Winona LaDuke Asks Us to Re-imagine the Economy

By Matthew Rothschild -

Native American activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke says it’s crucial that we ask ourselves, “What is an economy? And who gets to determine it?”

She says we should have an economy that is divorced from empire, that respects the environment, and that is based on local needs.

LaDuke, who ran for vice president on the Green Party ticket with Ralph Nader in 2000, is the executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project of the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota.

She was the keynote speaker at an event sponsored by the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice on Sunday.

She juxtaposed indigenous cultures with America’s culture, saying that indigenous cultures are “responsibility based” whereas America’s is “rights-based.”

That responsibility extends to the land and the water and to future generations, she said.

“We live in a society that spends a lot of time counting things,” she said. “But not everything that counts can be measured.” And she gave two examples: the value of wild rice and the value of water, both of which are sacred and “more than a commodity.”

We need to change our worldviews, she said, and have a “worldview that is related to place.”

To illustrate her point, she gave her culture’s name for all the months, which include “Leaves Changing with Color Moon,” “When It Freezes Over Moon,” and “Blueberry Moon.”

“None of those moons are named after a Roman Emperor,” she noted, adding that her Native worldview “doesn’t have anything to do with empire.”

But in America, she said, “We are smack-dab in the middle of empire,” not just economically but also psychologically. “Empire is entrenched in the psychology of what America is about,” she said. “It’s OK to let it go. Un-botch it, if that’s a word.”

She said the vast military of the United States is used to guard the empire and to protect corporate profits. “The relationship between this economic system and this military is entrenched,” she said.

This entrenchment has consequences for Native Americans, she said. Not only do they have the highest rate of enlistment in the military, she said, but the raw materials the military uses are often taken from Native lands, which are then left despoiled.

“When you expand the military,” she said, “you expand the contamination of Indian country.” She cited all the mining on tribal lands, which has gone largely for military production, and the devastation that mining leaves behind.

“The mining companies move in, the oil companies move in, the military moves in, and then they move on,” she said. “There is no respect for the land.”

LaDuke said she once asked one of her relatives what the Native word was for “economy.” His answer: “How we live.”

She urged us to find a more respectful way to live. “There are two paths, she said. “A scorched path, and a green path. One requires more petroleum than the other. That is the Walmart-Exxon economy, and the longer you fight them, the better shot you have.”

“We have the ability to not keep scorching the earth,” she said, adding that we need to imagine what this new way of life looks like.

She explained what is happening on the White Earth Reservation, where they are growing more and more of their own food and where they’ve put up a wind turbine and a solar installation to make it more self-sufficient in energy and more respectful of the earth.

She said we’re often told that “alternative energy can’t meet the current demand.” Her response: “Who’d want to?”

She said we’re terribly inefficient today, bringing food in from 1,500 miles away, and we need to consume fewer and different products.

“We need to relocalize the economy,” she said. “That changes the dynamics of who controls things. We need to create an economy that is durable and has a relationship with the land.”

She seemed upbeat.

“We have the opportunity to do good things,” she said. “We can keep the mining companies from sawing off more mountaintops and the military from destroying what is left. And we have the opportunity to be good people.”
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