Because I don't intend to be knocked off by them," she says. "I know it's paranoia, but it's reasoned paranoia. There would be a lot more attention drawn to the harassment, or possibly, the death, of a Harvard student than to that of 'just another Indian.'"

"You get a quick political education living on a reservation," she continues. "I don't think activists at Harvard have a real political education. What they have is an intellectual political education. They have their school work and then they have their 'cause,' their little pursuit. It's an avocation. But I'm not talking about fighting for an 'issue'; I'm talking about survival."

LaDuke spends time with few other students. The people she is close to either live on reservations or are non-students--journalists and Indian activists living around the country.

"I used to go to some Harvard parties with my athlete friends and they would introduce me as 'Winona, the Indian activist.' It made me uncomfortable," she says. "I felt like a novelty. Indians were 'in' that year. People come up to me and tell me they read about a massacre of Brazilian Indians and they thought of me. Or they read about a nuclear accident and thought of me. But when people tell me those things, what they are saying is that is the Indians' problem. They thought of me because that is my problem. But it is really their problem too."

But LaDuke insists she is more than an "Indian activist. The first thing I am is a person. I am a woman. And I am part of a nation, the Indian nation. But people either relate to you as an Indian or as a woman. They relate to you as a category. A lot of people don't realize that I am not that different from everyone else. I relate to these issues not just because I am an Indian, but because I am a human being."

An Indian activist "once said something to me I really liked. 'If you are an Indian and you are breathing, that in itself is a political statement.' And that is the difference between what we are doing and what most activists are doing. They are fighting for 'causes,' but we are fighting for our existence, both as individuals and as a people," she adds.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.