Winona LaDuke: Calm Among Chaos

winona laduke green party nader running mate aug. 26, 2000
Winona LaDuke's fax is out of commission but the other two phones in her remote lakeside log home are ringing constantly. From this unlikely site she is waging a bid for vice president on a Green Party ticket with consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

This day LaDuke is trying to prepare for a two-week campaign trip on American Indian reservations, but things keep coming up. A raccoon has gotten into her garbage, her 6-month-old son is hungry and every caller wants her immediate attention.

“No, there's no fax cartridges in 70 miles,” she tells a frustrated campaign aide by phone.

Still, LaDuke is calm. “This is my life,” she shrugs.

The Ojibwe woman also ran with Nader in 1996, but for this campaign the two are promising a far more aggressive effort. Last time, the two Harvard graduates spent mere thousands and received 1 percent of the vote. This time, they will be on the ballot in at least 45 states. They're aiming to spend millions and talking about winning.

To those who say it is impossible, LaDuke points to the win by another unlikely politician from her home state: former professional wrestler Gov. Jesse Ventura.

The Nader-LaDuke campaign is at 8 percent in some national polls. In California, Nader's support is in the double digits and he is viewed as a potential spoiler to Al Gore.

David Gillespie, professor at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., and an expert on third-party politics, said Nader chose LaDuke because of her roots in the Green Party. “Nader was chosen in part because of his star status,” Gillespie said. “He needed a person who represented a more multicultural perspective.”

LaDuke's life and career are rooted in American Indian concerns and she's blunt about the problems facing her community. “Every social and economic statistic you don't want to have, we have,” she laments.

On White Earth, the land is lovely but many of the people are poor. Stands of birch and other second-growth timber dot marshes and fields of wild flowers. Housing is a mix of mobile homes and small single-family houses. There are no large towns, no supermarkets, no movie theaters. Two-thirds of children on the reservation live in poverty.

But LaDuke hopes her effort will not be seen only as a “racially based ethnic campaign.”

An author, activist and farmer, LaDuke, 41, says she is campaigning to help the poor and protect the environment. She wants to see a constitutional amendment, based on Indian tradition, that would require all governmental decisions be examined with regard to their impact on people seven generations in the future.

LaDuke will be campaigning across the country when the demands of work and parenting allow. But when she's on reservations, she will be making a soft sell.

Many Americans Indians don't vote: They view themselves as living in sovereign trial nations and view voting as a sign of acceptance of the authority the federal government has over their own tribes. It's a view her own husband, a leader of a Michigan tribe, shares.

LaDuke was born in Los Angeles to a Jewish mother and an American Indian father who ran community programs for Indians. Her grandmother was an early union organizer.

LaDuke grew up in Ashland, Ore., where she placed second in state as a high school debater. At age 18, she made a presentation before the United Nations on U.S. energy policy and Indian lands. After working on causes on other reservations, she came to White Earth, her own family's tribe, in 1981.

“Everyone used to say, `You're helping everyone else, when are you going to come home?”' She took a job as principal at a tribal high school and quickly became involved in a lawsuit to recover lands taken from the tribe by the federal government and the logging industry. White Earth is larger than Rhode Island, but the tribe now owns less than 10 percent of its reservation land.

After she lost the suit, LaDuke founded the nonprofit, which has so far repurchased 1,300 acres of the reservation.

White Earth is in a part of northwest Minnesota where the prairie gives way to the north woods. LaDuke's home is near the end of a one-way gravel road on pretty Round Lake. Outside, there is a jumble of bikes, a trampoline and a single green “Nader/LaDuke” yard sign.

When a reporter arrives, the self-described “mother-of-three, parent-of-many” is cleaning house. A bowl of reservation-grown wild rice is on the table and native chants are playing on the stereo.

LaDuke notes that she can't think straight with a dirty floor, and at that she stops, jabs her finger in the air and proclaims: “I'll definitely do a housecleaning when I get to Washington.”

Then her face breaks into laughter. Such sound bites aren't her style.

LaDuke says she is “not inclined” toward electoral politics and hasn't run for any elected offices other than the vice presidency. Still, she has a knack for the game. When Dan Quayle had trouble spelling potato in 1992, LaDuke made speeches where she spelled it for him in Ojibwe.

Audrey Thayer is a political supporter of LaDuke's and a member of the same religious lodge. She says LaDuke is uniquely skilled at communicating American Indian themes and concerns to nonnative audiences.

“She blossoms in the public eye,” says Thayer. “She's got that bicultural skill, which is rare in Indian country.”

Thayer also says that with LaDuke there is an opportunity for the Green Party to pick up American Indian voters, many of whom feel they have been ignored by the Democratic Party.

American Indians have held few national elective posts. Just eight have served in Congress, counting current Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthrse Campbell. But there is precedent for LaDuke's ambitions: Charles Curtis, a vice president under Herbert Hoover, was Kaw Indian.

But for non-Indians as well, LaDuke has a list of reasons why people should consider voting for her ticket.

She says her life is an open book “Everybody in the whole neighborhood knows everything about me.” She calls herself a terrible liar and talks of her personal knowledge of the problems facing rural and poor Americans.

She questions how “men of privilege” can be expected to rule judiciously and argues “there is no real quality of life in America until there is quality of life in the poorest regions of America.”

Can they win? Gillespie says no, but adds that the ticket is positioned to tap into a large body of voters looking for an alternative to the two main parties. “I think there are just abundant signs the electoral process is culturally opening up.” Says Gillespie: “The Nader ticket, far more than the Reform Party, is certainly the game in town to watch this year.”

As for LaDuke, she says the campaign's electoral strategy is simple. “We will win this election if the largest faction of this election - those who don't usually vote - vote for us.”